WHAT do Madonna and Iffat Omar have in common, other than the obvious gender? They were both victims of one of the last taboos that rears its ugly head every now and again: gendered ageism.
Pakistani actor Omar recently took to her YouTube channel to do a round-up of sorts of the week`s news. She used her now trademark humour to discuss PTI leader Imran Khan`s `jail bharo` campaign. As is wont to happen, the formidable PTI social media army descended on Omar and employed its most powerful weapon: ridicule and abuse. Fawad Chaudhry`s wife took to Twitter and said `this is not the age to offer analysis, this is the age to read wazifa.` Others posted images of Omar, from her own social media accounts, without makeup, ostensibly to ridicule her.
Over on the Pacific Coast, seven-time Grammy recipient Madonna came on to stage to present awards to Sam Smith and Kim Petras, non-binary and trans woman artists, respectively. As she praised them for `forging a new path and taking the heat for all of it`, social media was set ablaze by her appearance, which ostensibly looked like the result of lots of cosmetic surgery. Headlines appeared the next day questioning what had happened to her face, and other cruel judgements disguised as jol(es. Society is quick to call out judgement on any group except older folks, whose perennial ridicule is somehow OK. (See the commentary on `sleepy` Joe Biden.) Madonna responded by attacking the ageism and misogyny prevalent in a world `that refuses to celebrate women past the age of 45 and feels the need to punish her if she continues to be strong-willed, hardworking and adventurous`.
In many ways, Madonna and Omar are trailblazers in their battle against ageism.
Social media`s reaction to their outspokenness is a reminder that society expects women to disappear after a certain age.
Omar told me that age was childbearing, because after that, she was of no use. The attacks against her only demonstrate how deep-rooted the misogyny is.
I don`t need to tell you how gendered ageism impacts women`s financial and job security. Broadcast media especially prefers younger women, thereby devaluing experience. According to a 2020 report from the World Economic Forum, it will take women at least 200 years to make up the economic disparity that exists between them and men.
Old age is considered an incurable ailment that renders one incompetent.
An older man is wise, whereas women are called hags. Men with grey hair are sexy, while women are derided for not cov-ering their greys. Maryam Nawaz is often abused as `nani`, which is a slur. It is no wonder that the quest to beat ageing seems filled with urgency. Who benefits from this? Of course, the beauty industry and all supporting actors who profit from the fetishism of youth. According to Euromonitor, the global anti-aging market went from $25 billion in 2016 to nearly $37bn in 2021. Another market insight firm predicts the industry will be worth $120bn by 2030.
`The beauty myth generates low selfesteem for women and high profits for corporations as a result,` writes Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth. It allows men and their institutions to remain in power. It is men, af ter all, that deem housework as not work. Wolf reminds how `the economics of industrialised countries would collapse if women didn`t do the work they do for free`. If housework by married women was paid in the US, family income would rise by 60 per cent, according to Wolf in 1990.
But housework is a woman`s duty or des-tiny. Any woman who steps out of conformity is a threat, especially if she embraces her beauty, her sexuality, her agency; can age and retain control. No one has done that more than Madonna.In 1991, the New York Times described Madonna as a `show business veteran because she has held on for all of eight years` ie, beyond an average pop star`s shelf life. But the 64-year-old has achieved success on her own terms and is planning a celebration tour of her 40 years. Tickets sold out within minutes.
While the ageing process is unstoppable, what should be put to a screeching halt is society`s attitude towards ageing as `an operable condition` writes Wolf.
Women aged 45-plus can be more than mothers and grandmothers in Pakistani drama land. Stop putting an expiry date on what they can do. If Sharif, Khan, Zardari can head parties at 73, 70 and 67, respectively, why only issue `go home` calls to Omar? She`s told me she has no plans to stop anything. I do think the remedy lies in alliances women can make to fight for equality. One step is to break the beauty myth, which has been used as a political weapon against women`s advancement.
The writer is a co-host and co-producer of a podcast On/Off the Record on the news media landscape in Pakistan.