Social media feeds are a curious thing. They most effectively exhibit the best and the worst of humanity – our confused composite collage of mood and mind: from cataloguing everything from analysis pieces in The Economist to gifs of our pets doing adorable things like existing to our status updates on daily coffee binges.
However, for the past two days, one of the most sighted images on social media has been the #Chaiwala – no names needed.
Headlines reading “This blue-eyed chai wala is being called Pakistan’s ‘nuclear weapon’” (Times of India); “There’s hot tea in town” (Hindustan Times) are looped on Twitter.
Who is this man? What is his superpower?
Apparently, it’s his blue eyes. And apparently there is no expiry date on our colonial baggage.
The man in the photo
Arshad Khan hails from Mardan and was suddenly catapulted to fame when Islamabad-based photographer Jiah Ali instagrammed a photo of him pouring tea two days ago.
On so many levels, Khan’s story is one of social reversals: reverse sexism, reverse objectification and reverse stereotyping.
And while it is by no means unprecedented for women to swoon over good-looking men any more than it is for men to do so over women, the ick factor in this particular situation is underlined by class rather than gender.
A huge part of me wishes to dismiss this story as just another silly social media frenzy over a good-looking person drawing the general unwarranted attention that good looks draw anywhere in the world.
And it is, and I would, except for when one witnesses a poor man being harassed on screen with ridiculous questions that highlight how insensitive some of us are to class questions and constructs in the face of pretty pictures.
Again, harassment isn’t an unprecedented event either and it is rather odd to feel outraged exclusively when it happens to a man, considering it happens to be the staple of most women’s lives in Pakistan.
Women are reduced to the lowest common denominator of their looks every single day regardless of their class or credentials – so why is this troubling?
Question of agency
Perhaps it is the sheer belligerence of how the harassment has manifested. After all, if one were to reverse the situation to its mundane manifestation where the sexual object is a woman then the outrage about the media campaign attached would by no means be an amusing footnote as it has been with Khan.
If hordes of men began tweeting and meming pictures of a female check-out girl because of her beautiful complexion and blue eyes, many of us would be outraged. I know I would be. Not because the standards that separate sexual objectification from beauty form such a slippery slope, but over the question of agency.
The same rules apply in this context, and so honesty compels me to acknowledge that reverse sexism is still a form of sexism.
Harassing a tea boy for his looks is just as problematic as harassing a waitress, a problem compounded by class dynamics that mean the tea boy in question cannot even read the language used to describe him or access the forum on which he has gained global fame.
The only real surprise is to witness such desperate lack of agency on part of a male member of the object-subject spectrum.
However, there are many pointing out the upside of these turn of events. Khan has apparently been offered a modelling contract and that fateful photo that he did not invite may end up changing his life.
A true Cinderella story indeed.
One could bring up the question that it is unfair for him to get a fresh start off his good looks when the man standing next to him won’t – but that would be disingenuous at best and classist at worst.
After all, we do not take to task all the actors, models and general pretty people who profit off their looks around the world – so it would be especially cruel to target Khan if he manages to do so by accident.
A poor man is attractive – why are we surprised?
The real story is not about Khan at all. The man was just doing his job and pouring tea. The real story is about us and how we see him or feel the need to.
There is the obvious surprise that a so-called tea boy could possibly be that good looking, as if attractiveness were the sole provenance of the privileged.
There is internet posse of swooning women and aggravated men negotiating how blue his eyes really are, once again underscoring that at the end of the day, our colonial complexes run bone deep and not just skin deep.
There are people making memes laden with sexual innuendo featuring Khan’s photo edited in various outfits, because there are always people making memes to make matters worse.
There is the reporter who single-handedly sums up everything wrong with reporting protocol in Pakistan.
But above all there is us and how we use social media to broadcast our silliest selves with such extravagant flair.
Sexual objectification is a global epidemic and it is by no means exclusive to Pakistan.
When people navigate skewed standards of beauty, it is important to consider how much choice we have in the matter.
For many of us, who to some degree or other participate in living up (or down, depending on one’s perspective) to beauty standards, the degree of agency varies. There is a point when wanting to attract attention and appear beautiful is natural, there is another where it turns duplicitous and then there is a point beyond that where it becomes dangerous.
There is definitely an element of coercion in beauty and how it is constructed differently for men and women. While it is an asset for one gender, it is a necessity for the other.
Khan’s story is not earth-shattering and certainly doesn’t deserve consideration beyond the scope of the event, but it offers up interesting parallels for all of us.
As both a student and teacher of gender, I have always endeavoured to try and keep my rage and resentment at the treatment of women in this country in perspective and in line with offering solutions rather than just complaining about circumstances.
This is not to say that I don’t have sympathy and stand in solidarity with all the women who do complain because we have earned that right. That is why this is an odd position to find myself in, defending that rare case of reverse-sexism a man suffers over the uncountable ones women do.
My only defence lies in the fact that this case is being constructed along class lines rather than gender, which makes it particularly problematic and that opposing such bigotry for women demands opposing it for men too.
This article first appeared on Dawn.