Othering the Other Woman: Online Shaming Says More About Our Society Than We Think

“Aurat hi aurat ki sab se barri dushman hoti hai” (A woman is a woman’s worst enemy), a casual phrase I think most Pakistanis have grown up hearing. Whether it is in the context of the wife/mother-in-law power struggle; gossip and sabotage at the workplace or familial bonds; and, most notably when a woman has an affair with someone’s “man”. These are diverging intricacies of internalised and systemic patriarchy in all these three scenarios. A mother works her entire life to cement her status in the family as a matriarch with her husband and children. If she isn’t financially independent, that investment in her relational power in the family dynamic becomes even more imperative. When her role swiftly moves from mother to mother-in-law, her status becomes somewhat threatened or precarious and she must keep the power balance by mitigating the daughter-in-law’s power. Women are not given the same resources and opportunities for independence and power, most women grow up with an overwhelming realisation that resources are scarce for them as the patriarchal system keeps them wilfully scarce or under the guise of scarcity. Women in their fight against each other for meagre resources develop a blind side of sorts to reality: if they stopped fighting against one another and rather the patriarchy, there is abundance all around. Internalised misogyny and patriarchal values are perhaps the most pronounced when it comes to matters of the “other woman”, also known as the “home wrecker”, the biggest dushman of an aurat.

Othering is the objectification and marginalisation of another person or group through culture, language and even, rituals and social norms. In these social processes, othering is a process of stigmatization that defines another in a negative or undesirable manner. This comparison of the other is often made in the service of one’s own positive alterior identity. In Pakistan, a woman’s ‘alterior’ identity is that of mother, daughter, wife, sister — identities that can be neatly marked and legalised with relation to men. The “other woman” does not only not fit in to these neat categorisations but is a threat to the very foundation of the alterior’s role and identity. The “other woman” is outside the bounds of conventional social demarcations, she cannot only dismantle a marriage but on a societal scale, shake up the foundations of marriage as an institution.

The past few months in Pakistan have been a testament to the other woman’s capacity to send an entire nation in to a moral and ethical quandary and become a social phenomenon. The viral video of actress Uzma Khan and her sister being physically and orally attacked by the wife of her alleged lover polarised the country. One either believed that the act of online public shaming and naming fit the crime or one was disgusted at the use of violence and decried the judge and jury of the (online) public. This incidence is still shrouded in mystery and I am in no way making a moral judgement on either side, but simply want to analyse the incident to explore how and why internalised patriarchy and intersectionality are at work here especially in a digital context.

Meanwhile, another love triangle (but admittedly, less violent) captured the country’s imagination and rumination, that is of, Syra Yousaf, Shahroz Sabzwari and Sadaf Kanwal. Though both incidents involve speculations and allegations of infidelity, they could not be further apart from the treatment from the parties involved and the public as well. Most online opinion seems to see Syra Yousaf as a saintly figure who graciously exited a marriage that ultimately resulted in her husband marrying the “other woman”, in this case, model Sadaf Kanwal. Again — this article in no way is making moral stances but simply digging deeper in to why the other woman is othered more than the husband when it comes to marital affairs and what this says about us as a society.

While very distinct, in both these public debates, Uzma Khan and Sadaf Kanwal were more ruefully maligned on social media than the men involved in the affairs. Class dynamics and celebrity status also played in to how incidents unfolded and the resulting public reaction. For instance, it is very recently that actresses and models are given due respect in Pakistan. Even less than a decade ago, many actresses and models were rumoured to be “loose women” or women who due to their public persona were akin to prostitutes. A profession most women from “good” backgrounds did not go for. This has definitely changed in recent years with the advent of social media and an in-flux of the young and affluent in to the industry. Kanwal and Yousaf are sought after celebrities and have a certain persona to maintain, it can also be argued that their relative attained class status from their celebrity also bounds them to certain levels of propriety. They are in most ways on a similar class footing but as the other woman, Kanwal’s social standing has been apparently tainted in comparison to Yousaf’s who is seen as the dutiful duped wife. Interestingly, many comparisons cropped up between the two on social media as objects: phones, cars and homes, which speaks volumes to the objectification of women on both sides of the coin: wife and other woman.

In comparison, Amna Usman’s filmed brutalisation of Uzma Khan also speaks to the power differential present, Khan as a more up and coming actress and alleged orphan lacked the social capital that Usman had as is even evidenced that she was supported by Malik Riaz’s daughters. Ironically, many comments on social media identified both Khan and Usman as “gold-diggers”: the former was having the affair for money and the latter made the spectacle to get a hefty settlement. Intersectionality plays a huge role in how the “other woman” is treated and how the aggrieved woman may respond to her and consider how her reaction may colour her own public persona. As Amna Usman is not a public persona, she had little to lose and her response video attests to the fact that she thought it in her right to publicly humiliate the other woman.

“I did what any other woman would have done, wouldn’t you do the same”

“I warned these sisters 3 or 4 times to keep away from my husband, but they didn’t listen, so what was I to do?”

These are some questions posed by Amna Usman in her response video and none of these questions put any accountability on her husband Usman but all on the other woman. This is in no way an exception but the rule when it comes to othering the other woman. In some ways Amna is evoking the “sisterhood” and echoing that a woman’s role as the morality keeper because the affair happens when her husband’s faith was weak and the other woman capitalised on this this instead of setting the philandering husband straight. “Boys will be boys”: this is the singular disrupting notion that women are responsible for mitigating and guiding men’s urges and desires which in fact then makes women gate keepers of patriarchal values and norms.

What is most disturbing is that within this differential power relation is that a voice in the video asks the guards and men who have forcefully entered the premises to “touch the girls (Uzma and her sister) and see if they will sleep with them too”. An unmarried sexually active woman’s body belongs to everyone in our society, she loses her autonomy once she shows her autonomy in a sexual way. This faulty belief that an unmarried sexually active woman will have relations with anyone or that she should be punished through abuse or rape is a vicious and misogynistic view that perpetuates atrocities such as police assaulting women. This is why policies that instate that men and women have to show a “nikkahnama” (marriage certificate) if found alone in public space is a human rights breach.

The Offence of Zina (Enforcement Of Hudood) Ordinance, 1979, puts women to public shame and danger not only legally but in the court of public as well as women are bullied, threatened and even assaulted. Repealing such sexist laws is necessary to protect women’s rights, Women’s Action Forum (WAF) released the following statement condemning the violent acts shown in the Uzma Khan video and demanding the following:

It is not the business of the state to dictate personal choices of the people or impose any laws that proscribe their choices in personal relationships, marriage or lifestyles, wardrobe, choice of religion or method of worship, or where citizens wish to reside or how they wish to communicate or what they want to consume. Instead, the state should focus on upgrading its outdated family laws to include joint ownership of assets at the time of marriage and specify a clear formula for maintenance and equality in child custody in case of divorce. Matters of ‘infidelity’ should be of no concern to anyone except the parties involved.

Though the public shaming or othering of the other woman is not unique to Pakistan in any way, as infidelity is a matter of legal action, this is an instituted way of policing sexuality and autonomy, especially that of a woman. In Indonesia, the other woman is called “Pelakor” which is a sexist discursive term and social media shaming and Instagram accounts are dedicated to this practice. This practice is alive and well in “developed” countries such as the USA, Canada and the UK as well, meaning patriarchy and sexism are also alive and well in countries we deem more gender balanced and equal than ours. Websites like Cheaterville, The DirtyShes or AHomewrecker.com (whose founder is a woman) are all open sharing websites to publicly ridicule offending other women. These websites and social media pages share a scary wrath reminiscent to revenge porn where by jilted lovers and rejected courters put up real or doctored nude images of women. The difference this time? A jilted woman is doing it and has chosen to make the other woman the target instead of the man. Again, by being labeled as a sexual or relational deviant by society, women lose autonomy over her privacy and body and is ridiculed, her body is a site of revenge.

Social media and the internet while can be effective and wonderfully mobilising modes of connection for women’s rights as evidenced by movements such as #MeToo, they are also integral cogs in the machine of the patriarchy and internalised misogyny. Researcher Shuri Mariasih Gietty Tambunan states, “Public shaming has entered a new realm of “a digitally convergent, visually mediated, and (more) participatory media-sphere” enhancing its problematic nature especially in relation to the imbalanced power relation in the patriarchal ideology.”

Before singly maligning and othering the other woman, for a society to evolve to protect women in cultures prone to slut and sex shaming, we must reflect and realise that the stigmatization of the Other Woman is reflecting power imbalances. When women criticize and blame ‘other women’ rather than unfaithful men, “heterosexual male privilege is both instantiated by and disguised as power struggles between women” (p. 412). Online public shaming, be it a video or a clankering of public opinion online, tries to pit women against each other: wife and mistress, good and evil, winner or loser. However, as the video involving Uzma Khan and Amna Usman showed, neither are winners or losers but both lost by making a spectacle. We must be more aware of how what we see, say or put online reflects on us as a society and remember that shame is not an objective truth but a subjective social construct used to police and control. These incidences of scandal and salacious controversy are not present for our entertainment but a microcosm in to how the larger systems, institutions, orders and beliefs work in our society. It is easy to Other others when a tiny snapshot of their life and choices are present on your mobile screen but another thing to dig deeper in to our epistemological recesses and ask: why does this offend me? Why do I think this is wrong or right? Maybe then we can build a society that is self-reflexive rather than vacuously voyuerist. It is only then that we move forward as a society to unpack the complexity of marital relationships and infidelity and instate laws that protect women and families during such a crisis.

Sociologist, writer, anxious hypochondriac waxing lyrical. Believes in the power of critical analysis and pizza to unite against oppressive forces.