Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past few days, in which case good for you go back, you’ll know about the Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy harassment fiasco. Sharmeen’s sister visited Aga Khan University Hospital in Karachi as an emergency patient and when she got home discovered that the doctor had sent her a friend request on Facebook. Sharmeen tweeted that the doctor’s actions were a form of harassment. After coming heavily under fire on social media, she has since disclosed more details about the case (including that he also commented on her photos) though with still somewhat ambiguous language to describe the incident.
Following the initial tweets, there was everything between a lively debate and a shitstorm of people pontificating over whether a simple friend request is harassment in the context of a doctor-patient relationship. As with every social media trial in Pakistan, there was a lot of misogynistic abuse hurled against Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy which was reprehensible. On the flip side were those who were arguing that friend requests are harassment and are ‘intrusive’, ‘stress-inducing’ and ‘unwanted attention’, and that we should show solidarity with the Chinoys because ‘harassment against women is harassment’. Indeed ‘harassment is harassment’, whatever that is supposed to mean, but what this argument ignores is whether an expansion of the definition to include friend requests would be a Good Thing.
Harassment: any behavior that makes a woman feel uncomfortable or unsafe, regardless of the initiator's intent, or if it happens just once.
— Bina Shah (@BinaShah) October 29, 2017
Inflating the definition this much only serves to trivialise the offence, diminishing its gravity and also undermines what actual victims of harassment go through. It’s not apparent to me what purpose it would serve to define his conduct as harassment rather than professional misconduct or unethical?
Sharmeen’s tweets come hot on the heels of the #metoo campaign in which women the world over took to social media to post the hashtag on their profiles if they too had suffered from sexual harassment or abuse. Given the recent spate of allegations against high profile celebrities, there was seen to be a need to prove how pervasive this type of abuse is. The campaign seemed to achieve the objective of encouraging women and men to confront their abusers and this was commendable.
It’s not apparent to me what purpose it would serve to define his conduct as harassment rather than professional misconduct or unethical?
Yet I couldn’t help feel uncomfortable with the commodifying of our personal trauma for the attention economy. As Yasmin Nair says, the need to be wounded, to be a victim in order to gain sympathy and to have a platform doesn’t help our cause. The narrative is so individualised that it doesn’t lend itself well to systemic critiques of anything broader than our personalised pain. Social media and the growing culture of confessional writing adds performative posturing to that with the need to authenticate the hurt. The desire to give our suffering meaning is an understandable one, but we end up framing ourselves as at the mercy of a cruel world without taking any responsibility for organising or fixing it.
If the personal used to be political, now it has become social; an algorithmic cavern where we nod and say me too but the urge to analyse is pushed out of frame. In the end, that vulnerability becomes seen as synonymous with the entire notion of womanhood and it only fosters a victim complex which is hard to shake off.
Vulnerability becomes seen as synonymous with the entire notion of womanhood
I feel like we’ve seen this time and again in the discourse surrounding sexual harassment claims. Acolytes of Ayesha Gulalai implored us to believe her because she’s a woman and therefore probably telling the truth. Instead of focusing on whether IF she were telling the truth would the media backlash, the judicial process, the social stigma prevent her from getting justice, the issue was reduced to a ‘don’t question women who cry harassment because we are all wounded women in some way’. Equally with Qandeel Baloch, liberals are rebranding her as a pin up girl for feminism instead of arguing that women should not face violence or be ostracised for conduct which society deems to be too liberal (or illiberal) whether or not that conduct is in fact feminist or should be celebrated.
The failing of the victim narrative is that never mind how much cultural, social or political parity we achieve it deprives us of agency or any responsibility at all. We are infantilised by a world which sees us as in constant need of protection. Where we must support other ‘victims’ out of solidarity, where we are defensive to any criticism of women, where we are given a platform by virtue of your wounded status. Even a friend request then becomes a further attack which we need to be shielded from.
I say this despite having an inclination for solidarity with other women – but this isn’t a good enough reason to not raise your voice against something you disagree with. Liberalism has stretched ‘solidarity’ so far that we admit war criminals (ref: Hillary Clinton and Gal Gadot) as members of our ranks. The Radical Left needs to emphasise that it’s not enough to be a woman and pay lip service to feminism. This isn’t a victim-blaming polemic, it’s about the fact that our agenda in speaking out shouldn’t be to evoke feelings of sympathy or guilt in other people – it should be accommodating of critique, suspicious of those who try and commodify our pain, zealous in our pursuit of justice. It’s about shifting the Overton window away from a narrative which demotes us to victims to one where we are agents using our experiences to fight oppression (when it is oppression).