The very beautiful Mahira Khan has been “caught” by some nosey parker smoking a cigarette with an Indian actor in New York recently. They both look rumpled and tired, as one is when you’re probably jetlagged and exhausted. You can’t smoke inside most places in America now, so they have obviously stepped out for a quick smoke before heading back in. In any other universe this would be so boring and ordinary that nobody would care except for a few tabloids, but since this is Pakistan we care so much and so deeply about everything idiotic under the sun, and so let’s ignore our Chinese colonization and jihadis and Trump’s administration breathing down our necks and go wild because a woman—an independent, self-made, adult—is smoking!
It’s tiresome now. It’s almost downright boring the way everyone must completely lose their minds policing women. Doesn’t the patriarchy and all its minions ever get tired of constantly being on the lookout for some renegade woman doing something wrong so they can pounce? It must be like being in a Beckett play, perpetually waiting for a Godot of Moral Perfection that never comes, because the first part of being a decent human being is to not think badly of others, or speak ill of them. You judge someone for being a fast, terrible person but in passing that judgment, you become a terrible person yourself for presuming your morality is superior to someone else’s. Why is this so difficult to comprehend? It’s not the deepest logical conundrum. My eight year old understands this, but that is probably because I took the trouble to explain the concept to her and most of the people who use the internet are like the troll that lived under the bridge the in the children’s story—ill-mannered, always looking to pick a fight and eat a goat.
Why does the sight of a woman smoking inspire such horror? I’m genuinely curious. We come from cultures where women have smoked hookahs for centuries. I’m fairly certain opium pipes were passed around and beedis puffed at just as frequently. When did smoking become the sign of the devil? There is a man, also smoking, but nobody minds that—it’s only the cigarette in the woman’s hand that signifies a fast, loose woman who has besmirched our national face. But this same national face is also descended from at least one hookah-smoking, tobacco-laced paan-chewing grandmother, who could also deliver one round clout to the same face if she heard us talking the smack we do now. Can you imagine someone telling your grandmother she was a bad woman because of her hookah and living to tell the tale?
Some people think celebrities have no right to privacy because fame implies courting a public gaze, but there is a difference between posting photos on Instagram or posing for paparazzi on a red carpet and having your photo taken unawares, and without your permission. If Khan had known someone was watching, maybe she wouldn’t have had a smoke (because all desi women know the Ghairat Brigade only needs an excuse to unleash the kraken). But she was just minding her own business one evening and someone took her picture, and because she is a woman and she was wearing a little sundress suddenly there is a scandal. As far as photos go, I wonder where our outrage, shock and horror go when we see photos of Hazara parents carrying their dead children, or the photo of Sharoon Masih who was murdered in July by his peers, or dirt-poor Rohingya refugees who live in slums in Karachi. These are genuinely shocking, gut-wrenching realities of our lives as Pakistanis. But at the end of the day, nothing is as absorbingly delightful as lambasting a woman for a transgression, real or imagined. Seventeen year olds being incited to murder by their teacher is small fry when there are women out there, just waiting to be ground into the dirt for the sins of their short hair or short shirts or taking the bus or just standing around not doing anything.
We live in a world where there are thousands of people ever-ready to issue death threats and acid attack threats online, to dox us, to send us dirty photos we didn’t ask for, to make us uncomfortable at work and unsafe outside. In any fight, in any conflict, in any scandal if there’s a woman involved then that’s where all the venom will go no matter what the man did. In the whole impeachment scandal in the US in the nineties, who came out worse—the President of the United States, married with a child, who was cheating on his wife, or the twenty-something, single and gullible intern he dallied with? In this episode, does anyone even care whether Ranbir Kapoor is even in the photo? The man could have been standing on his head wearing drag and nobody would have batted an eyelid because there was a woman there too, and the woman is always the primary target. Nobody genuinely cares about the safety and honour of women, but the language of policing always pretends it does. We talk about honour in the same breath as murder, so what’s a cigarette? I don’t smoke, but today I’m going to in solidarity with all the women who aren’t throwing acid on anyone’s face, who aren’t assaulting younger men, who aren’t getting paid more money for less work, who aren’t swaggering around like they own the universe: just sitting on a stoop, minding their own business, getting on with life.
The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.