Haters gonna hate? Sure they are, but that doesn’t mean we can’t drown them out! Maybe it’s up to us to change Pakistan’s toxic online environment.
The internet provides opportunity and amplification to all sorts of extreme viewpoints all over the world but is there any way to take back the narrative? This weekend at PFDC Loreal Bridal Fashion Week, L’Oreal Paris announced Mahira Khan as their official spokesperson for hair care in Pakistan – the first Pakistani to be selected for the role. A simple video of her playing to a highly partisan crowd at the event went viral on my Instagram and attracted all sorts of vile comments.
Around 150,000 people have viewed the video but it’s the 0.1% who chose to comment that stand out. Comments range from ‘slut’ to ‘I hate her’ to the f word, rude Urdu and Punjabi words and even aggressive and suggestive emojis.
Mahira Khan has been Pakistan’s darling ever since the drama serial Humsafar became a superhit but all that changed when, a few weeks ago, pictures of her sharing a smoke with Ranbir Kapoor in New York emerged. Wearing a revealing white cotton dress, she rapidly became the object of a social media pillory, one of a growing band of Pakistani women that the online hoi-polloi loves to spew hate and abuse at.
Of the over 140,000 people who saw the candid Instagram video and the more than 2,000 people ‘liked’ it, it’s the tiny commenting minority who stand out. Yes there are those who have completely changed their opinion of Mahira after “those” photos but there are still many who admire her talent and her beauty. A ‘like’ is not necessarily an endorsement of Mahira but there must be people out there, like me, who feel that her life is her business. It’s a known fact that trolls and naysayers are more likely to comment on the internet but why, in Pakistan, is there such a dearth of positive commenting?
This official video by L’Oreal Paris did get many positive comments
Almost simultaneously the #whytheykneel hashtag was going viral in the US. Colin Kaepernick started a protest movement there to address the issue of institutional targeting of black people. President Trump successfully changed the narrative to one about patriotism and disrespecting the national anthem and flag. This was despite the fact that there’s nothing inherently disrespectful about the peaceful protest, which in fact conforms with the first amendment of the US constitution. #Whytheykneel is an attempt to take back control of the narrative, telling the stories of black people tragically killed by police officers who faced no consequences for their actions.
The #WhyTheyKneel hashtag is an example of how it’s possible to push back. While I’m not suggesting the treatment of Mahira and other celebrities equates to the unlawful killings of black people in the USA, the principle is the same. The silent voices of reason and tolerance need to push back. Even if you’re a minority, push back – write an encouraging comment for Mahira or Malala or Mawra. Let the voices of tolerance and decency be heard. If, on the other hand, you disagree with their life choices that’s your prerogative, but remember you’re the ones using foul language and judging others. That goes in your book of deeds not theirs; there is neither precedent nor justification for rudeness and there is more than a small element of pomposity in moral policing.
The irony of this whole episode is that Mahira talked about rising above hate as she was announced as the L’Oreal Paris Ambassador. She spoke about how L’Oreal Paris not only celebrates the success and beauty of women but also their worth, which goes beyond success and beauty. She encouraged women to have self-esteem and not to listen to nay-sayers and have faith in their own self-worth.
The relative anonymity of the internet encourages and empowers both hate and foul language. It never ceases to amaze me how many people quite freely use swear words and language that they would blush to use in real life. Maybe it’s time to take back the narrative, for those who uphold the same high standards and tolerance online as they do offline to drown out the voices of the trolls and make our webspace a little less toxic.