“To vote for a woman is haram,” roared Haroon Bukhari, a PML-N candidate from NA-184, tehsil Jatoi. The crowd was charged, shouting slogans to cheer up their leader. The target of his attack was Zahra Basit Bukhari, wife of his brother Basit Bukhari who has a PTI ticket from the same constituency and is his rival.
The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has served Haroon Bukhari a notice for such assertions. He is also running from NA-186, tehsil Alipur district Muzaffargarh, PP-272 and PP-274 on PML-N tickets. It means PML-N has given him about one-thirds of district Muzaffargarh.
ECP Spokesperson Nadeem Qasim told TNS that district coordination officer (DCO) of Muzaffargarh had received a reply from Bukhari’s lawyer denying that he made these remarks. Since people had recorded Bukhari, his reply was found unsatisfactory and the DCO sent the video to Lahore for forensic examination.
Watching the video, one sees Bukhari make the controversial statement, and then defending it invoking religion at length. The ECP Spokesperson Qasim, says, “I do not know what the forensic examination will discover”. He adds the ECP being the relevant authority will decide the case. He, however, ruled out Bukhari’s disqualification on this issue, saying normally candidates submit unconditional apologies or are punished according to law.
In the same video, available on YouTube, Bukhari says Shahbaz has promised him two provincial ministries.
If the PML-N can seek votes for Maryam and Kulsoom Nawaz in Lahore, how can its candidate in South say that voting for women is haram? Diehard PML-N workers are mainly centred in downtown areas of Alipur, Jatoi and Shehr Sultan, where they display Maryam’s photos in their shops.
Family sources say misogyny is not the only cause for Bukhari’s statement. Zahra is daughter of Syed Khawar Shah, a veteran politician from Multan and related to Syed Fakhar Imam, former speaker of the National Assembly. Locals say Haroon Bukhari does not like sectarian inclinations of Zahra and her family, which also is a reason for his attack.
Muzaffargarh is the epicenter of sectarianism in South Punjab. Seminaries and mosques operated by proscribed organisations and foreign donations dot the district. Ebad Dogar, then tehsil nazim of Khangarh, hometown of Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, had placed head money on then Governor Punjab Salmaan Taseer in a public gathering and within days Taseer was assassinated by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri. In the next election in 2013, he was a PML-N candidate from Khangarh, then NA-178.
Therefore, Haroon Bukhari did not invoke sectarianism. He knew mixing religion with misogyny would haunt him forever.
Jatoi is a tehsil known to the world because of Mukhtaran Mai. The place where Bukhari made these remarks is close to the house of Mai. In 2002, Mai was gang raped on order of a panchayat of local landholders because her brother was allegedly having an affair with a girl of dominant Mastoi family.
I had interviewed some of the rapists, visited the house in which the crime was committed and talked to the women in the house. None denied the act. But none was ready to consider it a crime. They were convinced that it was an international conspiracy to tarnish the image of the country.
Former President Pervez Musharraf takes pride in counting steps he took to empower women, like enhancing quota for them in the parliament, putting in place a system to address their grievances and setting up centres for their healthcare. Yet, he referred to the Mai case as “washing our dirty linen in public” in his many interviews and speeches. Likewise, at seminars in Islamabad sentimental speeches were made to mention how their projects had developed that “backward area”.
But whatever happens in lavish hotels of Islamabad is one thing. Here, in Jatoi, Haroon Bukhari is selling religion and misogyny, and some sardars from Mastoi clan, who orchestrated Mai’s gang rape, are backing him.
Time has come for all political parties to act against anti-women trends to improve the quality of democracy. Engaging women politicians in decision-making processes holds the key to action.