The spectacle of violent hatred on social media that started after Ayesha Gulalai went public with harassment allegations against Imran Khan and has continued to grow unabated brought us face-to-face with the level of our societal decay.
The presumption of innocence for the accused quickly morphed into a vicious demonising of the accuser. It did not stop here. The ease with which her sister, a squash champion, was dragged through a nightmare that she did not sign up for was abhorrent. Just days ago, we were all decrying a revenge rape in a village near Multan. To add insult to injury, a jirga’s decision is now a part of the recourse plan of the aggrieved political party.
In a society as violent as ours, a woman coming forward with such a claim not only puts her image but her entire life at risk. And when she takes such a step, she must be heard. In cases involving the harassment of women by men, among the many things to consider are gender and power relations in tandem with the burden of proof which, sadly, lies with the accusing women.
In total negation of these nuances, while championing the presumption of innocence of the accused, society often denies the accuser the empathy that it will happily extend to an idolised man and backs her against a wall. While it may still be hard for us to wrap our heads around the idea, in no way does simply listening to the latter’s account jeopardise the innocence of the former.
How long will it take for us to inculcate the decency to hear a victim’s account quietly before we start foaming at the mouth over defiled honour? When will we understand that the accuser has a case that deserves to be heard simultaneously while we believe the accused to be innocent until proven otherwise?
For future reference, harassment is a sensitive issue. It is as real as the air we breathe and may be just as difficult to substantiate. And it is widespread: in the workplace, at bazaars and on the road in the form of unsolicited attention and commentary and everywhere women have learnt to tune out. Educated women and women who know their rights also know that they don’t have an inexhaustible reservoir of energy and courage. Out of fear of being ostracised, shamed and even subjected to violence – which are significant components of women’s social conditioning – they might choose to remain silent.
And when they are ready to tell their truths, they must be prepared for a societal backlash. They often learn the hard way that their pain amounts to nothing if their thoughts and stories aren’t organised to communicate their concerns effectively. They often learn that the very systems that give them the proverbial golden star on their foreheads for model conduct are systems that will not come to their aid in times of need. They often realise too late that the veil of ghairat across their heads can one day strangle them in panic when they transgress the lines of acceptable behaviour.
It is interesting to note how an entire political party rushed to its chief’s defence as if it had already decided, without due process, which one of the two was guilty and whom it needed to own. The response to Ayesha Gulalai’s allegations eventually stooped to the level of ‘this is the same man who made you an MNA’ – as if a female lawmaker should spend the rest of her life in grateful awareness of her dependency and eventually acquiesce to benevolent oppression.
The current episode started with a presser, involved two high-profile politicians and took place after the Panama verdict during a time of political turmoil. Audiences who are accustomed to fashioning their living rooms as mock courts had their own theories and understandings of justice. Many of these theories were ghastly and left on Twitter for the world to see, with threats of acid attacks and murder being the key themes.
Meanwhile, the situation has developed at a pace of its own. It is unfortunate that given the portrayal of Ayesha Ahad’s emergence on the scene – much like pawns on a chessboard – two alleged victims of misogyny are being pitted against each other. The party chief tweeted: “First test for new PM: Will he set up [parliamentary committee] to investigate serious allegations levelled by Ayesha Ahad [against] PML-N MNA Hamza Sharif? Or will he remain a darbari of the Sharifs [and] ignore allegations by Ayesha Ahad [including] torture by Punjab police [and] deception by Hamza Sharif?” This was followed up with: “Women rights activists should stand by Ayesha Ahad’s quest for justice denied to her for [seven years of] physical [and] mental abuse by Hamza Sharif.”
It is all up for public show as traumas are made to compete in the political arena. Regardless of the merits of Ayesha Gulalai’s or Ayesha Ahad’s allegations, the way that such sensitive matters are being handled and the narrative is being constructed trivialises what we call ‘women’s issues’.
The rest may be left to how things shape up in the coming days, what investigations reveal and what is concluded after legal proceedings. But there is much to learn from all that is going terribly wrong around us.
The writer is an assistant editor at
The News on Sunday.