Living on the fringes
Every time I am at the stop sign of a traffic signal or am sitting in the car at Khadda market, which is a so-called elite bazaar in the high-end neighbourhood of this metropolis I belong to, I observe a social trend that disturbs me. This area is teeming with eunuchs for some reason; I see them knocking at the car windows of every car that passes by in hope of some money. But it is not the eunuchs that I am commenting on right now, much as I accept both prostitution and beggary as social evils – I am commenting on the reactions of the elite and the educated.
A mocking laugh, a turning away of the face, a sneer, a scandalised look. Is this because we disagree to the means of earning that they have chosen? Or is it simply because the binary division of genders is so entrenched in us that gender non-conformity is a sin that we find worthy of punishment? The result? Even if, rarely so, a transgender does attempt to opt for an education or a career choice of considerable normalcy, the society does not accept it. We do not accept a transgender as a mathematics teacher, an accountant, as a household help or a chauffeur. A transgender, in simple words, is out of the boxes we have divided society into.
And this is not true for transgenders only. We find perverse comfort in dividing society into compartments. Anyone outside the compartment has a hard time feeling normal, even though they might not be ostracised openly. As a writer who is interested in people and their rights, my research and observation has often led me to real life stories I wish I did not have to encounter.
I observe marginalisation in blatant as well as understated ways. According to Wikipedia’s definition, “In sociology, marginalization, or marginalisation (British), is the social process of becoming or being made marginal… Being marginalised refers to being separated from the rest of the society, forced to occupy the fringes and edges and not to be at the centre of things. Marginalised people are not considered to be a part of the society. (Arko Koley, 2010)”
How we perceive religion leads us to judge and then, accept or reject people on the basis of what is OUR version of an ideal society. Even within the framework of Islam, we often find people marginalising those belonging to another school of thought. What to then say of those belonging to another religion? Renowned writer and journalist Zofeen Ebrahim is particularly disturbed by this. “I feel when people are discriminated on the basis of religion and then punished for it, it is a disturbing trend and indicates that society is veering towards extremism and bigotry,” says Ebrahim. We live in a society which does not only see a person wearing a cross or a bindi in a certain light and often refuses to accept them, but also will judge a person with a beard or a hijab in a pre-conceived way. When the trend of extremism catches on, it starts working both ways.
The most common example of marginalisation, world over, is on the basis of discrimination people face on the basis of caste, creed and financial standing. In rural Pakistan, even now the first question is about the caste someone belongs to. In certain parts of the country, certain communities have distinct physical features and this results is in serious discrimination. We assume that our ethnic group, community, province and language have an edge over others, and so the prejudice sets in. The result is obvious when Pakistan goes to the polls or when the average Pakistani chooses a suitable match for their son or daughter – anyone outside the box is not welcome.
While we may have our sympathies with them, there is very little empathy society shows when it comes to a special child or a disabled person. People still fear special kids. Perhaps we fear everything that we do not understand. And so it takes experiencing a loved one having such a condition to understand this. The education strategy for special children is not inclusive at all, although it is encouraged world over. Very few restaurants have ramps, wheel chairs and washrooms for the disabled. They do not readily get jobs and cannot drive around comfortably. Generally, they are expected to stay at home and not mingle in society.
Marginalisation has deeply embedded psychological effects on people. Counselor Asma Pal says that “social scientists have been investigating the impact of marginalisation for the last two decades and suggest that it can trigger a range of negative emotions and reactions in people. The psychological effects of these symptoms are a sad and gloomy outlook on life in general and an aggravated sense of injustice. Identity issues, loss of self-esteem, depression, anger, isolation, inability to cope with real life situations and a loss of motivation are some of the problems that may arise.”
Social stigmas like being a widow, a divorcee or the child of a split family causes problems when it comes to social issues like getting married. A man who marries for a second time or a woman who remarries after having been widowed still raises eyebrows, even though religion and law permit this. The most glaring example is when at the time of a mehndi, a widowed or divorcee aunt or friend cannot put henna on the girl’s hand, since it is considered a bad omen.
Personally, I am particularly sensitive to how the elderly are treated. My mother is an elderly person who is old, forgetful, quiet, and is stepping into the twilight zone that brings with it dementia. People often express surprise when we insist on taking her along to restaurants and family get-togethers. I observe that after the formal ‘Assalamualaikum,’ very few treat her and others of her age as normal individuals. Very few take a moment to sit with the elderly and chat with them. The elderly may be old but underneath the wrinkled hands and faces, interesting people still exist, if only we talk to them and have an inclusive attitude towards them. “Sadly, we do marginalise elderly people. We live in an ageist times. We discriminate on age, gender, race, cast, colour, religion etc. You name it, we do it. It’s even done by little kids in school. Sad but true,” says Pal.
Thankfully, there are still an increasing number of people who can look beyond the differences and focus upon the commonalities we have with people. For such people, the limitations are much less when it comes to interacting with others. The world becomes a more tolerant place when we agree to disagree and can disagree with someone yet give them the basic human right of respect and inclusion in society.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.