Moni Mohsin, Pakistan's famous social butterfly, on Imran Khan's latest scandal
Misogynistic attacks on Ayesha Gulalai, who accused Khan of sexual harassment, lay bare an all too familiar reality of public life in Pakistan.
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An ageing celebrity-turned-political leader, with a huge following on social media, favoured by the country’s conservative establishment. Less than a year away from a general election, gets publicly accused of sexual harassment by a much younger woman.
Sounds familiar? No, I don’t mean Donald Trump.
I mean Imran Khan, the former pin-up who now leads Pakistan’s main opposition party and covets the office of the prime minister.
Earlier this week Ayesha Gulalai, a young woman member of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Justice Party) publicly accused him of sending her lewd text messages. In her statement, Gulalai said "the respect of women is not intact at the hands of Imran Khan and the men around him". What was in the texts? Gulalai would rather not say. "No one with any honour will be able to stomach the kind of language used," she demurred.
While her timing may seem opportunistic (Gulalai took aim at Khan just as he was finally unseating Nawaz Sharif) and her claims have yet to be proven, few can feign surprise at the notion of a glad-eyed Khan, who is well-known for his jet-setting playboy past. Yet this is exactly how Khan’s worshippers have reacted.
Ayesha Gulalai with Imran Khan (Image:Twitter/Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf)
Within the party, PTI leaders have accused Gulalai of political blackmail and receiving money from Khan’s opponents. They have ordered her to withdraw her allegations and apologise publicly or pay a hefty fine of Rs 30 million. Some have even suggested she be hauled before a jirga (an all-male tribal institution notorious for mandating retributive gang rape of "disobedient women").
Running parallel to the party’s raging response is the far more disturbing assault on Gulalai by Khan’s online followers.
"Girls die for Imran Khan;) he don’t lift (sic) ugly girls like ayesha_gulalay" said one troll.
"I wish someone throws acid on Ayesha Gulalai’s face… that’s the least one can do to this miserable bitch," opined another.
Even her sister, Maria Toorpekai, a champion squash player, has not been spared. Her photos playing matches in regular sports wear, cropped to zero in on her bare legs beneath her white shorts, have been plastered all over the internet as "proof" of her sexual availability. Women who have defended Gulalai and her sister have been similarly savaged.
The ugliness of these attacks, most of which centre on Gulalai and her sister’s physical being, has alarmed many and raised questions about the mindset of Khan’s constituency.
But inflammatory sexualised attacks on outspoken women has a long, sad history in Pakistan. When Fatima Jinnah, sister of Pakistan’s beloved founder, rose up against military dictator Ayub Khan, she was pilloried as a raging, bitter spinster-turned-Indian agent.
Benazir Bhutto’s doctored photographs showing her in a miniskirt were scattered over Pakistani cities from unmarked helicopters. Mukhtaran Mai, the victim of a brutal gang rape, was memorably dismissed by General Pervez Musharraf, then ruling Pakistan, as an opportunistic aspirant for a Canadian visa. Five years after her ordeal, Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai is still routinely called a "bitch" and "drama queen" by Pakistanis.
Of course, Imran Khan’s involvement has made the current furore that engulfs Gulalai, while not new, deeply ironic. Hurling damaging, baseless accusations are, in fact, the PTI’s stock-in-trade. Indeed, Khan has made a political career out of it.
For the past four years, unable or unwilling to accept the will of the people, he has shouted himself hoarse about how the 2013 election was stolen from him. Never mind that all international observers declared it the most transparent election in Pakistan’s history. Time and again he has accused his rivals from mainstream opposition parties as well as the election commission and a cable television channel of cheating him out of his entitlement.
It goes without saying that he has been unable to provide conclusive proof for any of these allegations. In fact, when pressed for evidence by a TV anchor, Khan grinned sheepishly and mumbled: "That was just political talk." He has also publicly labelled bipartisan activists and journalists, who have dared to offer rational critiques of his policies, "dollar khor" (dollar-eaters, shorthand for treacherous CIA agents). Again, without a shred of evidence.
Having spent a decade working as a journalist in Lahore, I couldn’t help but think of these depressing truths while following the online frenzy around Gulalai’s accusation.
Whether or not her claims are grounded in fact, the treatment meted out to her by the PTI and its followers lays bare an all too familiar reality of public life in Pakistan. Women who expose unpalatable aspects of patriarchy or take unpopular political positions are always punished in the most hideous ways.
And for this reason alone, I can’t help but admire Gulalai’s guts.