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March 20, 2017

‘Ghairat’ and politics


March 20, 2017

Now that Javed Latif has formally apologised to Murad Saeed for his disrespectful comments regarding the latter’s family members, it appears that the row has been resolved through the jirga formed to resolve this ‘dispute’.

But has the problem been solved? Perhaps the honour of Murad Saeed has been redeemed through the apology but what about the women who were caught in the crossfire and what about all women in the public space who are the real casualty of such attacks.

As many observers have noted, targeting women for political point-scoring is nothing new. In 1977, I attended a political activity for the first time in my life. A relative of mine, who was a candidate for the PPP, had arranged a public meeting in the village and Mumtaz Bhutto and a number of other PPP leaders showed up for the event. The most significant part of my memory relates to a bearded person who looked like the maulvi at our Jamia mosque and who read out a poem describing the looks of Begum Nasim Wali Khan and its impact on her colleagues in the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA).

Begum Wali had taken charge of the Awami National Party (ANP) after her husband, Khan Abdul Wali Khan, was imprisoned by the Bhutto government. To this day, she is respected for her struggle during that period. Begum Wali also represented the party in the nine-party alliance that had challenged the PPP.

Around the same time, PNA activists printed a poster carrying a picture of Begum Nusrat Bhutto sitting alongside Richard Nixon at a state banquet. Many shopkeepers had put up this picture with the note: “Mother of PPP wallahs with American President Richard Nixon”.

For the women of the Bhutto family, it was just a beginning. As Z A Bhutto was hanged and first Nusrat and later Benazir Bhutto took charge of the party, they had to face an unrelenting smear campaign. Referring to the PPP slogan of ‘Roti, Kapra, Makan’, the head of a religious party told a jeering crowd, “She (Nusrat Bhutto) says she will give you roti (bread), ask her, will she give you boti (flesh) as well?”.

Before Benazir was married, one of the most popular anti-PPP slogans in Punjab went like this: “Piplio haya karo, bhen da wiyah karo” (Have some shame PPP wallahs, marry off your sister.) However, sexist attacks on her continued even after she got married, had children and became the prime minister of Pakistan. Perhaps no one surpassed Farzand-e-Rawalpindi Sheikh Rashid Ahmad in using guttural language against her; for this he enjoyed the backing of his party bosses in the PML-N.

In our divisive political culture, women are considered soft targets as the holders of men’s honour. An attack on women, verbal or physical, is considered an attack on men’s honour. Politics is – after all – about men competing for honour. Individual or collective harm meted to women, however, is hardly debated.

During the recent revival of democracy, we saw many positive changes. We should give some credit to Musharraf, who paved the path for women’s inclusion in politics on a large scale by reserving seats for them in local councils as well as provincial and national legislatures. It forced male politicians to work in a mixed environment, very often with members of their own families.

The PPP had already learnt to respect women in politics thanks to the leadership of Benazir Bhutto. The PML-N mended its ways after the Charter of Democracy that set norms for political parties. More recently, it has moved from the right to the centre of politics, advocating for rights of women and minorities.

However, widespread changes are sweeping a large part of the world. These changes are created by a revolution in media and communications and its interaction with the political culture, political discourse and political rhetoric. Anti-politicians from outside the mainstream and some populist politicians who want to advance themselves within conventional political structures have invented new rhetoric to go with social media.

The PTI, though 20 years old, is a child of this new world. It does not subscribe to the Charter of Democracy or any other shared norms of political discourse. It made a huge contribution to women’s inclusion in political space by including women in political meetings. However, it failed to protect them when they were molested and harassed by the party’s own workers.

The party has spawned one million of the kind who are always on the prowl on social media, harassing anyone who dares to criticise their infallible leader. This one million strong firing squad does not discriminate on the basis of gender, age or status. Anyone who dares to oppose the Messiah is fair game. Pakistani state officials visiting Western countries are humiliated by party activists in public, the whole episode is filmed and then the clip is presented to the jeering online crowd as proof the extreme unpopularity of the government.

Those who have been butchered by the firing squad include Imran Khan’s own family members. Reham Khan came under attack when she had not been divorced yet. She herself recounts how she was maligned by party activists and no one came to her rescue when she was being lynched through social media. Maryam Nawaz had to share pictures of her marriage to set the record straight regarding her marriage with Captain Safdar.

However, what Javed Latif did was ugly beyond any comparison. It was an attack by a legislator against the family members of another legislator. In this, I have complete sympathy for Murad Saeed and his family. In my opinion, Javed Latif should have been forced to resign and then the PML-N should have used that high moral ground to force the PTI to mend its ways.

I find it distasteful that the whole debate was carried out within the paradigm on men’s honour. It was not considered an attack on two young women, who have every right to participate in political activities and meet their leader. It was rather seen as an attack on the honour of Murad Saeed. PTI legislators from KP stated ad nauseam: “The Pathan can take a bullet, but not verbal abuse.” Senior PTI leaders stated on television that “such language leads to murders in our society.” Imran Khan himself spoke of men’s ghairat rather than women’s rights.

In fact, it was an attack on all women, because such attacks are a mechanism of social control meant to keep women in their place – out of the public domain and within the sanctuary of their houses, though they are not safe even there.

I am also upset by the shameful silence adopted by the Women’s Caucus in parliament. What is the purpose of their existence if not to promote an enabling environment for women to play an active role in the public space?

After a small respite, politicians are again sinking the boat they are sailing in. They are undermining the legitimacy of democracy and through extreme partisanship rendering governance impossible. They need to revert to a healthy public discourse if they do not want to be barbecued yet again. To quote Mark Thompson, CEO of The New York Times: “A healthy public language knits public and political leaders together and, precisely because it succeeds in drawing ordinary citizens into the debate, ultimately leads to better and more widely supported policy decisions.” And that’s what democracy is all about.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @zaighamkhan

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