On Monday morning, I was browsing through my Twitter feed as I sipped my black coffee, when I came across a post so utterly devastating and mind numbing that I had to put down my cup and just gaze at the screen in shock. What I saw was so disgusting and repulsive – and all the words in the English dictionary synonymous with vile – that I felt I had been punched in the stomach. I like to think I have thick skin and can even brush off the most venomous of gendered insults by random trolls but this post by a respected journalist shook me to the core, to the point that I spent my day brooding over it.
Perhaps some of you saw the comment before it was quickly deleted. It was by Sabir Nazar, a respected editorial cartoonist and painter, who has contributed to many influential newspapers. He had shared a picture of a young boy with microcephaly, a medical condition in which the brain does not develop properly resulting in a smaller than normal head, causing physical and intellectual disabilities, more crudely known as “Daulah shah keh choohay” in Pakistan. The boy in the picture was wearing a PTI banner on his head, with the comment suggesting that all PTI supporters were intellectually inferior, intending the comparison to a child with microcephaly as an insult.
I would hope that our Pakistani citizens, and particularly our journalist community, have enough decency and civility to understand the enormous disrespect and inhumanity displayed in this tweet. The tweet reflected the longstanding disrespectful notions that our society displays with the disabled, particularly the intellectually disabled - conflating them as stupid and clowns - something to laugh at. Our society has a complicated relationship with the disabled - in some aspects, people with disabilities are highly revered; their prayers are considered extra likely of being answered and their “bad-duas” (bad wishes) thought to be terrifying- however, they are also dehumanised - children with disabilities are often neglected and their existence used as a talking point to insult. Sabir Nazar’s tweet was an exercise of using the existence of children with micocephaly as a joke to insinuate that PTI supporters were also intellectually disabled - as if being so is an insult and is funny.
This tweet reads even more insensitive considering with the new government and some high-profile milestones achieved for people with special needs, there is renewed hope that the next few years will be conducive for rights and opportunities for people with disabilities. Two months back, Yousaf Saleem became Pakistan’s first visually impaired civil judge, setting a milestone in a society where there is little representation of disabled people. There are an estimated 3.28 million people with disabilities in Pakistan, yet life opportunities and career prospects for the disabled are low, with little representation on media, civil service or public life. Despite millions of disabled children, there are only 531 schools for special education, those too under-staffed and under-funded. There are even fewer prospects for children with microcephaly, or “Daulah Shah keh choohay”, who are often exploited as beggars and are at a high risk of suffering sexual and physical abuse also. It is this misery that Sabir Nazar pokes fun at and thinks okay to use for his political sling shots.
Other than the sheer disgust of mocking the disabled, perhaps this unfortunate incident shows just how low we have gone in our political divisions. Sabir Nazar’s key target was not children with microcephaly but PTI supporters. It is fine to disagree and argue but the fact that ordinary citizens, analysts and even respected journalists now engage in personal insults and mud-slinging is a sad reflection of how distorted, divided and uncouth our political culture has become. From disrespectful insults ranging from “zinda lash”, “patwari” and “youthiya”, our political discourse has transcended from discussions on policy to nefarious name-calling, and all of us, who engage in this, including our top political leaders to journalists to party supporters, are to blame for perpetuating this toxic culture.
Though Sabir Nazar’s tweet should infuriate us all, there is a reason I was particularly unsettled by his content - my brother is disabled. Though he has been the best gift life has given my family, as his sister, I have seen the terrible hurt on his face when people discriminate and insult him due to his disability. It is these stereotypes perpetuated by that tweet and many others alike, of people with disabilities being stupid jokes to laugh at, which conflate disabled people to a joke, that have been the cause of many uncomfortable stares at my brother in restaurants, of kids laughing and slinging insults at him when we were children. Sabir Nazar Sahab, you may have enjoyed perpetuating that harmful stereotype to earn a laugh out of your followers, but you should know that disabled people exist, and they live meaningful loving lives, where they are a source of joy and value to the people around them and to this country. They don’t exist to serve as the butt of your joke, as the end of your insult to retain your political clout. These stereotypes used by you may be able to pull a chuckle from your followers, but they cause real life damage to the ones who live in this world not designed to accommodate them.
We are at a time when our society, and the journalist community, especially, is left more divided than ever. It is also a time where our country is facing more adversity than ever- with a looming financial crisis, and religiously inflammable society. At such a time, it is important for us, the journalist community at least, to hold ourselves in high regard, and not let the various divisions in politics let us stoop to lows and resort to indecent insults. It is encouraging that Sabir Nazar Sahab deleted his tweet, yet we expect at least an apology from him and condemnation from the journalist community which has so far remained silent on this issue. Those of us who have very rightly criticised PTI for perpetuating this toxic political environment of name-calling and insults now need to call out an anti-PTI journalist for a below-the-belt tweet as well, if we want to keep any facade of fairness. Furthermore this incident should serve as a reminder to the rest of our community of the importance of tolerance and of respecting each other’s opinions.
The writer is a practicing lawyer and editorial writer at The Nation.