ON February 16th I presented a paper on Pakistan’s Dual Media System in a panel on journalism practice comprising of the Ex-advisor to the President of Pakistan, Chair media school University of Peshawar, and other distinguished speakers at the International Media Conference 2022 convened by Karachi University in collaboration with Greenwich University Pakistan.
My talk was based on a chapter of my thesis that attempts to conceptualise changes in commercial, political and professional imperatives of Pakistan’s media system since 1988. The thesis is available Open Access at HKBU thesis repository on this link.
I have grown up listening to such scholars so when it was my turn to present I told the audience how I’m used to sitting on the other side of this table and that it was a honour to dialogue with more experienced scholars.
As the focal person from Greenwich University for this conference I led my team to, among other tasks, successfully host ALL online panels for scholars who couldn’t make it to Karachi. Our collaboration with Karachi University media school, the conference convener, helped turned this two day academic conference into a truly hybrid event.
Yes, last few months have been crazy busy as I entered into my first full-time academic appointment while juggling married life. More on that later.
But do stay tune for conference proceedings that we are preparing with the Institute of Policy Studies, Islamabad which is a conservative think tank in Pakistan. I will upload them when they are ready in a months time. Meanwhile, check out our media team’s event coverage on the Facebook handle @IMCKUGU and social media in general on #IMCKUGU.
By 2020, I had dedicated six years of my life to understand the relationship between dharnas (Urdu for sit-ins) and media. I had interviewed key informants including campaign planners of various local political parties, dived into news archives, analysing bulletins and media texts, and of course looked at what scholars have said on the subject.
Yet I was struggling to convince my advisor and other notable media scholars on Pakistan about my thesis. Has politics in Pakistan really changed due in part to news media? Because at first glance, and through any study of the political economy of a repressive state, nothing seems to have changed.
They say that Pakistanis are stuck in a perpetual time loop. Has media liberalisation brought something new in this equation?
In the last two years I had barred myself to the confines of my bedroom-study-prison at my parents place determined to find a decent answer.
How can a few posters raised once a year in major urban centres, since 2018 on 8th March, by a tiny group of hapless womxn volunteers shake the very foundations of the militarised Islamic Republic of Pakistan?
Words, symbolism, discursive and the medias
This is where media-centric explanations for creating political advantage in an authoritarian context offer some guidance.
Firstly, it’s important to see Aurat March posters as political slogans; they resonate with certain people, a constituency, taking action against perceived injustice by raising awareness in public.
Aurat March slogans like Mera Jism Meri Marzi (Urdu for My Body My Consent) resonate with many people of similar values systems.
Just as slogan like Kafir (Urdu for Infidel), or Tabdeeli (Urdu for Change) resonates with others. Although, the latter two slogans resonate with many more people than any poster/slogan of Aurat March.
In fact, the latter two slogans are so powerful and unite so many people that they have utility for any political actor in Pakistan with national aspirations. Such as the PTI party.
But the effect is same in both instances. These slogans bring people together against perceived injustice. In other words, they operate in the hearts and minds of the people. In the realm of the symbolic and discursive where movement-media interaction takes places. Although, the eventual outcome of deploying these collective action frames may be different.
Secondly, the battle against patriarchy in a deeply conservative society untempered by civic norms means that reaction or backlash is swift. The controversy compounded by mainstream and social media coverage.
But while detractors of Aurat March may focus on the controversy they inadvertently open up fresh and sensitive conversations among bystanders. Conversations that a fossilised status-quo finds nearly impossible to handle without banning a peaceful demonstration altogether.
In the end, the outcome of the movement doesn’t really matter. It’s about extracting political advantage through agitation and leveraging the power of the media. The agitation builds on the advocacy and work of women’s right defenders in the government and society.
In a landmark judgement recently, the Supreme Court of Pakistan declared that women victims of sexual abuse are entitled to protection of the law irrespective of their ‘reputation’. Furthermore, it declared the ghastly ‘two-finger virginity test’ as irrelevant for such cases. The implications of these judgements will likely be profound and the fact that it took the state 70 years, since independence, to officially ban these colonial era practices at this time cannot be isolated from the feminist wave in Muslim Pakistan.
The activists are ok with what they can get. They are here for the long-game.
These posters and images continue to engage in discursive battles with mainstream representation of marginalised groups in Pakistan, South Asia and globally long after activists disperse from site. Posters are available online for any citizen to engage.
With this realisation everything has changed. I have a better idea of future direction of my work and have an unofficial book offer. My thesis framework looks more coherent and I passed my viva recently. I am now working on a presentation of these ideas for everyone’s benefit.