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Opinion

August 20, 2015

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Who’s really afraid of Reham Khan?

In the end, using Reham Khan as the Trojan Mare in the Haripur by-elections didn’t turn out so well for the PTI. Objectively speaking, this is a good thing. It’s an important reminder that voting behaviour cannot be swayed by promissories from pretty faces or the threats of thundering maulvis. Also, it’s a lesson for the troll politics generation that lives in cyber space; election results cannot be predicted by the number of Facebook likes and Twitter followings and nor can votes (or soft coups for that matter) be purchased by live-music, rock-star appearing, concert-simulated dharnas.
As a form of a grudging defeat speech and in response to much criticism by his own cadre, Imran Khan has announced that his wife will have no future role in formal party politics. She will be relegated to the traditional role of serving as the soft face of the party and its social service front. Technically, she’s being punished for a loss that wasn’t even hers! Reham Khan is certainly not the first prominent casualty of knee-jerk decisions by the PTI regarding its leaders, but Imran Khan may just have short-circuited what may be one of the shortest political careers in Pakistan’s history (with the exception of caretaker PM Moeen Quereshi in the 1990s).
She may not have won a constituency for them but the PTI and its leadership would be the greatest beneficiaries of Reham Khan’s continued visibility and involvement in the public arena. The party has a notable female fan-following but no female political leadership. In her endorsement address to support the PTI candidate at the recent Haripur by-election campaign, Reham Khan taunted the old boys of the ruling PML-N party and accused them of being scared by ‘Bhabi’s’ entry into the political arena. The crowd laughed but not convincingly. Clearly, she underestimated the ripples of ‘fear’ of women in politics that ran through the conservative hearts of the boys of her own party, including that of her

husband and chairman of the PTI, Imran Khan.
Men’s mixture of awe and fear of women’s mobility and success in public service is nothing new. In South Asia, the political glass ceiling has been broken long ago, ironically and precisely through the very dynastic politics we all love to hate. Indira and Sonia Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Khaleda Zia, Sheikh Hasina – these are not the only women who were voted by the men, for the men and were of the men. There are many thousands of representatives, from local to national government levels, who get men’s votes. A bulk of these are cast on the basis of ‘dynastic’ politics where the candidates belong to political gharanas.
Neither are the Islamists any ‘purer’ with their wives and daughters playing exactly the same proxy game. The myth of the seemingly opposing factors of ‘meritocratic’ as opposed to ‘dynastic’ privilege in politics is quite murky (globally, not just in this region) and doesn’t always have a direct bearing on the results of political activity. The more difficult thing to measure is whether, given the way property and resources determine constituency politics, this is representative politics or, if it reflects the will of the people. You cannot change the representative without reforming the material base that gives him/her the power.
In the case of Reham Khan, her husband is the power base and that is now a historical given. So there is a choice she faces – she either remains the coy Bhabi who stands by her man and serves as the representative and honour of the in-laws that form the PTI leadership or, she drops the political virgin act and gets real about marrying into politics.
Just six months into her marriage, Reham Khan consciously adopted the early warning sign of dupatta-on-head piety and, so prepared, joined the political race running. Most apolitical or more domesticated women would still be recovering from their honeymoons. Clearly, her intent was never to learn the ropes or rise to some office through the ranks of the party. Instead, from the beginning, she has presumed a clear and visible leadership position in the PTI schematics and performance.
This is class politics in South Asia. In these few months, she has spoken at rallies and to the media as an unspecificed and unofficial but assumed spokesperson. Often, this has been on policy and at the cost of media time to other leaders who now hover in the background. In terms of content and substance, she says nothing because she’s stuck in that political Gaza strip where she is neither settler nor occupier.
At the moment, the task Reham Khan has been assigned is the most neutral and apolitical charitable one of street children. In a country, and particularly the PTI-ruled province, where schoolchildren have been massacred in their classes and whose families still seek justice; which has been torn apart by the moral issue (mostly led by Imran Khan himself) of children killed in drone attacks and more recently; the pornography crimes committed against children in Kasur, Punjab, Reham Khan chose to take on the most non-controversial and softest child-related crisis.
To be political is irrelevant (just ask us op-ed writers). To transform into a politician, however, would mean a couple of things. Reham Khan would need a real office and party position. Second, she would need to drop the nerve-grating self-references as Bhabi of the nation and carve out her own autonomous label and identity. ‘Reham Khan’ would be a good place to start. It would be great if she stopped promising to influence her husband through pillow talk and focused on how she could facilitate and ensure delivery and accountability herself. She needs a constituency – it doesn’t have to be physical but locational (KP is a good place to start) and it doesn’t even have to be territorial but real, controversial and messy – for that’s the definition of politics, not benign charity begum work.
Domestic violence in Pakistan is the highest in KP, critically so. Child abuse will not be difficult to unearth in schools and madressahs alike. Acid-throwing, dowry deaths are increasing instead of reducing with women’s education and autonomy. Women’s early marriages are often directly related to the lack of girls’ secondary schools in districts. Poverty and health are so closely interrelated that there is a desperate need to accelerate and facilitate women’s access to contraceptive needs and improve reproductive health.
Environmental issues are neglected and human rights and the women’s commissions need desperate direction and support. Men, women and minorities seeking justice are supposed to be the direct beneficiaries of a political party that premises itself on justice – is that just about moving courts for themselves or for the people too?
When women evoke political fear the bravest response is to prove it right and breach the private/public divide by stepping up, not down. As for most women politicians in Pakistan, Reham Khan’s challenge will be to overcome the fear that would restrain her political growth and success within her own home first.
The writer is a sociologist based in Karachi.
Email: [email protected]

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