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 Whether in English or Urdu, every day we speak and write in ways that contribute to reinforcing an outdated mode of thinking that is a main source for gender inequality.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


Humankind, humanity.

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

People, humanity


Artificial, synthetic, manufactured

The common man

The  common person


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


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.

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.)

On 14th May, several newspapers reported the gang-rape of a young college girl. Such stories are not uncommon in Pakistan, but what slowly unfolded over the days was more than just a gang-rape. These men were part of a gang that had sexually assaulted other college girls, and then videotaped the incident to blackmail them. Even more horrifying is the fact that the rape survivor was lured into the car where the rape took place by her best friend, who has also been arrested. Reportedly, the friend was part of the gang as well. But what about her motives for abetting in the rape of a friend? Is it possible that she had also been a  victim of the same gang, and was forced to help them because they filmed her sexual assault as well? There is no doubt of her guilt, and she should be punished. But if it is a likely possibility that she too was a victim, then this reflects an alarming global trend of using social media to shame victims of rape and sexual assault.

In December 2012, members of the hacktivist group Anonymous released information about a rape victim in Steubenville, Ohio, who had been raped at a party after she had passed out. By 2013, the case had made  headlines, especially because of how the rape survivor had been shamed through photos and videos shared by her rapists on social media. In 2012, a Canadian teenager named Amanda Todd committed suicide after she was blackmailed into exposing herself online, and was shamed and ridiculed at school when her photos were made public.  In another case in 2012, rape survivor Savannah Dietrich revealed the names of her attackers on social media, after a lenient plea bargain denied her the justice she deserved. As a result of this public naming and shaming, she faces possible jail time.

Social media might have opened up new avenues for people through which they can communicate and share information, but with great power comes the potential of even greater abuses. The concept of blackmailing young girls and women with incriminating photos and videos is not a new one, but it is a problem that has remained unaddressed so far. In Pakistan, where women are burdened with ‘family honor,’ they become an easy target for such forms of harassment. The harassment can come from anywhere; from former police officers, the victim’s classmates,  complete strangers on social media, or university students.

In cases where women are spared the horrific trauma of sexual assault, they are subjected to sexual harassment online. There should be no mistake that this form of cyber bullying is sexual harassment. Women are propositioned online, threatened with rape, and in most cases, their personal photos are put up on social media pages such as Facebook. In many cases, women’s faces are photoshopped on pornographic pictures in an attempt to humiliate and blackmail them. Such photos can wind up on Facebook pages which are filled with pictures of young girls and teenagers. The comments sections of such pages are filled with repulsive objectification as well.

The discussion should not revolve around the imposition of honour on women, or how that is exploited by blackmailers and cyber harassers. The debate instead needs to focus on the right to privacy, and digital safety. Young women online who talk about social change are often “punished” for their transgressions through cyber harassment such as online stalking, constant abuse and rape threats, or even morphing photos of activists. As the founder of Digital Rights Foundation Nighat Dad points out in a blog, communications technology has given an avenue to feminists and activists to have their voices heard. But at the same time, “anyone deviating from social norms are subjected to ridicule, abuse and serious threats and in most cases are unprotected by law – particularly blasphemy and rape laws.”

The awful rape case in Mansehra is just one terrible crime in a sea of nameless, faceless victims. Most remain silent because they are afraid of the consequences of speaking out when there are videos and photographs that they feel can destroy their lives. There is an absence of legislation that can ensure that such acts are made a criminal offense. It is also important to remember that like film, music, and art, social media often mirrors a country’s culture, and the level of harassment women face online is the same rape culture that trivializes rape, shames rape survivors, and normalizes sexual harassment to the point that sexually threatening attitudes are never questioned.

In a social structure where there is zero tolerance for women who speak up about abuse, social media has become a tool for punishment of such transgressions, so that rape culture remains intact. We cannot expect that social media will not be used to harass and intimidate women into silence if we are not willing to admit and identify how we are all part of the rape culture that wants to coerce and silence women.

What happens in the Mansehra case remains to be seen. After all, even Mukhtaran Mai was denied justice; Pakistan is not one of the countries where rape survivors get justice, but rather, where they get punished for the crime committed against them. But because of extensive media coverage, this case can be a stimulus for policymakers to lobby for women’s legislation regarding cyber-harassment. Women are subjected to far too many crimes as it is, for once we have the opportunity to curb cyber harassment before it develops into a major issue.

A woman was killed last week for marrying a man of her choice. She was beaten to death by her father, brothers, and former fiance. First, they tried to snatch her away from her husband. When that failed, her own kin attacked her, swung bricks at her, and beat her till her screams eventually stopped. They finally succeeded in killing her after previous attempts to attack her on multiple occasions had failed. She was three months pregnant.

This did not happen on the orders of a Jirga. This didn’t happen in a rural village or a quiet neighborhood in an urban locality with no witnesses. This did not happen in some abandoned property late at night. No, this crime took place in broad daylight, near Lahore High Court (LHC) with eyewitnesses standing by and doing nothing as a woman was murdered before their eyes.

An important fact related to the case is being misrepresented in almost all official reports. The public ‘honor’ killing of Farzana is being referred to as a stoning. This could not be further from the truth. The victim’s father told investigators that four people were involved in the plotting of the murder, which means it was a premeditated ‘honor’ killing. What it wasn’t is a public stoning. Pakistan is one amongst 15 countries where stoning as a punishment is practiced, but these incidents of stoning are always extra-judicial. Stoning is the punishment for committing zina (adultery), and in countries where it is legal or practiced, it is sanctioned by the law, or by the community. In the case of Pakistan, where it is practiced, but not legal.

As the online initiative Pakistan Feminist Watch wrote in their statement: “This is also being misreported as a stoning which makes it seem like a state-sanctioned punishment which it was not. No parallel legal system ordered it either… Her family members fired at her and then used bricks and stones that were lying near them to beat her to death… A stoning is very different. This was not one.”

Pertinent questions that arise in this situation is the inaction of the court. If courts had not opened at the time, surely there were lawyers going to and fro from LHC? And if the crime was committed right in front of the LHC, where were the court’s security guards? Why were they absent from the crime scene, and if present, why didn’t they do anything to prevent the crime? And what about the crowd of onlookers that gathered as the deed was committed, but did not attempt to stop it? Reports reveal that Farzana was supposedly escorted by three policemen, how then was she attacked and eventually killed? Her husband  and stepson begged the police  who refused to help. The case is eerily reminiscent of the Sialkot lynching of two young brothers in 2010. The two boys were beaten to death by a mob, while those looking on, including police officers, did nothing. That is the only similarity to the case of course, but one has to wonder how or why, we as a people, have reached this point. Two teenagers, or a pregnant woman are beaten to death before us, and we do nothing to prevent the crime from happening.

Foreign media outlets picked up on the story within hours. The Guardian, New York Times, Time, all ran the story, and the news was successfully outraged over on social media. Dawn, Express Tribune, and The News dedicated an editorial each to condemning the public killing.

According to a report published by Aurat Foundation in 2012, the number of ‘honor’ killings reported for the years 2008-2012 decreased from 475 cases in 2008 to 432 in 2012. This isn’t an indicator of a decrease in killings in the name of  ’honor.’ The decrease in figures indicates that ‘honor’ killings were perhaps reported on less since the Aurat Foundation builds its reports on media sources. In contrast, the Human Rights Commission Pakistan (HRCP) report cited 869 cases of ‘honor’ killings in 2013. Thanks to the Qisas and Diyat laws, ‘honor’ killings have  become easier, so to speak, as the men who commit ‘honor’ killings are brothers, fathers, uncles of the women, and, therefore, can be forgiven by their family under the law, and avoid jail time.

 There is no justification for committing murder in any situation. But ‘honor’ killings are problematic when the reasons for committing murder are ‘infidelity’ or ‘illicit affairs’; the reality is that just glancing at another man, speaking to one, or walking next to a man, can and is considered as proof of an ‘illicit’ relationship between a man and woman. In any case, suspected or confirmed infidelity is not a cause for murder, and the social double standards which allow men to marry as they please, but punish women for forgetting that they are another man’s property are increasingly hypocritical. Love marriages and elopement are often involved in ‘honor’ killings, due to the mindset that a woman marrying of her own choice brings dishonor to the family. Why? Because in a patriarchal social structure, a woman’s agency is taken away, and her life is dictated by the traditions and customs of patriarchy. Any deviation from these traditions is a blow against the patriarchy and  family honour is one of patriarchy’s many tools.

The head of the family is male, and so, if the women under his ‘rule’ deviates in any way, the ‘burden’ falls upon him, and the other male members of the family, to punish the transgression, so that the family ‘honor,’ or rather his ‘honor,’ is restored to its virginal glory, and the structure of patriarchy remains intact.

But is patriarchy breaking or not? That is the key question here, because the majority of women’s problems is caused by patriarchy, and that is why it must be dismantled. According to Bolo Bhi’s news records, from May 12-31 there were 23 cases of ‘honor’ killings reported in Dawn, The News, and Express Tribune. Out of these, 15 cases cited alleged affairs, and five cited  love marriages as a ‘cause’ of murder. More and more reports of honour killings are related to women choosing their partner. Isn’t this a sign that women are gaining more agency and making more decisions on their own, causing cracks within the patriarchy? Considering that women are well aware that they face death by eloping or marrying of their own choice, isn’t this a rebellion of sorts, a decision to die on their own terms rather than be bartered off into marriage a symbol of silent defiance?

[Read Pakistan's Suffragettes by Farieha Aziz] 

Whether that is the case or not, it is no justification for senseless violence. The destruction of patriarchy cannot come at such a high cost – at the sacrifice of so many innocent women across the country. But it is a matter of how we choose to perceive the situation. We cannot individually charge across the nation as vigilantes. It may sound heroic, but it is not a solution in any case. But consider this: what if the increase in acts of violence against women is a desperate attempt by the patriarchy to regain control over rebellious women? Wouldn’t recognizing the weakening of a seemingly-invincible social structure give us greater power to fight it? Rather than despairing over the inhumanity of murdering a woman in broad daylight, it is better to not let an innocent woman’s death be in vain and become yet another statistic. Rights organizations including the Human Rights Commission Pakistan (HRCP), Shirkat Gah, Women’s Action Forum (WAF)  as well as the United Nations (UN) have expressed their horror at the crime, and the impunity that allowed this to happen in broad daylight.

Let Farzana be a symbol of the brutality of patriarchy, the barbarity of a social system that disproportionately favors men and reduces women to chattel. Let our collective rage become a clarion call to all who support the cause. As more and more women defy social conventions for the right to make their own life decisions, it will only represent female empowerment  as women risk death to live on their own terms. That they should not have to risk their lives is a moot point; what matters is how many women take the risk, because each woman represents hope for the future of women in the country.


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.

The Sindh Assembly unanimously passed “The Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act, 2013,” into law, thereby repealing the 1929 Child Protection Act and becoming the first province to legislate on child marriages in Pakistan. Sharmila Faruqi (Pakistan’s People’s Party – PPP) presented the private Act in the Provincial Assembly. The Act fixes the age of marriage at a minimum of 18 for both males and females, along with increasing fines and imprisonment time levied upon those who violate the Act.

 The law states that, “the provisions of the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, relating to the Province of Sindh are hereby repealed”, continuing, “an offense punishable under this Act shall be cognizable, non-bailable and non-compoundable.”

 Sindh Minister for Social Development Rubina Qaimkhani (PPP) welcomed the passing of the Act and appreciated lawmakers for their support. She further identified that early marriage for females leads to the negative implications on their future.

 This move comes after the Council of Islamic Ideology declared the clause prohibiting child marriage in Pakistan’s marriage laws were un-Islamic, and children of any age could be married upon puberty. This created an uproar amongst civil society and was heavily criticized in the SenateSenate, where Senator Farhatullah Babar stated that the Council of Islamic Ideology was in fact strengthening the narrative of the Taliban by justifying child marriages. He cited that this move shows an increase in extremism in the country (See Bolo Bhi’s timeline on child marriage.)

This new law is an important success for civil liberties, however, the leniency of a three-year-imprisonment for parties involved in child marriage must be criticized, given that the sentence can be commuted to shorter imprisonment. More importantly, in many cases, laws passed for the protection of children are not implemented effectively, and crimes against children have continued to rise. The Sindh Child Protection Authority Act, 2011 is a law that, if implemented effectively, calls to establish child protection units across the province, where child protection officers can take children into protective custody until receiving appropriate orders by relevant authorities for protecting the child in question. Khyber Pukhtunkhwa passed the Child Protection and Welfare Act, 2010 into law which criminalized various offenses such as pornography and sexual exploitation and also addressed the privacy of “child at risk”, with a fine of PKR. 10,000 (USD$101) for violators of the provision. On the other hand, the Balochistan Child Protection and Welfare Bill has been pending since 2011, and Punjab is still in the process of formulating a child welfare policy.

 Despite legal improvements, children’s rights continue to be violated. According to Sahil, a child-rights NGO, an astounding number of 3002 cases of sexual abuse were reported in 2013, which is a 7.6% increase from the previous year. The Movement for Solidarity and Peace (MSP) reported that in 2013, an estimated 300-700 Christian and Hindu women became victims of forced conversions to Islam, and were subjected to abuse, with some of them forced into prostitution. Child marriage is only one aspect of abuse and the exploitation of children, which young girls are particularly subjected to. In fact, according to Sahil’s 2013 report on Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) child marriage saw an increase of 21% last year.

As laudable as the passing of The Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act, 2013 is, the implementation of this law still remains to be seen. The provincial government must focus on launching awareness-building campaigns on child marriages and child sexual abuse and encourage community members to protect children by contacting the relevant authorities if they suspect that a child is being abused. Existing laws need to be implemented in order to truly counter child sexual abuse. Similarly, other provinces need to follow Sindh’s example by enacting laws protecting children from child marriages, sexual abuse, and commercial exploitation, and dedicate far more resources to implement said laws.

The writer is a high-school student & has requested anonymity 

There’s a plethora of social networking sites, many of which are actively used by the teenagers that make up my high school’s student body. However, with the dominant social networking superpower Facebook blocked at school, students actively turned towards Twitter during or in between classes, expressing whatever they desire in 140 characters or less. Or at least that was the case until Twitter was blocked due to an incident dubbed as “indirect cyber bullying.”

Initially, there was an uproar and various insults were hurled towards the administration as students failed to understand the reasons for the blockade. As the days passed, students  began to question what qualified as “indirect cyber bullying.” Slowly, but surely, details of the harassment were released.

It turned out that a group of four boys, in my very own grade,  had allegedly posted  spiteful comments about one of the boy’s ex-girlfriends on Twitter. The tweets never directly  revealed the victim’s name, but they weren’t  so subtle either.  Some of them mentioned several physical characteristics that were unique to the girl while other tweets included attacks against the girl’s mother, encompassing a painful variety of racial slurs and foul language degrading both women.

It was ironic that I had scrolled past these very same tweets about a week ago, dismissing them almost instantly because the tweets were sent from  anonymous accounts. In a matter of minutes, the insults encapsulated within the 140-character limit were lost amidst the sea of infamous hashtags and tweets about what people were eating for dinner. Almost as if this was everyday conversation lost in all the chatter.

I was not alone.  After discussing the incident with other students, it turned out that many others had scrolled past these attacks and had directly filed the tweets under the usual petty drama that occurs on the Internet. What we all failed to see was the severity of the abuse; all of the tweets included sexist and racist remarks that would not have been tolerated had they been said out loud at school.

Luckily, not everyone blatantly scrolled past the tweets. The girl’s friend had picked up on the small clues and immediately approached her. The hints were obvious enough to serve as a substantial reason for suspending all four boys.

Multiple fingers were pointed at our grade shortly after word got around about the cyber bullying incident. Not because of the cruelty of the act, but rather because students were frustrated that they would no longer be to occupy themselves with Twitter during class. There was more concern about whether  it was fair to suspend the boys since the malicious tweets never specifically said who they were attacking, rather than empathy for the girl against whom the attacks were made.  Many students firmly believed that it wasn’t necessarily harassment if we technically didn’t know for sure who the subject of the tweets was. Other students believed that if the boys had mentioned the girl’s name, it would be unacceptable and therefore their punishment was deserved. The concern over the boys’ suspension was raised primarily by  students who were looking for an excuse to get Twitter unblocked, while other students genuinely implored the validity behind “indirect cyber bullying”

Soon, all the rage turned into sympathy for the suspended boys  as opposed to the girl, and the sexist slurs that had been so shocking initially just became insignificant. “It wasn’t that big of a deal” became the standard response. More questions were raised about whether ‘indirect bullying’ was grounds enough for a reaction – for many this didn’t seem serious enough to block access to Twitter.  It’s sad how quickly the incident became about the Twitter blockade rather than a broader discussion on verbal abuse.

While the incident at my school involved bullies who were not bothered about being subtle, what we fail to realize is that cyber bullying can be direct even when it’s indirect. How many times have I scrolled past passive aggressive statuses, tweets, and blog posts that do not necessarily include any names and thought nothing of them. The idea of being attacked and not even knowing it was only brought to light by this situation.

The incident forced me to momentarily put aside any emotional reaction I had towards the situation and instead question the idea of indirect cyber bullying. When is a tweet or a Facebook status for that matter, considered offensive, even when it hasn’t directly mentioned an individual? Keeping that in mind, who are we to decide when a status or tweet is too “obvious” or offensive?

With the open-ended nature of cyber bullying, this particular incident at my school led us, collectively as students, to address some grey areas: what constitutes abuse and when and how do we play our role in abetting or restricting it? It also led us to evaluate our responses and others’ reactions, and what was right or wrong with them.




Imagine this: A six year old girl is tortured, raped and thrown on the street. She spends a week at the hospital without proper healthcare, until human rights activists create a ruckus and the authorities finally take notice, her culprits are yet to be convicted, she is more likely to become yet another statistic in the HRCP’s Human Rights report. This is not the first incident of its kind.

It has been over a month since a six year old was raped,tortured and left on the street. A month of trauma, grief and threats. V, a student of class one, belongs to the Meghwar community — a historically disadvantaged caste of Hindus– which has made her plights even more difficult. Rape is not about lust. It is not about men’s uncontrollable desire and women as his provocateurs. Rape is about power, it is about causing deliberate harm to derive pleasure, it is a weapon to inflict physical and emotional scars. It is used as an orchestrated weapon, a way of social control. So its important for us to recognize that when rape is perpetrated against  a person from a marginalized community the struggle becomes harder, when the marginalized are pushed further into oblivion there is a larger responsibility on the society to ensure that justice is done. Read Full Article →

This article was originally published on the Newsline blog on January 6, 2011

uks gender group 1 Agents of Change: Youth Tackle Gender based ViolenceYouth participants pose with their mentors at the December 2010 launch of Through the Gender Lens, a handbook to help combat violence against women.


Through the Gender Lens, a handbook – and also the culmination of a yearlong collaborative effort between Uks and UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) and 39 youth selected from around the country – was launched in Islamabad on Human Rights Day, December 10.

Says Tasneem Ahmar the director of Uks, a research, resource and publication centre on women and media: “UNFPA approached us [Uks] in January this year in search of a partner who could train youth to create gender-sensitive media content on gender-based violence.”

Advertised through flyers in newspapers and at educational institutes, the response was overwhelming, says project coordinator Saadia Haq, who is also a radio producer. “We thought girls would not apply from a lot of the areas, but we were surprised when we received entries from areas of Balochistan, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) – in fact small agencies of KPK – and Sukkur, etc.”

Aged between 15 and 25, the group of 39, which included an equal number of male and female members, hailed from both the urban centres and rural districts of the country: Chakwal, Jacobabad, Quetta, Peshawar, Waziristan, Mansehra, AJK (Azad Jammu and Kashmir), Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. In March, the group met for the first time for a one-day orientation session in which they were introduced to the project, the aims of which were to create awareness regarding gender-based violence, promote gender equity and equality, and advance the view that women’s rights are human rights.

The participants went through a rigorous training process over the passage of the year. Divided into three groups according to their areas of interest (print, radio or TV), they were educated on what gender-based violence was, trained to deconstruct media messages (projections and stereotyping of women in the media as well as the manner in which gender-based crimes are reported) by monitoring a selected number of TV and radio programmes and print matter, and tasked to eventually produce gender-sensitive media content of their own. Once equipped with the gender lens and the technical skills, the youth returned to their respective hometowns to begin peer training – it was expected of them to pass on what they had learned to at least 35 people in their communities – and complete their media productions that they were required to turn in by the end of the year.

The peer-training sessions ranged from workshops, seminars and press conferences to rallies and processions. “In extremely difficult circumstances, amidst deteriorating law-and-order situations, despite cancellations, the participants continued their trainings,” says Haq. “They even sat people down at roadside hotels to pass on the message. Some of our youth members were even displaced by the floods, they were living in tents – in fact some still are – but still they turned in productions that swept me off my feet. They have exceeded all expectations.”

A panel comprising some of the members of the core group, including Dr Salman Asif (UNFPA), Amir Mateen (Senior Correspondent, The News, Islamabad), Rana Jawad (Bureau Chief of Geo TV, Islamabad), Tasneem Ahmar, as well as guest speakers Sherry Rehman and the director of the HRCP, I. A. Rehman, worked closely with the participants and addressed the audience.

Ms. Ahmar informed the audience how initially the participants couldn’t really communicate with one another. “Some couldn’t understand English, others couldn’t converse in Urdu – or didn’t want to,” she said. “There was hesitation. We saw a huge communication gap. That has been bridged now, and that is another success of the project. They have overcome whatever inhibitions they had as a group. They’ve all worked together and there has been no discrimination on the basis of anything.”


uks gender lens panel Agents of Change: Youth Tackle Gender based ViolenceThe panel lead a discussion in Islamabad on December 10.


Deliberating on gender-based violence, I.A. Rehman stated: “Gender violence is part of the Pakistani mindset; it is a part of the collective. We tried to get rid of this, but Zia-ul-Haq came along, and after that every man made it his duty to beat the woman – and women accepted their lot in life. I feel that there is an increase in gender violence today; it [the concept] is even embedded in the minds of those who call themselves progressive. The youth need to rid themselves of this inheritance.”

These 39 youth who, according to Rana Jawad, have already reached out to people in their areas and beyond to spread awareness, were to him “passionate and inquisitive, like a new lease of life.” Amir Mateen stressed the need to strike a balance in newsrooms as far as a female presence was concerned, without which, he stated, reporting could not become gender sensitive. However, gender-based violence needed to be highlighted more in the mainstream media, he added.

“When nobody viewed media as a construct, as something that shapes reality,” said Sherry Rehman, “Tasneem started this project: how the media covers gender-based violence and how it projects stereotypes. This is a grassroots project.” Addressing the participants, she said that Uks had equipped them with a revolutionary tool and they should ensure that the initiative is taken forward, that it remains an ongoing process and they become the ‘agents of change’ everybody sees them as.

The handbook, which was provided to all the guests at the event, details the different activities the participants were involved in as part of their training. It is available in both Urdu and in English. It also serves as a training manual for those who want to conduct peer training of their own.