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A mirror to our society

The political mudslinging across the issue of women’s harassment is a sad mirror of our gender and class biases, and exposes the predatory male environment of party politics in Pakistan

A mirror to our society

The Accused, a 1988 movie starring Jodie Foster, became iconic for challenging the culture of blame towards rape victims. The plot reveals the compromises that define the judicial system. The powerful subtheme of the movie implicates the fraternity of men who cheer and encourage the bar room rape, where the drunk and flirtatious victim is assaulted.

The allegation of sexual harassment by Ayesha Gulalai against the PTI leadership has been commented on by a few sane voices, who appeal for a balanced, judicious and sensitive way of dealing with such accusations. Parliament and the women’s caucus have rightly objected to the vicious media trial and social media lashing against the accuser, and cautioned against levelling unverified charges against the accused.

Rather than repeating these, it is important to review the common public opinions of doubt, denial, demonising and disowning that have been circulating. These reveal the spiteful social and cultural biases towards women that persist despite progressive laws.

Doubt

The most repeated counter-accusation to Gulalai’s allegations has been over the political-sensitive timing of her speaking out, questioning why she chose to remain silent over her harassment for so long. This is a common strategy used by those defending sex offenders. But, deflecting the focus from the criminal’s act to the victim’s delay in speaking out does not in itself prove that the crime did not take place.

There are many explanations for why women tolerate, fear, or delay speaking out against domestic abuse, workplace harassment and even pestering and stalking. Women fear losing their jobs or promotions, or being told to stay indoors. They worry about being accused of encouraging such behaviour, or inviting ‘shame’ to families, tribes or even nations. These are common reactions and a majority of victims do not speak out unless they reach a tipping point, or fear for their lives, or feel the harassment is not worth the silence. Would diehard loyalists have believed Gulalai if she had spoken out immediately? By the measure of PTI spokesman, Fawad Chaudhry, who accused Gulalai of ‘selling out’ in 24 hours — completely unlikely.

After the treatment of Ayesha Gulalai, how many women are likely to break the silence? Perversely, comparing Ayesha Ahad’s defamation allegations against the PML-N only dilutes the issue by confusing sexist insults with sexual intimidation. Both are objectionable and proof of systemic misogyny but sexual harassment is an advanced, gendered and illegal form of violence.

Harassment was not a crime until recently but considered a man’s right or justified as biological necessity. Being from a privileged class does not guarantee courage or nerve on part of the victim. Often, families encourage silence to avoid social censure and blame. When feminists fought for recognition of the criminality of such behaviour, they were ridiculed for being kill-joys and home-wreckers. In fact, sexual harassment kills the confidence and reverses the blame on the victim and encourages harassers to continue benefiting by exercising this form of sexually aggressive behaviour.

The law against sexual harassment takes away this power and so, rather than changing their behaviour, many harassers resort to accusing the victim of lying, being of ‘bad character’ or blaming her for asking for it.

Denial

Perhaps no woman can honestly claim she has never been harassed in any society, without exception. This includes powerhouses such as the White House and World Bank. All of us have met the harasser who is the bus conductor, corporate boss, policeman, colleague, party comrade, bourgeois club member, NGO co-worker and even ironically, (as activists of Women’s Action Forum will testify), the very pro bono lawyer who is defending women in cases of sex crimes.

All of us have heard the common advice to ignore, avoid and keep it a secret. In politics, this sacrifice is supposedly for the ‘bigger cause’.

We also know that neither the criminal nor recipient is limited to any one social class. And still, when a woman alleges such an offence there is immediate denial and doubt against her word. Justifications are offered that women provoke poor passive men and as if ‘civilised’ and liberal institutions are exempt from the culture of sexual harassment. Class bias completely falsely exempts men who are educated and from ‘respectable’ families — as if they would never indulge in sexual power politics.

Demonising

One would think after the 9/11 era, Muslims would have developed an acute understanding of persecution and developed a sense of empathy with victims of injustices. But instead, only brown, Muslim men are privy to automatic sympathy and presumed innocence but Muslim women remain permanently suspect for faking, lying, and being libidinous.

Feminists have insisted that women’s sexual history or ‘morality’ should not be relevant in adjudications of sex crimes. Ironically, this privilege is being extended to Imran Khan by his supporters. They do not consider his history of casual sexual encounters as evidence of his guilt, or the absence of such a record for Gulalai as proof of her innocence. Imran Khan’s defenders need to decide if past morality and track records feature in judging something called ‘character’. The vaguely defined virtue articles 62 and 63 of the constitution have opened the floodgates of political character assassinations and morality must stop being used as a political weapon.

However, sexual harassment is not a moral issue — it’s a crime.

Disowning

Male privilege owns public spaces and flaunting masculinity is admired but if women show political or sexual confidence, they are condemned. This gender game is historic and in postcolonial societies, women are considered the viruses that can destroy tribes and betray nations, or be the cure if they obey its rules and suffer silently the internal discrimination and even abuse.

The claim to deny domicile to Gulalai by the grand jirga of North Waziristan encapsulates the politics of expelling the ‘compromised’ betrayer, so well. Her celebrated sister became collateral damage and was stripped of her independent achievements as collective punishment for Gulalai’s challenge to male privilege. So much for all those who fêted the victimhood of honourable tribesmen of Waziristan as poor Muslim males throughout the ‘War on Terror’. If there’s one thing patriarchy bonds over, it’s the dispensability of women.

One male television anchor interviewing Gulalai ruled that if women face sexual harassment from the party leadership they should vacate their political seats as a ‘fair’ resolution. Another male media anchor interrogated her on why she chose to stay in the party — just like all those who ask women why they stay in abusive marriages. It’s a lose-lose for political women — stay invisible and survive, speak out and disappear.

Most disappointing is the disowning of Gulalai’s cause by prominent women activists and politicians. Feminism is not about taking a woman’s ‘side’ but recognising that in an extremely unequal culture, the cost of speaking out is much, much higher than the rewards. It means a lifetime of being stigmatised and labelled as victim, liar or betrayer.

Strangely, several of these women who are skeptical of Gulalai’s allegations have themselves been accused of being unpatriotic, betrayers and sexually compromised because they breach the male fields of politics or journalism, or have Indian friends, or do not conform to appropriate dress codes. Do we really need to lend credibility to the majoritarian suspicion, and become the token ‘good women’, who speak out against ‘bad women’, rather than extending the benefit of doubt to the complainant?

After the treatment of Gulalai, how many women are likely to break the silence at all? Perversely, comparing Ayesha Ahad’s allegations of defamation against the PML-N only dilutes the sexual harassment issue by confusing sexist insults and libel, with sexual intimidation. Both are objectionable and proof of systemic misogyny but sexual harassment is an advanced, gendered and illegal form of violence.

Nothing new about the PTI

The political mudslinging across the issue of women’s harassment is a sad mirror of our gender and class biases, and exposes the predatory male environment of party politics in Pakistan. As elections loom, voters should be clear that the PTI is not a party but a cult with a male frat boy following.

Any criticism of its culture will be converted into a character assassination of the critic, any judgement against the leader will be seen as a result of bribery, any shortfall of votes will be proof that Pakistan does not deserve democracy, any turncoat who leaves the party is a traitor but any defector who joins is welcomed and valued as upright and honest — no matter his track record as bigot and sexist.

Diverting blame on to other parties as equally misogynist, nepotistic or corrupt is simply acknowledgment that the PTI is no different from them and still pretends that it is.

As long as the PTI leadership embraces men with proven records of abusive behaviour against women and does not condemn its following of trolls who gang-shame and abuse women, the culture of gender abuse will only strengthen. And if people like Shafqat Mahmood and Shirin Mazari shield such behaviour, and give it impunity rather than attempt to tackle the sexism and racism that define the PTI, we are only likely to see far more cases in the future.

For those who support some imagined and completely unproven entity they like to call Naya Pakistan, they should be very worried — about their leadership but also about themselves.

Afiya Shehrbano Zia

aafiya sheharbano
The writer is a researcher based in Karachi.

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