Girls at Dhabas and the Politics of Dissent

Recently came across this interesting image from the very middle-class environs of Mini-Market in Lahore, through rather celebratory tweets and posts on the Pakistani social media sphere.  The captions on the wall read ‘Freedom for All’ in Urdu with a broader script reading ‘fearless’, though its not overly clear if the intended message seeks ‘freedom’ for women to pass time leisurely or the ‘freedom’ for their images to appear publicly , or if the act of posting the graffiti itself is ‘fearless’ and if the images of the women in it are being shown as being fearless. Any which way the odd juxtaposition of these young, seemingly Westernized women  with a group of obviously under-privileged children came through as oddly out of place and an uncomfortable exercise of bringing something private into the public, a reaction that the painters are possibly aiming for. These images were painted across various cities in Pakistan as a part of the Fearless Pakistan campaign as a collaboration with the larger group Girls At Dhabas (GAD), started by a small group of young, urban, educated and affluent women in cities like Karachi, Lahore , Islamabad and Pindi. In the following days the idea behind this image became clear with the announcement of the Meet to Sleep campaign taking place in Pakistan, again at the behest of the GAD.

If the GAD and its collaborative umbrella groups’ members want to reclaim public spaces for women, more power to them. However rather than being a site of dissent, what this image captures looks more like a space of subversive spectacle. In what ways do the ideas of ‘women taking siestas in public spaces to reclaim them’ or the public images of women casually lounging around town become  vehicles of empowerment? Of course they attract attention, but are they getting the right message across? Will taking public naps or pasting these images publicly around town actually allow the young women of GAD to ‘reclaim’ public spaces? There is no dearth of commercial posters showcasing female fashion models in all kinds of poses, featured in every part of every city of Pakistan. By the same logic, given the large presence of these commercial advertisements with female models, women should have reclaimed public spaces in Pakistan a very long time ago. I sincerely admire the spirit and the underlying thought behind these efforts, however these approaches seem very problematic and superficial to say the least. Adding snazzy captions to such campaigns and images claiming ‘freedom for women’ may not bring freedom or agency in any real sense of the word but in a farcical way may end up objectifying women much in the same way as the commercial entertainment world does, an end which the GAD is  hopefully not working towards. Continue reading

‘Twitterization’ of Pakistan’s Digital Public Sphere

Demonstrators in San Francisco, USA show solidarity with protesters in Egypt, February 2011. Photo by Steve Rhodes (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Given the array of online communication tools which facilitate informal and instantaneous sharing,  internet users in Pakistan are proactively shaping media flows  and personalizing social media platforms to better serve their interests, increasingly for political uses.  Consequently the ‘twitterization’ or ‘a high level of politicization on social media forums’ (Chang-Chang 2012: 45 ), can be readily witnessed across the digital media in Pakistan. Such politicization of the digital sphere is not consciously  organized but id mostly inadvertent.  Because uncertainty is a governing feature of political and social existence in Pakistan, the eagerness for constant official and unofficial political updates and discussion is one of it’s most apparent symptoms.  This is so possibly because  social digital networks can have ‘agentative political implications’ for people individually and collectively even if they self-consciously ‘place themselves out of institutional politics’ (Castells 2012: 193).

 

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Anatomy of Internet User Population in Pakistan’s Digital Public Sphere

In terms of representation only 14.6% (or 16.8%) people have access to the internet. Out of a population of 190 million, 30 million people use the internet , so that almost I in 10 Pakistanis is an internet user.[1] According to reports Pakistan has the highest growth rate for internet usage in the South Asian region at 186%, with broadband subscriptions having doubled over the last two years.[2]  While in 2000 there were   133,900 Internet users in Pakistan, the number has now reached  29,128, 970  in 2015. [3] This number is expected to rise with people increasingly accessing the internet through mobile phone devices , which almost 89% Pakistanis have access to presently. Given this information it seems likely that the digital sphere will play an important role for socialization in Pakistan. Continue reading