Vigil Aunties By Bina Shah

The writer is an author, most recently of Slum Child (2010). She has written for numerous publications including Dawn, The Friday Times and Chowk

Imagine this: you are a young Pakistani woman walking in a Karachi park with a young man. He could be your brother, cousin, university friend, fiance, or husband. You are wearing a full burqa, and your companion is walking beside you, carrying on a conversation. You are a middle to lower-middle-class girl, with a lot of restrictions on your life, and this time in this public space, where you are modestly dressed and doing no harm, give you a bit of respite in a life that carries a lot of expectations about how you conduct yourself and what weight that places on your family’s respectability.

Suddenly, from out of nowhere, a group of fifteen upper-class women descend upon you. One of them has a microphone which she thrusts into your companion’s face, and there is a camera crew behind her, filming every moment. She claims to be doing a survey on mobile phone crime, but the questions she poses become more and more intrusive. “Are you college students? Yes? Then why aren’t you in class? It’s morning time.” The woman with the microphone assures you the camera is not recording, but the accusations become more pointed. “Are you on a date? Are you married? Where’s your nikahnama?”

You become afraid, because you know that if anyone from your family sees this spectacle, there will be no mercy for you. They will believe that you are an immoral girl: maybe you’ll be taken out of college. Maybe you’ll be beaten. Married off to someone you don’t know as a way of forcing you to behave. If you’re very unlucky, you might even be killed as a way of avenging the family honour. You hide behind your companion, but the microphone is thrust in your face. You scream out that you don’t want to be harassed like this, that you don’t want to answer any questions. Finally, you flee, while the group of women and camera crew chase after you, screaming “Bhago bhago bhago!” They are laughing and giggling hysterically, because to them, this is a fun game, while you are crying with fear and anxiety.

And then, the entire clip is shown on a morning breakfast show on a local television channel.

The television anchor who conceived of this segment for her television show thought she was doing a great service to society. “We need to make this park safe for families!” is her justification as the segment begins. But safety and families are not the words that come to mind when watching this clip. Instead, witch-hunt is one of them. Zia is another. Hudood Ordinance is a third. And privacy, hypocrisy, and ethics soon follow.

This clip brings to mind the tales of countless couples harassed by the police to prove they’re married in order to extort money out of them. It makes one wonder what drives a group of educated, affluent women to embarrass a young couple from a lower socioeconomic class, harass them to the point of hysteria, and then drive them out from a public space which is paid for by government taxes which that same socioeconomic class is more likely to pay than the class the affluent women come from. It makes one wonder whether Pakistanis have the right to privacy, and question the need to browbeat young adults about their presence in a public park, engaged in nothing more harmful than a walk on a beautiful winter’s day. It makes one wonder about how Talibanisation has invaded our mindset, when we can see something obscene in a normal act which people engage in all over the world.

Time and again the ethics of our media have been called into question, as channels embrace sensationalism in order to achieve the highest ratings. The television channel in question will find themselves open to legal action by victims of their harassment who are being portrayed on television without their consent. Airing this segment also appeals to the worst instincts in our hypocritical society by passing moral judgment in the name of family values upon two innocent people, which makes for some of the most irresponsible broadcast journalism found in Pakistan today. At the very least, the channel and the anchorperson owe an apology, if not compensation, to those two individuals who had hurt nobody on that day when they were ambushed and harassed by the television anchor and her Moral Aunty Brigade. The irony is that she describes herself on her Facebook page as “very fair and honest in her dealings”. I think that girl in the niqab, crying in the park, and her blameless friend, as well as any sane person with a conscience and a respect for other people’s privacy, would beg to differ.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 24th, 2012.