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What the backlash against Arooj Aurangzeb says about our society

What the backlash against Arooj Aurangzeb says about our society

Momina Khan

Before the Student Solidarity March was set to take place in Pakistan on the 29th of November, the video of a female supporter of the movement went viral on social media-spreading misinformation and propaganda. More than one month after the march, we ask why the backlash was so strong and which factors caused our society to react so harshly.

A reflection of society

The backlash received by Arooj Auranzeb for mobilising people to participate in the student solidarity march at the Faiz International Festival inadvertently demonstrated the internal workings of our society. Why is it that a girl’s voice was able to cause ripples in the very fabric of our society?

Was it because it somehow threatens our society’s patriarchal structure?

Arooj Aurangzeb is a political activist and a theatre performer. On Faiz International festival, a video of her passionately chanting a Hindu poet- Bismil Azimabadi’s verse from his poem, “Sarfaroshi ki tamanna abh humaare dil mein hai‘ was leaked after which it went viral.

In the video, she was seen to be wearing a leather jacket and fearlessly singing to the verse. Alongside her, there were male students and another female student, Mohiba Ahmed-a student of Government College, Lahore. Mohiba also received a considerable amount of criticism but the main focus remained on Arooj.

One question that arises is, why was Arooj criticised so strongly while Mohiba was not? The only difference between the two was their clothes; Mohiba was in a hijab. Where as Arooj was in a completely different attire and had robustly adorned a leather jacket-rhythmically chanting slogans of Habib Jalib’s poetry along with that of the Hindu poet.

Instead of society paying heed to what the two women were saying, they were reduced to and judged on what they were wearing; and it is from that fact alone that society drew its opinion.

The Habib Jalib slogan was, “Dartay hain bandooko wale aik nihati ladki se’ – a poem that Habib Jalib had written for Benazir Bhutto and the military men

The anti establishment poem described the military men as cowards for being terrified of an un armed woman clad in a dupatta. Initially this poem was written for Benazir Bhutto after her return to Pakistan during the Zia regime, but it has also been used several times in Malala’s context.

However, the point is that it outwardly threatened the power of the establishment and hence, masculinity. It directly questioned the repercussions of living under an oppressive state regime and directly addressing the state and the government for the promises that they had made.

But no one who watche the video saw the passion and the thought behind the act. All they saw was a woman chanting while wearing a leather jacket, which they dubbed a symbol of elitism

Arooj was targeted for her ‘leather jacket’, people claimed it to be a symbol of the elite class; a stereotype that in itself is rooted in layers of misogyny. Firstly, why is there a presumption that only ‘elite’ women have the power to speak up for their rights? Secondly, are men reaffirming the fact that it is a man’s world, hence, only the women who are part of the system have the privilege to state their needs? In a sense, the backlash was an unabashed and unashamed display of economic power and male privilege.

In time, the claim of her being ‘elitist’ was dismissed when it was evident that Arooj belonged to a middle class background, studied at the Punjab University and currently teaches at a School to support for family. When she spoke in Punjabi in an interview, the farcical narrative of her belonging to the upper class came crashing down. But this is when society started cooking up more conspiracies about her.

The spread of conspiracy theories

Arooj was accused of being anti-Pakistan and a foreign agent who supports Pashtun Tahafuz Movement. Despite numerous interviews for social webpages and media channels in which she denied these claims she still continued to receive backlash.

Facing the aftermath of society’s harsh response

On the day of the Student Solidarity March 2019-Arooj was no where to be seen. Despite the attempts of many people to look for her in the crowd in the midst of robust slogan chanting, she was no where to be found.

“Laal laal lehraye ga- toh hosh tikhaane ayega,” chanted impassioned students as they marched for their rights. But a question many people ended up asking was: where is Arooj Auranzeb?

Despite fighting for the march and standing up for their demand for the reinstatement of student unions, she had experienced intolerable social and mental pressure and was unable to physically be present there. The continuous backlash and constant portrayal of an incorrect narrative regarding Arooj took a toll on her mental health.

The socio-cultural implications of backlash on Arooj’s mental health

In trying to understand the socio-cultural implications that made Arooj unable to attend the march, one can draw onto Emile Durkheim’s analysis of “egotistic suicide” and “fatalistic suicide.” Egotistic suicide, emanates from the individual experiencing a long period of isolation and disconnection with the rest of the social groups. In the end, they are left with absolutely no social support.

Fatalistic suicide, occurs when an individual is excessively monitored by the social groups. They are monitored to the extent that they feel claustrophobic; they feel their ambitions and passions are destroyed and there is no connection for them to live. The regulation that she received from the rest of the society pushed her to the periphery where she felt unable to participate.

She experienced a prolonged period of isolation and was given limited social support, accompanied with constant remarks on her physicality. She was pushed to the point where she felt shunned. It is unfortunate to witness that a person who was participating with such vigour could be driven to that point.

This incident should make us wonder, what did a girl speaking for her rights stir inside us to make us spew such hatred?

This makes us question the collective consciousness of our society. Where are we headed? Does anyone trying to deviate from the norm or even daring to bring the marginalised narrative to the surface deserve to be shunned?

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