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Disabusing the PTI

Sexist and racist language does not suit those occupying the highest office in the land

Disabusing the PTI

Some wonder why Imran Khan lost the 2013 election despite taking the pragmatic steps of abandoning idealism, compromising on meritocracy and contracting several electables. At the time he lost because he had never been a victim. He had never experienced any personal hardship or faced any ethnic or class discrimination because of his privilege on both counts. He was no threat to the forces of the status quo but neither did he represent any marginalised constituency. As a floating neutral subject, Khan was of interest to only one state sector.

Sportsmen and military personnel are taught to ‘kill the woman’ in them in order to beat their opponents. Even when not openly misogynist, the leadership of the PTI maintains a patronising attitude towards women and religious minorities, and contempt for anyone who does not agree with the party’s political stands. For political success, though, the PTI depends on optics and conceit to promote itself as a party of judicious piety and meritocracy. All such pretensions dissipated soon after the elections and the subsequent firing of Atif Mian and the appointment of a cabinet that looked like the all-male managing committee of the Sind Club.

Today, PM Khan is free-wheeling in this political wilderness. As criticism over his political blunders increase, his spin masters use the debris to build him an altar of martyrdom. They appeal for sympathy for Khan’s “struggle” which has simply been the loss of every election and waiting around for 22 years. They defend every inane chicken-egg poverty defying idea and convert his habitual ‘slips of tongue’ into some divine wisdom. Even when the criticism comes in the form of humour and satire rather than dharnas or abuse, the PTI apologists still claim injury, and troll and publicly abuse critics through hashtag profanity.

Clearly, PM Imran Khan is not some learned, evolved libertarian as some had hoped. An upper-middle class status does not prevent one from being prejudiced or sexist. Khan may be a patriot but in a geographically and historically challenged way. He is a great ambassador for promoting tourism for white men who want to hunt and hike in Pakistan but is anthropologically and sociologically ill-informed about his own country. Most importantly, Khan is proudly unapologetic about all these traits – as ‘real men’ should be – especially those who believe in the ethnic superiority of (non-Pushtoon) Pathans and in the religious supremacy of a Sunni Islam.

Khan hasn’t just abstained from reforming the discriminatory Zina law, he has also maintained that in ‘our culture’ women are respected more because they get to queue ahead of men. He blames feminism for destroying motherhood and his policies target women as beneficiaries of welfare and charity, not rights. The PTI, led by Imran Khan, guarantees the continuation of patriarchal hetero-nationalism in Pakistan.

The wisdom of the saying, ‘sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me’ has been challenged by sociologists. Language is a potent weapon of social control and violence. Words can actually create the conditions that threaten the violence that will follow and qualify as part of the same apparatus.

Race-experts, linguists, anthropologists and feminists, from Malcolm X, Fanon, Chomsky, Spivak, to Tariq Rahman and Rubina Saigol, have noted how racist or sexist slurs can be as hurtful as losing a limb. The connections between hate-speech and direct discrimination, exclusion, incitement and commission of violence, has compelled societies to make it a legal offense. Sadly, in Pakistan, injury by hate-speech is claimed by those who are powerful hegemons rather than the vulnerable and marginalized.

Now hashtags serve as powerful tools to shame, bully, and police behaviour. Tagging a select individual as a critic, traitor, eunuch, fag, butch, loose or mere allegations of corruption, sexual deviancy or blasphemy or, labels like terrorist, or Islamophobe, liberal, westoxified, effectively sets up the accused to become a target for vigilante violence.

On the other hand, erasing the Other from national narratives is a violent form of stealing identity and ultimately usurping rights and subject-citizenry. In the absence of words in a language for specific violations, like ‘rape’ or ‘marital violence’, euphemisms allow us to pretend that it does not exist in ‘our culture’ or ‘our society’ and so victims must be either faking it or imagining it. The burden of such offenses remains the victim’s problem and extends impunity to the perpetrator, and the crime continues.

It is not just the ‘PTI trolls’ or the party’s ‘middle-class supporters’ that are bigoted members of a political cult. The insidious power of ruling class male-dominance infects the views of the very masses that it oppresses and exploits, that is, the working classes and even women.

Too many ‘educated’ and upper-middle class people sniggered when Asad Umar taunted Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari’s claim to his mother’s name publicly, in Parliament. Despite knowing that many progressive men and women are often complicit in sexist practices, it still startled me when the former finance minister mocked the claim to a mother’s name as evidence of a lack of masculinity, and it was cheered by a single mother who supports the PTI. For years, this woman has courageously taken on the burden of bringing up her sons single-handedly in a milieu where the social, legal and financial odds are horribly stacked against single women. I expected she would self-consciously object to such a denial and erasure of the value of mothering. I thought she would appreciate the recognition and legacy of every mother – not as a reward in heaven – but in the real world, everywhere, every day and especially, by the leadership that she had voted in.

The PM’s attempt to insult Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari by referring to him as a woman, a sahiba, was sexist and cannot be equated to Bilawal’s reference to Khan as ‘selected’ because the latter is a political rebuke not a personal one. The PM’s half-baked apology that followed implied it was a non-issue, and his manner was hardly gracious. Derogatory comments on the basis of race or sex by other party leaders are equally condemnable and women’s groups have been objecting to these since Shaikh Rasheed introduced this trend of sexualised abuse against Benazir Bhutto in the 1990s.

It is truly time for all of us to curb the temptation to belittle opponents through derogatory labels while still appreciating the value and need for hard criticism, polemics and disputation. Those who resort to non-academic or casual flaming simply to solicit likes on twitter or for populism just because they can, betray their limited intellect. It is even more important for the women supporters of the PTI to urgently disabuse their own party of sexism from the highest office.

Afiya Shehrbano Zia

aafiya sheharbano
The writer is the author of 'Faith and Feminism in Pakistan; Religious Agency or Secular Autonomy.

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