Friday July 01, 2022

A dangerous new culture

May 26, 2022

Suddenly, initially almost unnoticed by many of us, the culture of politics and with it broader aspects of social life have altered in the country. Much of this appears to stem from the aggressive tactics used by the PTI, particularly the misogynist, offensive language used to lash out at political peers.

Whereas bitter opponents on the political landscape at one time dined or chatted together in at least relative harmony, we now have absolute hatred and every effort to push this forward. Young people, who in many cases appear to be especially endeared to Imran Khan and see his style of address as machoistic or perhaps based on the style of film characters appear especially susceptible to picking up on the same vibes and spreading them to the social media, notably Twitter. The fact that thousands of people have apparently been hired by the party to post such messages pushes forward the trend. We have lost all hold on ethics and cultural morality.

The fact that Imran Khan himself has led this onslaught makes things even more dangerous. Even today, notably for the generation that grew up in the 1980s and the those which followed, recalling the 1992 World Cup win to which Imran still refers with surprising frequency, Imran is a hero, the man who brought the country enormous pride on the cricketing field and of course later through his superb work in setting up both the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital and Namal University. But this is where accolades to him have to stop.

The language he has used in his most recent speeches, most notably the childish and deeply offensive jibes directed at Maryam Nawaz Sharif as well as many other outbursts simply add to the idea that women can be targeted easily and that directing abusive or scornful language at them, sometimes in the guise of a joke, will do no harm. It does enormous harm. After all, we live in a social setup where women are unequal citizens and have little respect in the eyes of many. When such remarks are made by political leaders, their struggle to gain equal status in society becomes harder and also influences the opinions of others, notably the many young men who gather at the PTI’s volatile rallies. The particularly vulgar language used by some PTI supporters is simply shocking. It is sad the party has not acted against them in any way or distanced themselves from such comments. But then when the leader himself is occupied with demeaning political opponents often using sexist language, what can be expected of his followers?

There has to be a solution. The number of women directly elected to parliament remains extremely low. Political parties need to understand the culture we are creating is extremely dangerous to 50 per cent of the population and nearly 50 per cent of voters. Though sadly fewer women are registered as voters than men, the number is still sizable. Parties then need to commit to giving tickets to a certain percentage of women so that more can enter Parliament directly. At the same time, female MNAs and senators can help by putting out a strong statement against misogyny, regardless of which party they belong to, and condemning incidents in which personal remarks have been made against Maryam Nawaz, other leaders or Dr Shireen Mazari dragged out of her car in what is apparently a 50-year-old case. Their voices must combine on this issue no matter what party they stand with or how they vote.

The media too can play a part. It has seen the targeting of some of its most prominent female anchors again notably by the PTI and its leaders. Personalities with the standing of Asma Shirazi have been attacked as have others. This again lowers the status of women and suggests that it is open game to attack them just as it is to use misogynistic remarks to undermine men by suggesting that they are feminine in their characteristics and therefore somehow inferior or unsuited to politics. It is true the culture of using ‘jokes’ and sometimes abusive language to target political opponents was begun under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who used it as a form of diatribe again and again. But today’s misogynistic culture was not a part of this language of address, where wit was often at the forefront of the remarks made. Even Benazir Bhutto has made personal comments about political leaders, including those from her own party, but focused on humour rather than on dragging them down on the basis of personal issues.

The culture cannot continue. It has to be brought to an end in order to salvage a society where at least 11 cases of rape are reported daily and many more are very likely to occur without being reported or reaching the media. We also have a culture where female students have reported harassment at educational institutions including leading medical colleges. At least one is believed to have committed suicide over the harassment she was subjected to. Many female students and even those in working positions at hospitals, schools or offices fail to report harassment because they fear pressure from families to leave work or social stigma and comments from colleagues of other kinds.

The situation is an impossible one. It is the duty of our political leaders to guide us past these obstacles and take us to a better place. The dignified manner in which Maryam Nawaz has taken on the role of leading her father’s party is an example of what women can achieve. There are of course other examples as well. But we need far more. We need more women entering politics and taking up positions in which they are able to make decisions and influence policy. This is not happening at the present time. Too often, women in parliament seem to play only a token role, usually because they have been placed on the seats assigned for women and brought in by relatives or party leaders, leaving them no real space to build their own opinions and their own politics. The situation continues to take increasingly ugly turns. There is no evidence that leaders are ready to apologize for their comments and Imran has certainly not apologized to Maryam Nawaz. This is a dangerous precedent and we believe it will grow worse unless steps are taken to somehow bring it under check. Only political parties, acting together, can achieve this, led by their female members.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor. She can be reached at: