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The invisible girls
Publication Date : 09-03-2013
“The Quaid-e-Azam is dead. Long live Pakistan”. “Pakistan wins the world cup.” Flipping through old newspapers (one of the fringe benefits of working for an English daily) is like rifling through a time capsule; seeing the past unfold before your eyes. Moments of glory, of pain, humiliation; the long-past agony and the ecstasy all come alive with each black and white headline. But perhaps even more fascinating than the headlines are the advertisements.
As a child of the Zia era, I am amazed to see ads for nightclubs - featuring pen and ink sketches of scantily dressed women - and a plethora of invitations to New Year parties at the many, many hotels in the city. Obviously, the Land of the Pure was a very different place back in the day.
Which makes me wonder, what will people who see our advertisements 40 years down the road, make of our life and times? They will see that we are obsessed with fair skin and marriage; that it is normal for men to barge into a stranger’s home and clean their toilet and for women to spend all their time trying to remove stains from their family’s laundry.
But what do our children do?
A lot and more has been written about the way women are depicted in the media - both in advertising as well as TV shows, in their capacity as talk show hosts, etc. There will be those who tell you that the media reflects society; it does not shape the norms and mores, it merely caters to them. Thus, skin fairness products sell because society places a premium on fair skin. Women are shown doing laundry because that is the norm in most of the households across the country - no matter that the woman is also juggling a career and a family of five.
Be that as it may, there is an even more disturbing trend emerging in our advertising; the trend of the (nearly) invisible girl child.
Pick a Pakistani ad. Any ad. If it features a child, chances are that it will be a boy. A boy brushing his teeth or washing his hands with antibacterial soap. A boy drinking milk and going on to win a hurdle race the next day. A boy eating chips or margarine and winning a cricket match (yes, seriously!)
It’s the boys who make their clothes dirty and then help their mom (or grandma) to clean them by ‘giving hands to the machine!’ It’s the boys who climb the jungle gym at the playground and ride a bicycle to school. It’s a boy who proudly promises his mother that he will win ‘first position.’
So what do the girls do? Mostly, they don a duppata in Ramazan and wheel out a trolley of iftar goodies to the menfolk of the family as mom watches approvingly from the kitchen.
Now that’s not to say that ads do not feature girls. There’s a girl in a frozen foods campaign, another one talking to her grandfather in an ad for a cellphone service provider. There are even ads featuring girls who achieve a goal - even if it’s something like landing the role of lead ballerina in the school concert. Point is, if the ad calls for a single child, it’s usually a boy. If the ad calls for a child playing a sport or being physically fit - it’s a boy. If an ad calls for a child to show courage and initiative - you guessed it, it’s almost always a boy!
Sadly, this is not a reflection of the norms of society; it is a highly subjective perception of reality that a segment of society chooses to embrace. The images they bombard us with, over time, take root in our subconscious; even worse, they may serve as a blueprint to what your child believes is his or her role in life.
An end to gender stereotypes is perhaps a lofty aim for a people who still blame a woman if she gets harassed, molested or worse. But the least we can do is give girls as much screen time as boys. Perhaps then, more than half of our future generation won’t grow up feeling invisible.
Shagufta Naaz is a Dawn staffer