“Sexual objectification doesn’t get oppressive until is done consistently, and to a specific group of people, and with no regard whatsoever paid to their humanity”—Laurie Penny
Why is it that usually when a woman, regardless of her age or physical disposition, passes a group of men, again regardless of age or demeanor, they make acrid comments related to her sexuality? Even while engaged in small talk, the discussion normally revolves around women they are in contact or not in contact either. Whether she is a colleague, a boss, fellow student, somebody’s wife, sister, daughter, a stranger or even an elderly grandmother, there is no refrain in spurting out remarks coated with open or subtle vulgarity. It is generally seen that men, other than those who have been taught to respect women, posing to be true gentlemen before a group of ladies usually end up talking about them using indecent language as soon as their backs are turned.
Substance of such conversation is usually fraught with sexual innuendos in alluding to looks, expressions, smiles, style of dressing, walking or just simple appearance. Even the most respectful nuns are not spared in apparently God-fearing countries as evident from various known victims subjected to grotesque criminal acts. In our own country a few years back, a pious hafiz-i-Quran woman was brutally gang raped and thrown like garbage at her doorstep as she ventured across the street to purchase medicine for her child. Unable to bear this shame, she later on ended her life by drinking rat poison. These examples were just a couple in the myriads of crimes committed and probably being committed right now around the world. On a milder tone there are cases of harassment on the roads, at work places, in shopping centres, all because women are considered as objects and not humans.
Researchers explain this tendency as Sexual Objectification (SO) Theory envisaging that “SO occurs when a woman’s body or body parts are singled out and separated from her as a person and she is viewed primarily as a physical object of male sexual desire”. This ably depicts sufferings borne by some women in the form of defamation, physical assaults, rape and even murder. Is this all about control? Laurie Penny, an active feminist says: “Seeing another person as meat and fat and bone and nothing else gives you power over them, if only for an instant. Structural sexual objection of women draws that instant out into an entire matrix of hurt. It tells us that women are bodies first, idealised, subservient bodies, and men are not.”
Shirley Chrisholm, the first black woman to be elected to the United States Congress said: “The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says: It’s a girl”.
Of all persons safeguarding social norms, perhaps devout followers of different religions are most prone to objectifying females. From primitive and pagan ideologies to divine revelations, somehow or the other, women occupy a centre stage in terms of obligations, restrictions and controversies. Strangely, ones that claim holding women in high esteem as devis (goddesses), mothers and paragons of chastity, appear more susceptible to mistreating, violating, condemning and then discarding them as pariahs and if this is not the situation, then they become focus of ogling and/or mudslinging. Female population of Pakistan is still wreaking from the effects of the infamous series of laws including Hudood Ordinances and Qanun-e-Shahadat (Law of Evidence Order) promulgated in 1979 by a so-called religious dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq that codified women’s status as subordinate, relegating them to an inferior position rendering their testimony to half the weight of a man in certain circumstances. The laws make it difficult for sexual assault victims to seek redress through courts as they are tagged guilty of engaging in illegal sex.
Adding insult to injury, laws governing compensation and retribution in crimes involving bodily injury, including ‘honour’ killings were introduced to replace time-tested penal codes that declared murder as crime against the state; and subjecting prohibited sexual activities including rape, to different evidentiary standards and punishments. Till today, many rape victims are languishing in jails while their perpetrators remain free. Families of women who were raped and killed receive qisas (retribution)and diyat (blood money) under the Qisas and Diyat Ordinance,1990 from their murderers as the state is no longer on the side of victims. If this is not sexual objectification of women, then what is it?
United States of America is a country known for its liberal society and as per George W. Bush Jr., freedom regarded with jealousy by citizens of other countries but strangely, its attitude towards women is not much different when it comes to religious ideology. CBC presented the case of Mara Louk, a student at the Christian Visible Music College in Memphis, Tennessee who was choked and raped by a class-mate. She reported the matter to the school authorities hoping they would assist her in taking the matter to the police but they instead accused her of breaking school rules against premarital sex with someone other than her offender and threatened to expel her unless she signed a confession. The college administrators also told her that they would not remove the accused nor conduct Title IX investigation (Title IX requires universities to take immediate action upon receiving notice of sexual assault or sexual harassment). The religious garb of the institution prevented it from admitting a malaise that could jeopardize its reputation.
When and how will sexual objectification of women end, are perplexing questions especially for those females who endear religion because for them it is the only moral code of conduct suitable for the human society. Be that as it may, if these things continue, they can have detrimental effects on them, forcing them to seek refuge in ideologies that promise to provide equality and security as far as their rights are concerned unless societal stalwarts rise up to support their cause with complete honesty and sincerity.
The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), member Advisory Board and Senior Visiting Fellow of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE)