On Newsweak Pakistan and the Twitwits that run it

After the Fasih Ahmed debacle, in which he tweeted a series of demeaning, ugly, misogynist tweets about the Zainab rape and murder two days ago, real-life consequences have hit the beleaguered editor of Newsweek Pakistan.

The tweets purported to express what Ahmed and his supporters called, in turns, ‘dark humor’, ‘sarcasm’, and ‘anger’ at society’s attitudes towards child abuse. However, they left most of Pakistani Twitter confused, offended, and upset, wondering if Ahmed was actually condoning child rape, when he produced gems such as ‘sometimes it leads to great art. So there’s also that.’

This, we were supposed to know, was a reference to the crimes of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. In fact it was a reference so oblique that it escaped most people, although I’d be hard-pressed to know precisely which of their films achieved greatness because they had raped or molested children. A small minority of people defended Ahmed and his tweets, but the reaction for the most part was one of outrage and shock that anyone could, as Girls at Dhabas put it, turn the heinous crime of rape and murder against women or children into a “sick stand-up act”.

After last year’s Lahore Literary festival star Mona Eltahawy confronted Ahmed about his tweets (Ahmed is on the board of the LLF, which along with Newsweek Pakistan, is known to be a family concern), he insulted the color of her hair and her feminism, and said worse to another detractor (I won’t repeat the insult here). Alyssa Milano, the American actress who has been at the forefront of the #MeToo movement, then tweeted about Ahmed’s Twitter rampage, and tagged Newsweek. People who were demanding that Newsweek fire Ahmed didn’t realize that Newsweek Pakistan operates under a licensing agreement. At any rate, Newsweek clarified its position vis-a-vis Newsweek Pakistan, distanced itself from Ahmed and the content of his tweets, and said it would be reviewing said agreement.

At about the same time that people were calling for a boycott of Newsweek Pakistan and the LLF, the news hit the international press. The Business Insider piece was followed by a piece today from Breitbart News about the debacle. (Breitbart is banned in Pakistan but I’ve read the piece and it isn’t pretty: “The editor-in-chief of Newsweek Pakistan has issued a series of tweets minimising child sexual abuse and making lewd comments to female critics.”).

Ahmed then issued an apology, saying that he was ‘angry’ about people’s attitudes towards child sexual abuse in Pakistan, and that anger produced those tweets. He also ‘recused’ himself from the board of the LLF, which isn’t the same as resigning, which also isn’t the same as being fired. No news yet about any writers who might be boycotting the LLF because of his rant.

Of course, Zainab’s murder, and the murder of 8 other girls in Kasur, should provoke rage in all of us. But that rage must be channeled into positive action, not destructive tweets which can be misconstrued as whitewashing the severity of the crimes. Regardless of Ahmed’s intent behind those tweets, it was irresponsible to say the least — not to mention insulting to the memory of Zainab and Asma and every other child that suffers abuse in Pakistan.

Pakistani men have long been able to get away with their sexism and misogyny; the powerful and rich even more so. We have to put a stop to this. There must be consequences for this behavior. Otherwise nothing in our society will change.

Perhaps Ahmed thought he was speaking for the victims, giving voice to the voiceless. But I’m reminded of what Judge Acquilina kept saying last night again and again, during the sentencing of disgraced pedophile doctor Larry Nassar: “This is not my story to tell. This is their (the victims’) story to tell.” Compare her desire to not even speak for fear of co-opting victims  to the utter self-righteousness and authority with which some of us are placing ourselves at the center of Zainab’s story.

Given that Ahmed comes from a very affluent family, a more appropriate reaction would be to put some of that sizable family fortune into funding organizations or programs that help survivors of child sexual abuse. As for Ahmed’s apology, it’s totally unacceptable, I’m afraid. What Ahmed should write is an op-ed for Newsweek Pakistan about why what he tweeted was offensive, misogynistic, and completely wrong. And that better be the last op-ed he ever writes again.

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