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Thursday December 02, 2021

A captain, not a cynic

By Ali Ahsan
June 30, 2021

Sometimes your column is a blissful two weeks out, but the prime minister puts his foot in it on day two. Alas, you sigh…carpe diem.

The fact that our PM is not the smartest cookie in the jar is conceded even by many of his most ardent sympathizers. But empathy is something entirely different – he usually overflows with it. The ability to feel genuine pain at the loss and suffering of others – orphans, refugees, drone victims, the poor, the diseased – is what makes Imran Khan Imran Khan. His range is so broad that he even gets worked up over the ‘martyrdom’ of Bin Laden.

So why does this immense span pop a string when it comes to women? He’s a product of a maternal household. Sole brother to four wonderfully emancipated sisters, devoted son to the singular Shaukat Khanum, whose memorial hospitals will long outlast the Khan’s other contributions to the nation. Father to well-adjusted children, and husband to accomplished women spanning the milieu from London to Lahore to Lodhran.

Could it be because the Khan, like many of his compatriots, has never really known a woman? Sure, we all have mothers, sisters, wives, cousins, daughters. But those are all roles – clearly defined and generally desexualized.

But women as friends? As platonic equals? As people with aspirations, agendas and agency? As empowered individuals who can wear what they want, go where they wish and act out what they desire? As human beings with self-actualizing goals?

There is little point in rehashing the column inches (and countless Twitter memes) already devoted to explaining to our PM and his ilk that rape is an instrument of control and subjugation – that what women wear or how they act has little to do with whether they are assaulted (Sialkot motorway, anyone?). Instead, rape (and our PM’s reaction to it) is a reflection of a deeply unhealthy societal dynamic between men and women.

Nora Ephron’s classic line from ‘When Harry met Sally’ that “men and women can never be friends because sex always gets in the way” might as well have been written with Pakistani men in mind.

How many among us have actual female friends? Women we are not related to, and who are not the wives of friends or co-workers? Women we can call up and catch up with, just the way we do with male friends, absent any underlying subtext?

Or, to put it another way, if you can’t imagine your sisters having male friends, or concede them the agency to date while you appropriate that right for yourself, there is something deeply flawed in your thinking on women.

Of course, the Khan is not like you and I. There are surely women he knows that were neither cousins nor conquests. He, of all people, is acquainted with accomplished women who do what they want while wearing what they wish. But the Khan also disdains Western cultural imperialism (and thus, presumably, women’s liberation) while romanticizing his own tribal heritage. That the boy from Zaman Park seeks inspiration from his people of the badlands is well documented, mostly by Khan himself.

The problem, alas, is that tribal traditions – now seeped into so many veins of the country – have historically treated women as chattel. Property to be owned and traded, a means to settle (or prolong) disputes. Why are men, after all, never handed over to settle blood feuds?

Property, even the most valuable one, serves a purpose and should know its place. Property should not go where it may be on display (at least not without the proprietor’s consent). Property is to be protected and sheltered from prying eyes. Property does not have agency.

How else do you explain the thrice-married Khan lecturing women on modesty and appropriate behavior without even a trace of irony. He tells us that he’s tasted the West and thus speaks from experience, but his words suggest he’s the proverbial scholar-athlete who overplayed the athlete part, skipping the learning angle entirely.

Khan has a bully pulpit that he could use to lift up our discourse on gender. Lord knows we need it. Instead, he serves as an apologist for our worst impulses. And in doing so on Western media, he appallingly reinforces the worst stereotypes about Pakistani men as culturally stunted and beholden to irrepressible urges.

To paraphrase from an earlier column, our prime minister sees things as (he thinks) they are, and seeks to justify them. We need a leader who imagines things as they should be, and inspires us to meet his vision.

I guess what we need is a captain, not a cultural cynic.

The writer, a former aide to UN Secretaries-General Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon, tweets @aliahsan001