The Joy of Being a Social Commentator
On acting as an “authority” on current issues and a decoder of Pakistani society.
I recently spoke to the BBC about a controversy currently buzzing across Pakistani airwaves: As part of a special Ramadan program earlier this month a television host gave away a newborn orphan to a childless couple. At the time, nobody in Pakistan raised much of an eyebrow at the show until my friend Rob Crilly, an Islamabad correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, wrote about it. Then the story went viral, spreading around the world—to tabloids in the UK, Australia, Canada, Turkey, Israel, Denmark, Norway…
- Pakistan is a country of contradictions – full of promise for growth, modernity and progress, yet shrouded by political, social and cultural issues that undermine its quest for identity and integrity. My bi-monthly column “Pakistan Unveiled” presents stories that showcase the Pakistani struggle for freedom of expression, an end to censorship, and a more open and balanced society.
- Bina Shah is a Karachi-based journalist and fiction writer and has taught writing at the university level. She is the author of four novels and two collections of short stories. She is a columnist for two major English-language newspapers in Pakistan, The Dawn and The Express Tribune, and she has contributed to international newspapers including The Independent, The Guardian, and The International Herald Tribune. She is an alumnus of the International Writers Workshop (IWP 2011).
The show in question is very popular: Companies and charities fall over themselves to donate household goods, cars, and even plots of land to be given away to needy people in acts of generosity during Ramadan. The baby-giving stunt was ostensibly meant to educate people about the plight of abandoned female infants, often thrown into garbage heaps by parents who don’t want them. However, it was obvious that the real intention was to raise the stakes in the desperate competition for high ratings and advertising money.
Rob Crilly asked me to comment on the spectacle for his story, so I did: “It just speaks to the commercialization of everything in Pakistani society, including religion… And this giving-away-a-baby stunt on television was the worst violation of media ethics I can think of,” I said.
When news outlets around the world picked up the story, my name was suddenly everywhere. The BBC rang me twice, seeking my insight on the story for two separate radio programs. When they asked me how I’d like to be introduced, I said, “Call me Bina Shah, writer.” But when I was introduced on the second show, the host presented me as “Bina Shah, author and social commentator.”
That title was a new one to me. It surprised me, even though I’ve been writing op-eds, editorials, and opinionated blog posts from Pakistan for the past four years. Editors at local newspapers here regularly email or tweet me requesting blog posts about current news topics. I agree to do some and refuse to do other, more ridiculous, ones. I have written editorials on issues as important as the backlash against Malala Yousufzai and blogs on issues as inconsequential as the controversy over a photograph of a Muslim woman in a burqa holding up a bra.
Intrigued by the new moniker attributed to what I’d always thought of as part of my job as a writer, I looked up the phrase “social commentator” and found a few different definitions online. Here’s one of my favorites:
“A social commentator is someone who explores the issues of the day and can note connections between politics, sociology, economics. You put forward your opinion of the meaning of these connections either through the media (e.g. through a column) or writing books. Generally, you do this to bring attention to a particular social issue or problem.”
So there is an official title for what I thought was just getting really annoyed about a certain situation or event, writing about why it annoyed me, what it meant for Pakistani society, and how it should be corrected or ameliorated! This came as a relief, because I had feared I might be perceived as bossy, overbearing, or irritatingly opinionated.
But it looks like I’m in good company as a social commentator; almost all writers, including Plato, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Mark Twain have been social commentators in their time. Nobody needs real qualifications to be a social commentator: In the age of digital media, everyone who has a computer, an Internet connection, and a Twitter account, blog, or Facebook page can spout their opinions for public consumption.
The funny thing about this is that after you express your opinions for a while, you reach a tipping point: People start seeing you as some sort of authority on a variety of topics, no matter how unqualified you may be to comment on them. My developing specialty seems to be giving insight into the Pakistani mindset, especially in order to explain behavior that seems irrational or unfathomable to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, that includes nearly 90 percent of anything having to do with Pakistan that makes it to the headlines. I think the next time anyone asks me how I want to be introduced, I’m going to request they just call me “Bina Shah, Interpreter of Crazy.”
It will certainly make for an interesting business card.