For most of those who live in today’s Pakistan – the country made up primarily of young people as well as the very young – the era of Gen Ziaul Haq and all that came with it is essentially something confined to textbooks and other documents.
For those who are older and have lived through that era, the reality is different. They recall the religious divides, sectarianism, brutal days when the already-scarred journalists, activists and others were flogged in public in stadiums – their pictures making headlines – the atrocious sites where the bodies of people hanged along the roadsides and so much more.
This was the time when the hardline sects of Islam were brought into the country to convert us into a people who no longer take pride in their language – even prefer to use the Arabic word for Ramazan. Whether this makes us more pious or wiser is difficult to say. But the people growing up today still experience the reality created in that time in the form of what lives around them and the emphasis on religion and acts of worship without explaining their real meaning in the sense that corruption and dishonesty go along with them and the other facets that Zia expertly added to life.
But these people as well as the other generations know and will recall clearly the new era of ‘Naya Pakistan’. This entity under Imran Khan has different undertones and meanings. While the same kind of culture as put together by Zia may not have been created and the level of expertise is quite different, essentially what has been put out is a culture of misogyny, abuse and a new degree of violence. This misogyny comes from the leader of the PTI himself and the ‘boys club’ he has surrounded himself with.
We regularly see numerous insults being hurled at women, abusive language used against them, and suggestions made that women put themselves at risk when they step out of their homes or interact with mainly men-dominated audiences. While this may not be totally untrue, the responsibility of any political leadership lies in attempting to change it instead of insisting that it is simply a facet of human behaviour, which men are unable to overcome. Surely, they cannot be so weak.
Abuse is also a new addition to Pakistan’s political reality and can be seen all across social media, notably on Twitter. Some of the remarks are so offensive that they have to be deleted either by the social media app itself or by other persons in charge of such matters. The problem is that the use of such language by leading political figures, some of them with huge following, has normalized such behaviour and made it acceptable to hurl derogatory language at people who do not agree with their opinion or point of view. In an already divided country, this is extremely dangerous. And the divide has, as a result, deepened and become more difficult to fill.
The question is: how can we escape this reality and move things back to normal? It is not as simple as turning back the hands of a clock. Today, more than three decades after Gen Zia was killed in a plane crash, we still live with his legacy and all that he left behind. Most of it is ugly; much is painful, and many have painful or difficult memories of the manner in which they survived those times.
Others will have the equally dark memories of the new era brought through an election by a populist leader who was clearly backed by the country’s powerful quarters. Whether he will come to power again is something we do not know for now. But if it happens, we should be worried and concerned.
Another question is: why do so many people support the PTI and Imran Khan, seeing him as a charismatic, populist leader with an appeal that is quite different from that of other politicians? In some ways, it is easy to see why this is the case. In a country that worships cricket, Imran is a sporting legend and the memory of his days with the red or white ball in his hands still lives on. On top of it, there are replayed television images and the leader’s constant references to the World Cup and his victory that keep the memories of that event, which happened a long time ago, alive.
But cricket cannot be transposed over a political landscape and used in the same way. Leading 11 men on a field is quite different from running a country. When it is these men in a dressing room, perhaps some degree of abusive language or ‘locker room’ talk – as called in the US where Donald Trump utilized many of the same tactics during his tenure – may be acceptable. It is not acceptable when it is used over TV and at public rallies, heard by tens of thousands, if not millions of people.
The question is: how will this culture affect us? It will quite obviously affect women, at a time when many are making an attempt to alter past history and take up new challenges. In conservative cities in Punjab, we see more women on motorcycles and bicycles – that has never been the case before. We see daring young women organize events such as the annual Aurat March; their placards appeared to threaten security forces more than bullets, guns or other weapons.
Of course, these placards cannot create violence or the kind of misogyny we have seen from Imran. But they still appear to be a source of fear and terror with NOCs now being difficult to obtain for the peaceful march, which is intended only to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8 each year to put forward the various concerns of Pakistani women from across the country. Other women have also entered areas which were once closed to them. We see this on sporting fields, in engineering companies, at airfields and airports and in other places.
The attacks by the PTI and its leader will hold back women as well as other groups and make it more difficult for them to move forward. This would be a tragedy and will leave behind a legacy as dangerous as that bequeathed to us by the late Gen Ziaul Haq.
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.
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