The rupee may be sliding but sexism in Pakistan is at its peak

That Imran Khan's statement about Mariam Nawaz at the Multan rally reeks of innuendo and sexism cannot be debated.
Updated 26 May, 2022

On a recent trip to London, a British man asked me my thoughts on Imran Khan given all the political upheaval in April. Too complex to unpack in small talk with a stranger waiting for a cab, I turned the question back on him. “He’s a misogynist — a complete misogynist who lived like a playboy and now wants to police women,” came the reply.

This story on its own doesn't merit a mention because really, what does the opinion of one random 40-something Brit matter? But since Imran misses no opportunity to bring up how much he knows the West and how well the people there know him and respect him unlike the Sharif brothers and Asif Ali Zardari and his son Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, our former prime minister should know — in case it still hasn’t dawned on him — that monetary corruption isn’t the only thing that can damage one's reputation.

On Friday night, addressing a rally of thousands, Imran while delivering his political rhetoric said this: “I was sent the video of Maryam's speech on social media yesterday; in that speech she took my name so many times with such jazba and junoon that I want to tell her to be careful, your husband might get upset at you taking my name so often.”

Even typing these words made me cringe, so I hope reading them or listening to Imran say them is as uncomfortable for everyone else.

That the statement reeks of innuendo and sexism cannot be debated, so let us get that out of the way.

Defending the indefensible

Imran Khan at this moment is vying for votes, his party's popularity and its narrative, and his legacy. His comments about women — while not detrimental to the first two — will have an impact on the last, which is perhaps the most important to someone like him who would very much like to be immortalised as a great man in the pages of history.

The problematic viewpoints of Imran are not Maryam-specific; he has put his foot in his mouth multiple times before when talking about women. His statements on sexual harassment and women's dressing akin to victim blaming are still as triggering as they were last year when he made them.

But there were those who defended him then and will do so now as well.

Some comments to this article will point out that other politicians, including Maryam, have made derogatory comments about Imran and his family. Imran's supporters will say the PML-N and PPP have painted Bushra Bibi in the sexist role of a scheming and controlling wife. Others will point out how Jemima Goldsmith is still not spared of harassment because of her association with Imran.

And I will point out the gratuitous tweet by PML-N, via its official Twitter account, right after the Multan rally, which showed a photo of Imran Khan's sons and Tyrian White with the message saying how could a man who has not "owned up to his own daughter" respect the daughters of others.

That’s the merry-go-round of political filth that no one can get off.

But none of that absolves Imran and his words. Imran Khan, unlike the brash mouthpieces of PTI and PML-N, is the face of a party. He is venerated by millions of young men and women. A former prime minister. A man watched and even sometimes still revered by the international media. He’s a nearly 70 year old man whose first wife has had to deal with perpetual harassment. His current wife was not spared either. And yet, at a rally, while addressing thousands of people looking to him as the future of the country, he made these comments about Maryam.

The point remains that Imran is and should be held to a higher standard. If for no other reason than this simple one: he has time and again told Pakistanis he’s different from the rest. His entire political career, and even appeal, has been built on that. So either he has to walk the talk or stop selling himself as the man who stands apart from your "typical politicians", as he often refers to them.

An enabler to what end?

One of the glaring problems with Imran’s crassness is that his comment about Maryam will enable and encourage young boys as well as men to refer to women and girls in this manner. It begins with Maryam, her husband, their marital relationship and her saying Imran's name and moves on to women that these boys and men know in their personal and professional lives.

We already live in a society where if a female employee goes to the office of a male employee one too many times, whispers start. If a female student has lunch with a male student, stories are concocted. Fathers, husbands and brothers ask the females in their families to find "women only" working environments. Female cooks and cleaners who take a rickshaw or a bus to work to make their livelihood go back to families and husbands who constantly question their character.

Imran’s comments about modesty and rape were in the same vein; he was perpetuating a dangerous notion and enabling men to shun off the responsibility of committing the act because of “temptation”.

These statements, which Imran refuses to apologise for, show how disconnected he is from the women of this country and what they go through; how he doesn’t realise that women who dress head to toe in an abaya and hijab are felt up though they offer no 'temptation by dressing immodestly.'

He is insensitive to the reality that women in positions of power and leadership already face sexist comments and suggestive looks. Everything from their marital status and how many kids they have or don’t have to how much effort they put into their appearance and what tone they take when talking to men — it’s all burdensomely dissected.

Him making a lewd comment about Maryam taking his name and her husband being offended is feeding into this mindset and he cannot escape responsibility under the garb of she’s fair game because she's a public figure or because she lashes out at him as a political opponent.

At the risk of a tarnished legacy

Coming back to his legacy — I bring it up in hopes that perhaps this is the one thing that may give Imran pause, because so much that has already been said and written about his sexist comments seems to have had no effect. 'Jokes' like these about Maryam may get him cheers from the crowd and earn him chuckles from his male comrades but it won’t do any good to the memory of him.

Talk about your political opponent's work, her alleged corruption, the Calibri scandal all you want, but leave her status as a mother, a wife and a grandmother alone. And more importantly, don't make innuendos that are unbecoming of a former prime minister, of someone who wants to be prime minister again, of someone who frequently uses Islamic references to make his point and of someone who says he's a role model for the youth of the country.

No one can take away the fact that Imran will be remembered as a star cricketer, a contentious prime minister, a formidable opposition leader, an ardent philanthropist — but also as a serial sexist? If these last two words offend him, and they should, then I hope he gives a deep thought to his viewpoints related to women over the years and contemplates what he’s leaving behind for generations to remember him as.