Where’s all the noise going? - the case of selective activism in Pakistan
With an estimate of over 100,000 NGOs in Pakistan and an uncountable number of media campaigns that target various issues, it is surprising to see that Pakistani society has been struggling with the same socio-political problems that they have been for years. Members of the general public are quick to support new campaigns but few question whether there’s any change behind all the noise. Despite efforts, change seems to be at a snail’s pace, whether it be for demanding minority rights, environmental issues or even in health departments, it seems the gap between the demands of the common man and the way they are communicated to the people at the top is far too big.
The rise of social media and increased accessibility of smartphones has given everyone a chance to have their voice heard.
Despite problems, social media has allowed many to raise issues that have been suppressed for years and the recent - although small - successes of various campaigns such as trans-awareness groups, women reclaiming public spaces and calling out abuse and harassment, have shown that there is power in numbers.
Recent efforts have created more awareness, brought up issues that are branded as ‘’Taboo’’ and attempted to be a voice for those that aren’t allowed to have one.Whether this be speaking about mental health, demanding gender equality or shedding light on the unfair treatment of minorities, all these issues have been brushed under the rug for too long. The problem lies in the disparity between the amount of support such campaigns garner online and the impact that they actually have. Another key issue, and a prime example of this disparity is the topic of climate change that has, especially in recent years gained a large number of supporters as well as practical attempts to implement change. However, in cases like the Urban Forest, the project has faced constant hurdles, most of which have come from the government level.
Although media networks should be working towards changing this disparity, they’re often the ones adding fuel to the fire. Media organisations possess a great deal of power in the kind of impact they can have on changing opinions and mindsets. It is therefore mostly a moral responsibility that such information outlets step above the riff raff and provide their viewers with the right kind of news.
A popular victim of their ‘sensationalism’ are human rights movements in Pakistan. Take women’s rights campaigns for instance. The recent Aurat March - held across Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad - can be considered successful in the large turnout that they received, but despite this continued to face backlash from both the media and the general public. Where many advocates of the March spoke out was the portrayal of the event on the media.
Despite a conscious effort at this year’s event to highlight a diverse number of issues, including trans rights, domestic abuse and sexual abuse, the media repeatedly brought attention to a small number of slogans that were deemed as ‘aggressive’ and ‘indecent’ causing the event to face public backlash from those who were only exposed to this select view. This has in turn caused a larger number of people to see the women’s rights movement in Pakistan as one that is going against their culture and values. By using a certain view of the Aurat March as a representative for the entire movement, it has become so that the fight for women’s rights is often seen as one-dimensional and has made it harder to get more support.
The problem that arises with the propagation of such polarised views on any issue is that it leads to the formation of two extreme sides, who are unwilling to listen to the other. Such divisions make dialogue harder and constructive criticism becomes almost impossible. With regards to the Aurat March, two camps were immediately formed with one only focusing on a selective number of messages from the March and putting the entire event under that umbrella, while the other side refused to listen to any sort of criticism. It is only when we move away from set mindsets and have a dialogue that we can bring change.
While it is true that lack of awareness and dialogue can affect anyone,it is generally marginalised groups that are affected the most. In Pakistan these groups - namely anyone who falls in a minority group - often bear the brunt of society’s persecution. Part of this is because people only seem willing to work for a cause when it benefits them, and this leads to those in a position to use their privilege for good, often doing the exact opposite. Whether this is through celebrities spreading misinformation regarding issues such as mental health through their platforms, or politicians building their campaigns on empty promises, it is the under-privileged in society that are forced to bear the brunt of these actions.
Just this year, Minister Fayyaz Ul Hassan Chohan came under fire for his derogatory remarks against Hindus when he insulted their beliefs and referred to them as “cow-urine drinking people.” The fact that such comments were made by someone in a position of power not only shows just how deep ignorance lies but also validates extremist sentiments and can be used as a tool against minorities in Pakistan. Although many officials spoke out against these remarks, and Chohan later apologised, it is clear that this is not enough. The Hindu community in Pakistan has decreased from a third of the population at the time of partition to a mere 7-8% in 2016. Even this number seems too high for many, as countless Hindu girls are forcibly converted every year, particularly in Sindh. The “otherised” portrayal of Pakistani minorities cannot be expected to change amongst the masses unless those at the top make a conscious effort to do more than just tweet about it.
The biggest difference between the use of social media globally and that in Pakistan, is that in the latter situation, it is used as a means of maintaining the status quo rather than an active stance against it. One example of such is how many people use social media to share and spread information that they cannot verify or blindly accept just because an important figure has said so. This leads to a small group of people in power controlling the kind of information that is circulated. When used correctly it can benefit communities in many ways. Cyber-activism allows those who can’t physically take part to still have a say. It’s the first step in a long line of actions that need to be taken. Where we falter is when we see it as the only step that needs to be taken.
Recently, actresses Urwa and Mawra Hocane were slammed by fans for their comments regarding mental health. The sisters were accused of insinuating that mental illnesses such as depression can be cured simply by eating healthy, a comment that trivialises the suffering of countless people who suffer from the illness. While they later apologised, and clarified what they meant, it almost doesn’t seem enough. It no longer seems good enough to speak so loosely about such serious matters and those in a position of influence should be expected to take better care with their words. Until they do, their influence will continue to spread ignorance and arguments instead of working towards a solution.
What needs to be done now goes beyond the social media. While it is a great starting place, we need to use it as a stepping stone rather than a final destination. It is great to see people coming out and physically being present for causes that matter. What now needs to be done is to start implementing change in our daily lives. It’s time to stop depending on larger groups and people in power and bring change ourselves.