As several commentators on American pop culture have noted, recent years have seen an astonishing rise in exhibitionism among female stars. With publicity-hungry starlets like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears leading the pack, what used to be pornography is gradually making incursions into what is considered mainstream advertising and acceptable material for many American gossip rags like People and US Weekly.
One print advertisement for a brand of shoes meant for teenage girls shows Christina Aguilera as a garter belt-clad nurse holding a hypodermic needle. Parts of a popular video game — Grand Theft Auto — were found to contain an explicit scene despite the fact that the game is marketed to young adults.
While advertising and media content implicitly channel lewd connections, the actual lives of these starlets provide even more disturbing fodder for the mainstreaming of pornography, with supposedly ‘secret’ tapes of sexual liaisons becoming predictable releases in the career of any aspiring starlet.
In Pakistan, recent years have seen a spate of crimes against women that are alarming not only in their frequency but in the almost competitive nature of their startling barbarity. If the live burial of five women in the barren desert of Balochistan is insufficient to shock one’s conscience, then the forced abortion and grotesque mauling of a pregnant seventeen-year-old leaves no question about the heightened levels of rage and hatred reserved for the female victims of these crimes. So commonplace is the occurrence of such vengeful acts of hatred against women that acid attacks, vani and swara cases rarely get mentions in the popular news media and extract barely more than a raised eyebrow from the general public.
Juxtapositions of this sort, which position the morally permissive exhibitionism of American media and pop culture with the bloodthirsty ravages being imposed on the bodies of Pakistani women and girls, follow a predictable route. Almost without fail they morph into discussions of the “better” or “worse” moral stature of one society that objectifies women through a tacit acceptance of near pornography in the mainstream media versus another than relegates women to a status worse than animals in its open bartering and trading of their bodies.
Better or worse, however, takes us a in a direction different from the one I wish to explore: one that questions whether these denigrations of women are symptomatic of the same core problem. Do they both not objectify women, and continue to view them as little more than a compendium of flesh and body parts meant to either be paraded or hidden? Do they both not view women ultimately as vessels of either male pleasure or male honour, always devoid of an identity or a reality independent of their bodies?
Beyond these crucial distinctions lies a commonality that could and should be a rallying cry for feminism around the world, and yet it has not been so. Feminists have remained silent and unwilling to make the connection between exhibitionism of flesh and subjugation of flesh.
There are many reasons for their resigned silence, some more pressing than others. Making such a comparison requires deflecting the argument of which culture is better or worse. It requires carving a position which points out the qualitative differences between the two cases — one in which exhibitionism with fame and monetary gain to the qualitatively more egregious act of completely destroying a woman by killing her. The former, however misguided and lacking in self-worth, is alive and even monetarily rewarded while the other lies dead and forgotten, extinguished forever. The former is perhaps an indictment of the cultural pressure to exhibit and objectify but also possibly a self-styled (if misguided) celebration of sexuality. The latter can only and singularly be a horrific crime.
Yet there are equally pressing reasons for not abandoning opportunities to unite feminist discourse and highlight the core similarity between the two situations. Foremost among these is that it breathes life into the forgotten slogan needed in centuries past and today that reminds the world that women are not a collection of body parts to be paraded, traded, owned or exchanged at the behest of men.
This sadly forgotten adage was the beacon of feminists in days when women did not have the vote and could not dream of being leaders. The complexities of nuance, as well as the competing crosscurrents of imperialism and western hegemony are valid additions to the debate but they must not be permitted to render feminism (as arguably they have) a mute and ultimately irrelevant force.
The most debilitating cost of the silence of feminism is that it leads women around the world to forget how much of their realities are determined by the fact of their gender, deflecting attention to other bases of identity such as culture, religion or class. All these may indeed be legitimate claimants to identity but they do not explain the aspect of existence that all women experience quite simply by the fact of being women.
In searching in these alternate identities for the solutions to their problems, in being faithful to the demands of complexity and to the arguments for cultural uniqueness, women allow patriarchy to flourish unquestioned and their own basis of solidarity and global mobilisation to be sidelined and ignored.
As I write this, rumours have started circulating of nude pictures of a teenage film star being released; yet another in an unquestioned series of similar releases in the US. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, Israrullah Zehri, who defended the burial of five Baloch women, and Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani, who participated in a jirga that gave away five young girls as a form of compensation for honour killings, are both being elevated to the status of ministers in the new government of Pakistan.
These developments testify to the reality that while feminism, burdened by its scepticism of anything universal, may be silent, unabashedly universal patriarchy screams as loudly as ever.
Rafia Zakaria is associate editor of altmuslim.com and an attorney and member of the Asian American Network Against Abuse of Women. She teaches courses on constitutional law and political philosophy. This article previously appeared in Daily Times (Pakistan).