A Guide to Gender-Neutral Language

Gender-inclusive language or gender-neutral language is written and spoken language that does not a) specify or indicate gender in any way and b) as a result of being ‘gender-neutral’, does not become sexist or exclusive to one gender.

Why does Gender-Neutral Language matter?

Language is constant evolving because that is how a language stays alive. Languages which do not adapt to culture and social change will eventually become extinct. And that is why gender-neutrality in language is so important; it is mutually inclusive to cultural and social values. As societies evolve, so must their language, because it is not just a means of communication, but also reflects the values and norms of the society we live in.

Furthermore, gender is incorrectly used in place of sex in verbal and written language, whereas sex is biological and denotes whether a human is male or female. Gender is a social construct that results from social conditioning and cultural norms regarding men and women. Moreover, we tend to think of gender in binaries, i.e. male and female, whereas gender is fluid and unconfined.

When we use non-inclusive language, we perpetuate offensive, misogynist stereotypes in our writing and speech. Whether in English or Urdu, every day we speak and write in ways that contribute to reinforcing an outdated mode of thinking that is a main source for gender inequality.

Using Gender-Neutral Language:

The rules of gender-neutral language are obviously not set in stone, but there are certain principles that can be followed to ensure inclusivity in language.

  1. Neutralize occupations/job titles:

Many jobs were historically associated with women, such as nurses, teachers, air-hostesses. Here are some suggestions in nuking gender from the equation altogether.

Male nurse/female nurse ———- Nurse

Male/female teacher ————- Teacher

Air-hostess/airhost ———– Flight attendant, cabin crew

Steward/stewardess ——— Flight attendant, cabin crew

Policeman/policewoman —— Police official

Sportsman/sportswoman ——  Athlete, sports person

Landlord/landlady———-  Owner/proprietor

Waitress/waiter ———-  Server

In some cases, it is acceptable to use a gender-specific occupational terms. This is relevant in writing about Pakistan, since there are parts of the country where culture dictates gender-segregation. In this case, it is important to specify female doctors or teachers, because failure to do so would result in a setback for women; imagine writing a proposal for a girls-school or women’s hospital in a tribal area, and failing to mention that the staff will be female. The school/hospital in question would possibly never become reality due to this lapse.

  1. Nuking the masculine pronouns:

A pronoun is a word that is used instead of a noun. In writing, we often use ‘he’ when referring to either gender. For example: “Any student found smoking on school property will find himself penalized with a fine.” There are a number of clever ways to bypass gender-specific pronouns.

Using they:

Rather than using a gendered pronoun, use ‘they’ instead. This should be used sparingly to avoid redundancy.

Converting to the plural form:

Consider this sentence instead;

“Students that are found smoking on school property will find themselves penalized.”

Use he/she:

When addressing a mixed audience, rather than using one pronoun, use ‘he or she’ instead.

“If any student is found smoking on school property, he or she will find themselves penalized.”

Removing gender from the equation:

Why use gender in the first place? Eliminate the pronoun from the sentence altogether.

“Students that are found smoking on school property will be penalized.”

  1. Avoiding Stereotypes:

Stereotypes exist in any language, but gender-specific stereotypes are dangerous because their usage supports social mindsets. Whether in Urdu or English, gender-specific stereotypes need to be avoided for ethical and professional writing.

Urdu phrases such as “haath mein mehendi laga kar bethi ho” (have you put henna on your hands?) or “chooriyan pehen rakhi hein” (you are wearing bangles) are two of the most commonly used insults. The first is hurled in the case of laziness or lack of willingness to do something. The second is similar, since the bangles South Asia is famous for are delicate glass, not to be worn when working for fear of breaking them. In both cases, the assumption is that the person is acting like a delicate woman who cannot do a single thing because she has henna on her hands. Simply put, a patriarchal society forces women into chadar aur chaar diwari (four walls and a black veil) and then uses that enforced captivity of women as insults.

Escaping gender-specific stereotypes in English are a tricky business. In Urdu, we are honest about our contempt for women; in English, we mask it with ease, as if it were English that is our mother tongue. Consider this example:

“Like a heartless paramour who wishes to make it clear that the fractures in the amour are not her fault. It’s you. It has always been you.”

The writer is talking about poor customer-service and while the comparison is amusing, the gender of this paramour is very specific. The writer is addressing the audience, not describing his own personal, heterosexual experience. So why is the language so exclusionary? Instead, the sentence can be revised to “his or her fault” or “their fault.” This example is actually an overlap of gender-specific pronouns and stereotypes, since the writer is adopting the stereotype of a temptress female that breaks hearts cruelly with no regards to the sad feelings of oppressed men.

Describing men as “hysterical females” or “emotional females” is another common slip-up for the non-gender-savvy writer. Gendered attributes such as physical strength indicating masculinity, or phrases like “reduced to the point of tears like a little girl” fall under the gender-specific stereotypes as well. Small gaffes cannot be referred to as ‘having a blond moment.’ No one thinks yellow-haired men when using this phrase, and everyone thinks of a stupid, yellow-haired woman. If your written work needs to use a woman as an example of weakness or ineptitude, or if you need to call someone a woman to challenge their masculinity, you’re doing it wrong.

  1. Generic Usage of Man:

Man used to be a generic term referring to people/humanity in general. As society evolves, so does language, and exclusionary language belongs to the past, not the present in which we struggle for a more egalitarian future. Women are part of the human race, as are men, and both need to be referred to collectively when discussing humanity. Whether it is one word, or a phrase, the generic man has outlived its time and has to be replaced by exclusionary terminology.

Generic Terms

Gender-Neutral Terms

Mankind

Humankind, humanity.

Man (Usage: Throughout the ages, man has…)

People, humanity

Man-made

Artificial, synthetic, manufactured

The common man

The  common person

Layman

Layperson, lay

The best man for the job

The best person for the job

Man’s achievements

Humanity’s achievements, human achievements

Primitive man

Primitive people, primitive humans

Manpower

Workforce, labour, personnel, staff

Fellow countryman/countrymen

Comrades, compatriots

 

  1. Sexist language:

Separate from gender-specific stereotypes, sexist language includes  an unnecessary focus on female attributes, characteristics, or personal information. For example, describing female students as naïve or innocent, whereas male students are just “young” or “teenagers” is a definite gender bias. Describing an outspoken woman as “spunky” may seem harmless, but it is a word associated primarily with women. Chances are you cannot remember a single point in your life when you called a man spunky (Although you’ve probably never used the word in your entire life). Attributing beauty to powerful women to make them seem less threatening (Because nothing is more frightening to the patriarchy or a misogynist than a woman exercising her own agency) is again, indulgent gender bias; a powerful woman does not need to be beautiful or elegant or any other traditionally feminine quality, just like Wonder Woman can wear less skimpy clothes and still be a powerful super-heroine.

Test Your Gender-Savvy Skills:

Remaining gender-neutral is a tricky task, but luckily, there are a number of online quizzes that test your skills at concealing your inherent misogyny in your writing.

Quiz 1

Quiz 2

Quiz 3

Further Reading:

The Guardian ran an excellent article on the importance of gender-neutral language.

APA has a comprehensive guide on avoiding sexist language.

Purdue Owl has a brief explanation on gender-inclusive language.

Here’s an article explaining gender-neutral titles and form of address.

For the disbeliever or MRA (Male Rights Activist, more commonly known as the anti-feminist) this article offers a brief history of the generic usage of masculine language.

The University of North Carolina offers an online guide to masculine pronouns and gendered language.

UNESCO has a comprehensive, essential list on gender-neutral language.

 Pakistan Feminist Watch wrote an excellent deconstruction of a number of tweets containing sexist jokes.

 

James Madison, an American statesman, a political theorist and fourth President of the United States of America from 1809 to 1817 once stated:

“It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man who knows what the law is today can guess what is will be tomorrow.”

The above situation, a chasm in the realm of political theory and legal operation, is what the Islamic Republic of Pakistan has fallen in. An average person no longer knows what the law entails as due to the rapid fusion of religion, legal precedence, constitutional reform and personal whims of politicians. As a law student, I alongside dozens of budding politicians and lawyers were taught one essential rule which formed the bedrock of Constitutional Law: The Executive Arm of the State must be prevented from exercising an arbitrary use of power and it is the responsibility of the Judiciary and the State Legislature to deem any exercise of power as ultra vires or “outside” the scope of power granted to them by the Constitution of the State. This elemental principle is inviolable and is the basis upon which the State Legislature enacts legislation.

Agreed that yes, there is a constitutional overlap within the Legislature as the Executive is formed from within the Legislature itself. However, to prevent this overlap from overpowering the sanctity of the Constitution is where the Judiciary steps in. If in any case, an Act of Parliament is found to be against the spirit of the Constitution, the Judiciary can declare the Act as null and void, as seen in the case of the Contempt of Court Act of 2012 where the Supreme Court of Pakistan found the provisions of the Act in conflict with Article 63 (1)(g).

As a citizen of this great state, a holder of a green passport, a victim of multiple “random screenings” at foreign airports and a completely new user of a 3G network, the extent to which the Executive or as we tend to lovingly refer to it as the “gurrment” exercises power in an arbitrary fashion no longer surprises me.

Every five years, a President is sworn in, swearing to uphold and protect the provisions of the Constitution, yet at the same time fail to address the manner in which the Executive exercises its power. The ban on the global video sharing website, YouTube, is now about to hit the two year mark, hundreds of other websites cannot be accessed due to “objectionable content” and at the same time, our search for any Act, any law which allows the State to breach on this freedom of expression and information came back empty.

The Inter Ministerial Committee on the Evaluation of Websites (Yes. We have such a Ministry. Evaluating websites is more important than addressing sectarian violence, infrastructural shortcomings and our economic nosedive) is reportedly the standing authority on blocking websites. It is prudent to mention that the IMCEW lacks any statutory foundation, meaning, it was formed without any legal consent by the State Legislature. However, it can be argued that the IMCEW was formed by the Federal Government which has the authority to do so. But the IMCEW has no legal backing, it cannot pass policies or directives, which in reality, does not manifest. The IMCEW has time and time again directed the PTA to block “blasphemous and pornographic content” which then passes on those to ISPs. The IMCEW is not a public authority as defined under Gadoon Textile Mills v Wapda therefore is not a creature of the law and thus ultimately has no authority to pass such directives. Can the role of the IMCEW and its activities be construed as ultra vires? If yes, that will unravel all the decisions of the IMCEW and the internet springs back to pre September 17, 2012, when YouTube was blocked and when the Government found renewed joy in blocking access to a number of websites.

The question remains: Do these activities, namely blocking websites, fall under the ambit of Section 19 of the Constitution which professes the need for the protection of free speech? Yet at the same time the Constitution also upholds the notion that acts may be undertaken to protect the glory of Islam and for public order. I am not questioning the validity of these constitutional clauses; it is the exercise of power, executed under the statutory authority under which they were constituted, which is under scrutiny here.

The Pakistan Telecommunication Reorganization Act 1996 does not grant any power to the PTA to filter the internet. If it does not, then any use of power in that context is illegal and unjustified.

It cannot be stressed that the Executive is taking advantage of the governmental overlap within the State Legislature. To give the reader another view into how the Executive is hesitant in respecting and upholding the sovereignty of Parliament, the National Assembly unanimously passed a resolution seeking the removal of the ban on YouTube on May 6. More than two months have passed since this resolution was passed, the Executive has yet to consider it.

This is the first of a two-part article on rape culture, how it exists in Pakistan, and how it can be dismantled

Once again, the country is wracked with anger and shame over the gang-rape and murder of a girl in Layyah. The incident occurred less than a month after the brutal public murder of Farzana Parveen. (See Bolo Bhi’s blog on the murder of Farzana Parveen here) This should not come as a shock considering the high rate of violence against women (VAW) in the country. What’s disturbing is the similarity between the case in Layyah, and that of a case in India, where two minor girls aged fourteen and fifteen were raped, and unable to face the “shame” of being rape survivors, decided to hang themselves from a tree. It is highly unlikely, though, that such an incident has never occurred before in Pakistan, considering that most crimes against women are not even reported, and women are urged to keep silent to protect “family honor.”

But we have nothing to worry about, of course. Because rape is something that happens accidentally, so sometimes it is wrong, and sometimes it is right. You see, boys will be boys at the end of the day, and if a girl accuses her ex-boyfriend of rape, should the boy be hanged for a little mistake? At least, that is what Indian Ministers have to say about rape. That it’s an accident that is sometimes right, and that it happens because “boys will be boys.” Following that line of thought, we could assume that perhaps, the four men who raped the Layyah victim ‘accidentally’ decided to gang-rape her. Perhaps in their panic over their “mistake”, they accidentally strangled the victim and didn’t realize they were killing her. Perhaps they panicked even more – being boys, after all- and then decided to make it look like a suicide.

It is not enough to simply outrage over individual incidents. We need to ask ourselves, why? Why does such a culture of impunity exist within our society? The statements of Indian ministers about rape may not be regarding Pakistan, but you do not have to look far to find such examples at home. So the question arises; why? Why do the statistics grow by the year, instead of decreasing? Why are laws to protect women ineffective or not implemented at all? Why are people so apathetic to crimes against women until one case out of hundreds is pounced upon and highlighted by mass media?

Rape culture. It’s a word you don’t often hear in a Pakistani context. When you do hear it, it’s in a confused, garbled narrative where those discussing rape culture think that it means that all women are rape  victims. And what exactly is rape culture? Definitions tend to be framed around a white, first-world Western perspective, but can be adapted to our third-world Pakistani context as well.

Rape culture is treating rape as something that happens because of where you were, or what you were wearing, or what time of the night it was. Rape culture is the time my tenth grade Chemistry teacher told a class of 25 female students that they could never be brave enough to stand on the street at 10 pm because they’re girls. Rape culture is claiming that laws against domestic violence push a “western” agenda, and deny men the “right” to beat their wives.

Rape culture is victim-blaming, as if a woman chooses to have her body violated. Rape culture is telling survivors of rape that they have destroyed the family honor. Rape culture is burdening women with the honor of their entire family. Rape culture is burdening women with family honor because a woman is her father’s property, and then her husband’s property. Rape culture is lack of rape kits and forensic labs because conducting tests to prove that a woman has been raped is not only unimportant, it is also considered un-Islamic. Rape culture is Islamic councils persisting in the claim that if a child hits puberty, they can be married. Rape culture is treating women as property to the point of “exchanging” brides in tribal customs because “If the family, we marry our daughter into gives us one of their women, then they will treat our daughter well for fear that we would mistreat their woman.” Rape culture is suspecting a woman has ‘illicit relations’ because she’s seen talking to a man. Rape culture is killing women because they were dancing or talking on a mobile phone, because a mobile phone serves no other purpose than to facilitate women with loose morals who conduct affairs with men and bring shame to their family. Rape culture is a woman being of loose morals because she works, talks to men, has a boyfriend, or goes out at night. Rape culture is your father telling you that you can’t go out at night with your female friends because if someone he knows sees you, “what will people say?”

Rape culture is throwing acid on a woman’s face because she refused your marriage proposal. Rape culture is slaughtering your cousin’s three children because she refused to marry you. Rape culture is corrective rape of a lesbian because it isn’t homosexuality, “she just hasn’t met a real man yet.” Rape culture is discriminating against the LGBT community to enforce and strengthen the heteronormative patriarchal structures of society.

Rape culture is the refusal to teach a child sex-Ed because not only is sex shameful and dirty, but children must not be allowed to learn about sexuality. Rape culture is parents sending their daughters to girls-only schools because boys are uncontrollable animals who see a female and immediately want to violate her. Rape culture is a male classmate looking at a girl wearing capris and a fitted shirt and saying, “Where’s her dupatta?” Rape culture is his female friend refusing to admonish him, and playing along by saying “she forgot it at home.” Rape culture are the memes or social media updates about Pakistan “raping” India because the former won a cricket match, and a sports victory indicates the strength of your masculinity which must further be reinforced by references to raping the opposing team.

Rape culture is the rape joke that makes survivors of assault flinch and cringe and suffer from traumatic flashbacks. Rape culture is the rape joke that taps into every woman’s greatest fear, and makes a mockery out of the violation of a woman’s body and her very being. Rape culture is calling women over-sensitive for taking offense at a rape joke, and thereby delegitimizing a woman’s experience and trauma.

Rape culture is bro culture, where men support each other in sexism and misogyny because “bros before hos.” Rape culture is young women assimilating into bro culture because it is easier to live as a woman who perpetuates discrimination against her own sex, simply for the sake of earning men’s acceptance and validation. Rape culture is when men have sex because “boys will be boys” but if a woman has an active sex-life, she’s destroying her life.

Rape culture is using the violation of a woman’s body as a tool for ethnic cleansing or a weapon of warfare. Rape culture is women being harassed when they go to file an FIR after being raped, with police treating them like they “asked for it”. Rape culture is the dehumanization of sex workers. Rape culture is the claim that a woman who sells her body to make a living cannot be raped and deserves no rights. Rape culture is denying the existence of marital rape. Rape culture is a marriage contract that asks if the bride is “a maiden/virgin, a widow, or divorced.” Rape culture is a religious cleric crossing out the clause of the marriage contract in which the husband gives his wife “permission” to divorce him because a woman shouldn’t have the right to divorce. Rape culture is young women being honour-killed” for singing and dancing at a mixed gathering. Rape culture is the prevalence of tribal customs which insist that a woman who dances or sings in front of men has dishonoured her family/tribe and must be killed. Rape culture is a television anchor harassing a rape survivor on live television, within hours of her assailants being acquitted.

Rape culture is that when Dr. Shazia Khalid was raped, she was pressured into leaving the country because the ruler of the country was a military dictator who wanted to protect the soldiers who raped Dr. Khalid. Rape culture is when that same military dictator went on to say in an interview, “Nowadays they say in Islamabad, if you want to get a Canadian visa and make millions, get raped.” Rape culture is the dictator going on to say, “Who knows with Dr. Khalid, maybe it is the same case of making money.” Rape culture is when the dictator denies ever making such heinous statements, rather than apologizing for such vile claims. Rape culture is years later, a woman self-immolating because she cannot get justice for her rape, and still being treated as a joke.

Rape culture is a young girl being gang-raped, but being frightened into dropping her case within 24 hours. Rape culture is the reasons that the girl dropped her case; that a prominent politician who came to the police station to see her, named the survivor on live television, as well as calling her “rude and hyper” because she’s too traumatized to say anything. Rape culture is the politician mentioning that the man who brought the survivor to the station lives with her as her roommate, and stating that “this is her version of the story.” Rape culture is the reporter who loudly said mashallah in a sarcastic tone when the politician stated that the survivor said she did not want notoriety. Rape culture is two newspapers publishing the name of the survivor, as well as  where she lived, her friend’s name, and the personal fact that she lived with her boyfriend. Rape culture is the assumption that the survivor was a ‘prostitute’ (because if a woman sells her body, then she’s asking to be raped) or painting her male friend as her pimp. Rape culture is the lack of justice because the assailants were from elite, influential families.

Rape culture is wrong. There is no black or white in this situation. There will never be a way to justify rape culture, not in the name of religion, not in the name of honor, not in the name of social values, not in the name of tradition. But in actuality, rape culture is justified. It is justified by the excuse that Islam promotes modesty and has tasked men with protecting the oh-so-inferior women. It is justified with a culture that is not like the much-disparaged Western culture where women wear shorts and have abortions. It is justified by the most dangerous of all excuses, traditional norms.  (Read Sana Saleem’s blog on rape culture here.)

Pakistan’s advertising industry is no stranger to controversy. From lawn advertisements outraging conservative sensibilities due to supposedly provocative imagery, to witty sanitary napkin ads( based on Wikileaks), there’s always a product or an ad that is  debated upon furiously. The current ad being discussed, however, is controversial, not because of the content of the advertisement but rather, the product being hawked.

Renowned television chef Zubeida Tariq,  popularly known as Zubeida Aapa, has become the spokesperson for a “fairness soap” with the tagline, ‘ab gora hoga Pakistan.’ (Now, Pakistan will be fair skinned). The accompanying television commercial shows various women, young and old, clearly depressed and dejected.  Zubeida Aapa appears in a crowd of miserable women, as a female narrator proclaims that “people look beautiful when they are happy” and that Zubeida Aapa’s soap will make everyone’s skin white and beautiful. The ad ends with the miserable women happily cheering for Zubeida Aapa, saying, ab gora hoga Pakistan! (Now, Pakistan will be fair skinned)Zubeida Aapa Pale Realities:  Pakistans Obsession With Fair Skin

The ad in itself is no more offensive than any other skin whitening products. Like many before her, she is joining the bandwagon of a lucrative industry that is only expected to grow in the coming years, and in a society where wealth is power, who can blame her? One individual cannot bear the brunt of all criticism since it results in deflecting from the real issue at hand, which is the popularity of fairness creams, and the question of why our culture denigrates South Asian colored skin as much as it does. The problem is Asian in nature, rather than global; analysis of famous cosmetic companies shows that fairness creams and skin-whitening products from companies such as Nivea, L’Oreal, Ponds and others aggressively target Asian markets, rather than the Western market. (Much has to be said about the Western obsession with skin tanning, but that can be an entire post on its own)

The South Asian obsession with a fair complexion is perceived by many to be a result of post-colonialism. Almost 67 years after independence from British imperialists, the shadow of the British Empire hangs over us in the form of internalized colonialism. The roots of this obsession could be traced back to British imperialism, when privilege and an elevated status were indicated by the whiteness of your skin. As Afifa Faisal writes in The News, in 19th century Hindustan, whitening soaps represented a way for women to achieve the high status of white British women. “By removing from the skin the ‘stigma’ of dark skin, whitening creams correlate light skin with beauty and socioeconomic progress,” Afifa writes, but British colonialism ended long ago. So why does this obsession with fairness still remain?

It is a classic case of colourism, where privileges are awarded to members of society with lighter skin, while dark-skinned individuals lack privileges. Our advertisements mirror colourism, with dark-skinned women suffering in some way or the other, until a fairness product  miraculously lightens their skin color which instantly brightens (pun-intended) their future (they get married happily/ get a successful job/become popular).

Skin color, therefore, is portrayed and perceived  as an indicator of a particular social hierarchy within which those with lighter skin possess the privilege of an elevated socioeconomic status. The fact that fairness cream is used more by women is easy enough to understand, considering that within the patriarchal structure of our society, women already possess an inferior status and the concept of fair skin has long been the standard for beauty.

In a culture where women are  perceived as commodities, it is not so baffling to understand the pursuit of a fairer complexion. As Rafia Zakaria opines in Dawn, “looking like the people who once subjugated us is a remnant of Pakistani culture’s inability to move on from the idea that to be powerful, one must look the part.” As toxic as the Pakistani hatred for the West may be, it still isn’t powerful enough to wipe out decades of colonial enslavement, especially when the patriarchy’s obsession with objectifying women perpetuates that enslavement.

Even without our colonial history, the constant onslaught of Western standards of beauty through mass media are contributing towards an obsession with women’s appearance. American feminist Naomi Wolf deconstructed what she called “The Beauty Myth” in her book of the same name. She posited that as women gained more rights in America, the idea of beauty was being enforced through the cosmetic and fashion industry as the last of traditional, feminine ideologies used to oppress women. “The gaunt, youthful model supplanted the happy housewife as the arbiter of successful womanhood.” Women were gaining access to public spheres such as the workplace, winning the right to vote, countering patriarchal concepts of religion, negotiating equal career opportunities. The only control left for the patriarchy was that of women’s beauty. Thus, all the punishments and taboos women had abolished for themselves, were reconstructed in the form of an obsession with their faces and bodies. Thus, the Western model for beauty became a white-skinned, half-starved model or actress with colored eyes, coated with layers of makeup, swathed with expensive branded clothes; a model emulated all across the world by women who, when assaulted by these images nonstop, developed insecurities with their own physical appearance. For Pakistani women, the blows come not only from internalized colonialism, but also, Western media.

That the beauty and fashion industry is oppressive and a tool of capitalist patriarchy, there is no doubt. And that is what makes these skin-whitening products so dangerous; the inherent violence of the beauty industry that they represent. The beauty industry operates by constantly assaulting women with images through mass media, reminding them of their non-existent inadequacies and failings. It then ensures that women, rather than engaging in the dangerous pastime of thinking creatively and intelligently, are trapped in a cage of insecurity and trying to break out by conforming to the standards of beauty thrust upon them. The self-loathing and poor body-image that results from this process is a vicious cycle wherein women attempt to be beautiful, youthful and desirable; in a South Asian context, this beauty and desirability will get you a good marriage, career opportunities, popularity, social status, etc. These same myths about beauty are mirrored in whitening cream ads as well, and contribute to the oppression of women since women cannot reach their full potential when they are busy striving towards impossible, and even unhealthy standards of beauty.

Dark Is Beautiful Pale Realities:  Pakistans Obsession With Fair Skin

Poster from Nandita Das’s Campaign

Why is it then that, despite frequent criticism of the skin-whitening, cosmetic industry, Pakistanis do not take it as a serious threat? Our neighbor India certainly has; In 2013, a law student in Bangalore filed a case against the manufacturer of an Indian crayons brand for unlawful trade practices, because beige crayon was labelled as ‘skin’ color, which he felt was a perpetuated obsession with fair complexion. Actress Nandita Das became the face of a campaign called “Dark Is Beautiful,” an initiative of Indian NGO Women of Worth, exhorting women to ‘Stay Unfair, Stay Beautiful.” In an interview with the Times of India, Nandita discussed the obsession with fairness in Bollywood, and how she’d often be asked to whiten her complexion for a movie role because her character was supposed to be educated and successful, a marker of the socioeconomic connotations of a fair complexion.

While Pakistanis on social media have welcomed the campaign, the internet represents a small portion of the society, and without similar campaigns on Pakistani soil, the message will not be driven home in any case. Nor can we prioritize the needs of women based on other gender-based problems such as female illiteracy or violence against women(VAW). What point is there for education after all, when beauty standards still hold educated women back? How can we fight violence against women when we deny psychological violence? Being told, since childhood, that you are lacking because of your appearance, from friends, family, and the society is a violent theft of all sense of self-worth, thereby conditioning a woman to be a passive victim at the hands of abusers. It is high time that we as a society recognize the skin-whitening industry as a symbol of oppressive standards that even ensnares men in its net, and one that cannot be allowed to fulfill the predictions of its growth at any cost.

Update: Zubeida Tariq recently spoke about the whitening soap ad in an interview for Dawn. She agrees that the tagline ‘ab gora hoga Pakistan’ is problematic and says that she asked for the tagline to be removed. While the company behind the soap is now changing this tagline, Zubeida Tariq points out the double standards of society, where a whitening soap is criticized to the point of hurling abuse at it’s spokesperson, but advertisements which commodify women to sell products are acceptable in mainstream society.

This is a living document, we will be adding more details and examples to it on an ongoing basis. The study is intended to compare the laws between the two countries and look at some of the success stories.

Published in The News on Sunday on October 13th – Special Report

Sana Saleem, an award-winning blogger, is an activist working on minority rights and internet freedom, and co-founder of Pakistani Internet advocacy group Bolo Bhi

 

The News on Sunday: What’s your take on the government’s decision to block Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) communication channels? Is this the only way to curb crime and terrorism?Sana Saleem “This reflects a deeply flawed counter terrorism policy”

Sana Saleem: Access shouldn’t be a victim to national security. The plans to block these are a gross violation of fundamental rights of citizens. None of this helps security. In fact, this reflects a deeply flawed counter-terrorism policy.

In the past, the government suspended cellular services over a dozen times. An important point to note is that when the government suspends GSM networks, it also disables home and car security networks, further risking lives and property.

Rather than taking strong measures for counter-terrorism and centralised intelligence data-sharing to enable better security, the government seems to be determined to violate constitutional rights of its own citizens.

With the new government in power, we had hopes for rethink of past policies. However, in the backdrop of recent announcements and continuing blockage of YouTube, the future of open access remains bleak, unless policy makers take necessary measures to protect right to information.

TNS: What exactly does your organisation (Bolo Bhi) do and how has it resisted state control over internet?

SS: Bolo Bhi is a not-for-profit civil society group that focuses on research-based advocacy to influence policy change. Last year, we resisted government’s attempt to install a URL filtration & blocking system.

The campaign last year had two components. First, it was launched at a national level, seeking out academics, entrepreneurs, small business, parliamentarians, and civil society at large to reach out to the government and inform them about the repercussions of the pending filtration system, which included blanket surveillance and ad-hoc censorship on content online. The aim was to build an understanding of how surveillance and censorship impact various segments of society, most importantly, the economic and academic impact of surveillance and censorship technology.

The second targeted the international community. This campaign was designed to ask international human rights groups to build pressure on Western surveillance technology companies not to sell the technology to Pakistan. When we reached out to eight leading companies that sell such technology, five of them committed not to sell to Pakistan owing to increased censorship.

This year, our director has been appointed amicus curie in the YouTube case in Lahore High Court (LHC) where she’s been advising the court on policy and civil liberties aspect of the ban.

In the YouTube case, we’ve been providing the court with research on how surveillance technology works and the repercussions of such a technology on citizens’ rights, conducting research on the use of YouTube for academic purposes in Pakistan and submitting citizen letters to the court and the minister on how citizens have been impacted by the YouTube ban.

TNS: How do you think internet censorship harms the interests of citizens?

SS: The United Nations has declared access to internet a basic human right. Over the years, we’ve seen the role communications technology plays in healthcare, education, business and media. Censorship impacts the society at large, it affects the way we communicate and share information. It greatly impacts our own understanding of our society and history.

TNS: Pakistan has signed international covenants on freedom of expression, speech, etc. Is it complying as well?

SS: No it isn’t. The state has consistently violated freedom of expression, citizens’ constitutional right to privacy, and their fundamental right to access information. The right to privacy is an inviolable right mandated by the Constitution of 1973. Similarly, the right to information is a constitutional right. As mentioned earlier, the United Nations passed a resolution in 2012, declaring internet access as a basic human right. So, blocking access is tantamount to denial of this right to citizens.

— By Shahzada Irfan Ahmed

 

 

 Letter to the German Embassy

                                                                                                                                                                       Petra Speyrer

               Consular and Legal Section

German Embassy Islamabad

Ramna 5, Diplomatic Enclave, Islamabad, PAKISTAN

P.O. Box 1027, Islamabad, PAKISTAN

Tel:  (0092-51) 227 9430 – 35

Subject: Letter to The Federal Republic of Germany’s Embassy in Pakistan: Call for Transparency, Accountability & Action Following Reports On FinFisher’s Presence in Pakistan.

Madam Petra Speyrer

As a civil society organisation that works on upholding & securing citizen’s right to open and secure access to information, we write to you to raise the issue regarding the presence of FinFisher, sold by a GERMAN/UK company, Gamma International. This was brought to public attention through a report published by Citizen Lab, a research group based at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.The lab is independent from government and corporate interests, and publishes research based on evidence.

FinFisher has the ability to affect all forms of software (Mac/Apple, Windows, Android), including but not limited to all smartphones. It works as an espionage surveillance equipment, obtaining passwords for your hardware and social networks, has the ability to read an individual’s chats,listen in to  Skype calls, the capability of listening to private in-room conversations as well as stealing & emailing personal files from an individual’s device. This kind of technology has the potential to be abused & is in clear violation of international human rights laws.

Human right to privacy and free access is a universal right as made evident by the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. We quote Article 12 and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Article 12: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks”.

Article 19: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.

By reportedly exporting it’s equipment to countries with a questionable human rights record, Gamma is in violation of United Nation’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which identifies “a global standard for preventing and addressing the risk of adverse impacts on human rights linked to business activity”.

The reported presence and use of FinFisher is not only a violation of the multiple UN Declarations, but a grave violation of Constitutional Provisions of Human Rights of both Germany & Pakistan. Germany provides data protection through “Bundesdatenschutzgesetz or BDSG,”and the European Convention of Human Rights. According to German law, “personally identifiable information without express permission from an individual” cannot be collected or obtained without permission of individual in question; when asking for permission, it must be specified why, for how and what information is being obtained and where is the information coming from. An individual has the right to revoke the permission and all businesses and organisation must have laws that protect private data transmission that falls under BDSG laws.

Germany takes privacy laws very seriously, and is far stricter in its laws than the United Kingdom. Germany has even gone so far as to claiming a fine for Facebook for storing biometric data through a facial recognition software they use. The Independent Centre for Privacy Protection (ULD) is an active organisation that ensures privacy measures are taken and privacy laws are upheld in the nation.

In Pakistan, an individual is protected from breach of privacy by Article 14 of the Constitution, establishing that privacy is an “inviolable right” of a citizen, something that cannot be breached under any circumstance. The right to information has been established under Article 19 and 19A of the constitution, bearing that an individual should have freedom of access, expression and information.

Recently, Bolo Bhi joined a Global Coalition that endorses 13 International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance. These principles create a framework to limit surveillance, provided legitimate reasons, legitimate transparent actions are taken in proportion to the situation at hand. It gives protection to the individual from being prosecuted or violated for no reason, while giving a legal pathway for governments and individuals to follow. It forms a compromise between the individual and the state. The principles uphold the fundamental right to privacy.

We have a reason to believe that FinFisher has been used to aid in human rights violations. The very first evidence, as per research, of the presence and use of FinFisher was in Bahrain, 2012, against pro-democratic activists. Cyber attacks were launched against journalists and activists in Bahrain that gravely compromised their security and privacy; many of the activists were sent pictures and news of tortured victims as a means to intimidate them.

Thus, the presence of such equipment in Pakistan where Journalists have been targeted throughout the years is quite frightful. Reporters Without Borders has classified Pakistan to be one of the most dangerous places to be a reporter, and the reported presence of such espionage surveillance equipment is an added threat to an already hostile environment.

More than just a violation of the constitution, FinFisher enables private information to be obtained and used illegally against the respective individual, being a possible threat to their life and liberty.

We request the German Government to assist us in seeking answers from FinFisher, that has reportedly sold technology to Pakistan with full awareness that it would be abused. We ask for assistance to hold FinFisher accountable for unethical business practice and for greater transparency and accountability in the trade. We seek assistance in disabling FinFisher command and control centres in Pakistan & call for strict action and tougher laws to hold British companies accountable as and when they are in violation of domestic, national and international laws.

We hope the German Government and all other governments around the world follow their commitment to free speech and freedom of expression and take action against western companies that sell surveillance and filtering equipment to repressive governments. Put an end to the trade that aids repression.

Yours Sincerely,

Sana Saleem

Director- Bolo Bhi

A popular trend in Provincial policy, banning mediums of exchange communication, has been seen and noted. It is being used to combat the ever increasing security threat in the nation. By banning means of communication, the government feels that they can control the exchange of information and planning of groups accused of terrorist activities, seeing that they are the only ones that use them. Foregoing the millions that use it to conduct businesses, to gain education and simply communicate with family members worldwide, the government has taken this decision solely based on, you guessed it, national security.

Let’s reflect a little on our constitutional provisions first. Article 18 of our constitution mandates that businesses and organisations are free to conduct legal business; e-commerce and all communications via any client used on the internet is protected by the Electronic Transaction Ordinance 2002 that legitimises, accepts and protect businesses online. What this mean is that if a business uses the internet to conduct business, formulate contract, transfer or receive any information and so on, it is protected.  It cannot be compromised, it should be comprised and definitely not encroached upon. Not sure who writes these laws, but there is indication that the ban comes from the very system that played a role in enacting them. Detailing the magnitude of the loss these businesses will face is too widespread to get into, and impossible to process by a simpleton such as myself, but rest assured, it will hit our ever declining economy.

Leaning away from businesses and economics, lets reflect on the impact it may have on  citizens who have family and loved ones all around the world. Increase in gas prices has made it too expensive to travel; work/school commitments don’t give one enough time to do so either. Phone bills are higher each day and communication just becomes more expensive by the minute. To combat the cost of communication and maintaining relationships, we use Skype, Viber, WhatsApp etc that provide us with cost effective modes to be able to keep in touch and feel connected. Its as simple as that. We want to stay in touch, and we have the resources to do so. But now, the government has decided to have a say in how we do that as well? What next will the government regulate?  Who we can or cannot talk to? It comes back to the same argument posed once before, has the government really become nannies for the citizens? (If so, Im still waiting on that college funding that was promised).

Article 9 on the constitution gives Pakistanis their liberty, and mandates thats laws cannot deprive one of their liberty. Liberty is defined as “The state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life” ; how am I free if I cannot use simple means of communication? How am I free if I am limited in my ability to communicate effectively with my family or friends that live abroad? How am I free if I continue to sit back and allow my government, the ones my fellow citizens and I came together and voted in (well, at least attempted to), continue to oppress my ways of life? As little as it may seem, Skype, Viber, WhatsApp and all such mediums have become a way of us to keep connected with the world beyond our borders. Its effective, efficient and immediate, just the way its needed. How is that threatening?

Now that we are talking about threats, I have my fair share,  I am threatened by policemen on the road that stop me without justifiable cause, because they want “a little extra”; I am threatened by the fact that I cannot be sure if I will have electricity all night, thereby making my day at work less productive; I am threatened by most strangers while taking a walk on the beach, because I don’t know if I’ll be protected incase I’m mugged. These are my threats;  not communication.

A general sense of security is a fundamental right, and what is to be protected by the state. That is their job; they were elected to keep me safe and uphold my rights. They are responsible to ensure that the law and order of the nation is maintained. If they fail to do their job, the only responsibility I have is to resist.  It is not the citizen’s responsibility to bear the brunt of the government’s failure. Yet, for the past decade (or possibly more) it is us citizens that have evidently taken up the roles to be our own protectors, to be our security and to bear the brunt of the incompetence the government has displayed in performing.

It is not the citizens who should be held accountable, it is the government. It is time we held our government accountable for what has happened to our cities; it is time we point fingers in the right direction. Incompetence isn’t an excuse anymore, and neither can it be tolerated. We should be the ones banning, protesting, eliminating or devolving the abuses of the government. They are the ones that have failed, not us; why are we the ones suffering?

Stop remaining silent; they have already taken away our modes of communication. If our voices are what they want to suppress, lets show them how loud we can be, shall we?

 

 A CEOs Message to the Minister

 

Ms. Anusha Rahman
Minister of State For Information Technology & Telecom
Ministry of Information Technology and Telecom,
4th Floor, Evacuee Trust Complex, Aga Khan Road,F-5/1,
Islamabad, Pakistan.
Phone #: 051-9201990

 

Esteemed Minister,

We do hope you’re receiving our messages and are looking in to resolving the issue at hand. As you’ll see in today’s letter, the impact of YouTube has most businesses worried too.

Shakir Husain is the CEO of Creative Chaos, as well as a loving father. He writes to you, reemphasizing the benefits of YouTube, especially to a developing country like ours. The resources and facilities that cannot be provided by the state, are provided by  mediums such as YouTube, which helps bridge the educational gap. In today’s rapidly developing world, quality education is of utmost importance and YouTube aids in the enhancement of academic and vocational education.

Mr. Husain also mentions how alternatives to YouTube are not good alternatives because Google’s platform is incomparable; its vast audience and reach also makes it a means for Pakistanis to showcase their talents, their innovation and creativity to millions of people worldwide, painting a more positive image of Pakistan.

He also mentions YouTube’s capacity to behave as a digital campaign medium, which is beneficial to many organisations, especially NGOs/IGOs as ourselves; having limited funds but requiring wider reach, YouTube caters to all needs and aids in the promotion and awareness of campaigns.

We hope you can empathise with us Minister. YouTube has become an integral part of business functioning and citizen lives and it is almost an injustice to deprive the nation of such an important forum.

The letter is attached, please do have a look. Thank you.

Until next letter,
Bolo Bhi

Shakir Husain A CEOs Message to the Minister

 From a Mother to the Minister

 

Ms. Anusha Rahman
Minister of State For Information Technology & Telecom
Ministry of Information Technology and Telecom,
4th Floor, Evacuee Trust Complex, Aga Khan Road,F-5/1,
Islamabad, Pakistan.
Phone #: 051-9201990

 

Minister Rahman,

Here we are again, self appointed liaisons between you and the citizens. Hassan Khalid’s letter asked a question worth thinking about; most of us today think along the same lines. Has anything good really come out of the ban? for that matter has censorship ever served a purpose? Has discrimination based on religion/race/nationality stopped? Regretfully not; if only censorship was the answer to hate speech.

Today’s letter is from Mobeen Ansari’s inspirational mother, Farzana Aziz. We don’t know this woman, but its safe to say that she is a role model to many, including us. She raised her son into an outstanding citizen & one of Pakistan’s most talented artists, with assistance from technology and the Internet.

It is difficult to raise children with impairment in Pakistan; there aren’t enough facilities or resources that aid in their development. Farzana learned computer skills and aided her son’s development through mediums such as YouTube. Something as little can change peoples’ lives; access provides opportunities, why restrict it?

Farzana ends her letter with a very important question as well, Minister. Have a look, and please think about it.

Thank you,

Until next letter,
Bolo Bhi

Farzanas Letter  212x300 From a Mother to the Minister