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Heckling, Comebacks and Feminists!

by Ejaz Haider
File Photo. Aamir Qureshi—AFP

File Photo. Aamir Qureshi—AFP

Parliamentarians, men or women, can’t expect to have their cake and eat it, too.

Khawaja Asif, our part-time minister of defense, has regretted some of his remarks prompted, as his letter to the speaker of the House mentions, by “hacklers [sic!] from across the aisle.”

His letter is likely to redeem his behavior until, one hopes, there’s another such occasion to which Khawaja sahib shall rise again, as do certain others.

Khawaja sahib’s current state of redemption aside, there are three broad issues here informed by some questions: what does the term ‘unparliamentary’ in contrast to ‘parliamentary’ mean? If, as is generally understood, unparliamentary refers to behavior or language that violates parliamentary norms and procedures, then it is safe to assume that the conduct within Parliament must strictly adhere to those norms and procedures. In which case, as should be obvious, one has to determine the dialectic between heckling and a comeback. Put another way, if a comeback or a putdown that follows heckling is considered unparliamentary, should heckling not be considered such too? Surely, an effect follows a cause. Can effect alone be condemned? Or is it about proportionality?

Finally, within the framework of our discussion, would the reaction (and disgust) be the same if Khawaja sahib had delivered his ‘tractor-trolley’ comeback to a male member of the House?

Let’s consider.

Parliaments run on the basis of rules and norms. In the British parliament, norms set the rules too. In other such houses, rules are clearly laid down and their practice, over a long period of time, is supposed to develop norms of behavior. Going by this, a minister should be allowed to speak without interruption and the opposition can then grind him by presenting its own case. Both sides, however, going by a strict interpretation of the rules, must stay away from heckling, personal attacks, quips, barbs and comebacks. It should all be sanitary and rule-bound.

But that’s not how it happens, not even in the mother of parliaments. This is how a Jan. 20, 2016 article, looking at heckling in the Canadian parliament, opens up: “When he was elected Speaker on Dec. 3, Liberal M.P. Geoff Regan gamely told the chamber: ‘I will not tolerate heckling. We do not need it.’

“For that, he was summarily heckled.”

An article in The Guardian, dated April 28, 2006, captioned, A Brief History of Heckling, spoke about timing and distinguished a “verbal rapier” from “organized verbal assault”, the latter grounded in “anger, not wit; abuse, not tempered outrage; a blunt instrument, not a rapier.” The article goes on to say that “The key to good heckling is timing, and there is no better hecklers’ forum than the House of Commons, where a well-timed heckle can destroy a speech.”

But if heckling—the rapier-style one, not the ugly, dimwitted assault—comes, can a comeback be far behind? As the story goes, “the great 18th-century troublemaker John Wilkes was heckled by a man who cried: ‘Vote for you? I’d sooner vote for the Devil.’ To which Wilkes replied, ‘And what if your friend is not standing?’”

There are countless other examples of ugly heckling, the rapier and the equally sharp comebacks. No parliament can be without them, rules or no rules. People don’t like too much sanity and sanitation. It’s like the bawdy in Shakespeare. Take it out, bowdlerize him and you lose the flavor. The pit, with its bear-baiting, ale-drinking, raucous crowd was as important as the high-borns in the gallery.

In which case, to expect the Punjabi burlesque in Khawaja Asif to not rise to the challenge of organized verbal assault would be to expect the picaro to not be peripatetic. And we all know, not just on the good authority of Cervantes but also my good friend Salman the Rashid that that is not possible. You could sooner get the women in the medieval pub to settle down as wives than get Salman to be static! So it is with the tongue of our part-time defense minister.

And if, by now, we have determined that parliamentary is not always parliamentary—oh, the charms of combative wit!—and if we have also argued that an effect must, as the law of reciprocity goes, be causally contextualized, then we must come to the idea of proportionality and the question of how the “tractor-trolley” comment would have unfolded if the good Khawaja had targeted a man.

It seems to me that, short of an expletive and Khawaja physically pouncing on someone, a juggat can be determined to be fairly proportional to heckling by a raucous opposition. But this is where we are pushed into dangerous waters by women determining his remark to be sexist and unparliamentary because it was directed at a woman parliamentarian. In other words, going strictly by the syllogistic reasoning by women, many of whom are dear friends, it is not so much about what inheres in the remark, but the intended target of it that matters.

And because I expect much what-aboutery here, of which women are as much fraught with as the rightwing maulvis, let me present an example: suppose that a female member of the house from the opposition called Abid Sher Ali a bhaand or New Khan ka horn, chances are that women on social media, currently fulminating, would not only find the barb welcome but would greatly help in spreading it. As it is, I have seen memes ‘celebrating’ the Punjabi color in Mr. Sher Ali. Of course, no one ever calls a woman putting down a man as sexist!

My point here is twofold: one, I have heard much pejorative name-calling from the PTI and equally Punjabi responses from the PMLN. Two, women cannot on the one hand call for equal rights and opportunities and then also demand that they be treated like ladies with uppercase ‘L’. As hardcore feminists argue, manners make men. There was a time when chivalry was alive and men would extend courtesies to women. But that was also the time when women read Deputy Nazir Ahmed’s Mira’t-ul Uroos and carried in their dowry Bahishtee Zaivar.

Since those days are gone and women can and want to shout like men and generally compete with men in every way, mentionable and unmentionable, they cannot have their cake and eat it.

The great achievement and failure of feminism and its multiple waves is that it has pulled the women down from the gallery into the Elizabethan pit. And once you are in the pit, you are with the louts. Take it or lump it!

Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider 

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect, in part or whole, those held by Newsweek Pakistan.

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