All the Prime Minister’s Women

Female members of Imran Khan’s party claim that Pakistan’s new leader has their interests at heart. Does he?

Pakistani cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan comforts a Kashmiri woman during a visit to Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir in November 2005.
Pakistani cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan comforts a Kashmiri woman during a visit to Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir in November 2005. (BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)

It was a hot day in mid-July when Salman Sufi found out that he had been fired. Until then, Sufi had been a senior member of the Punjab chief minister’s Special Monitoring Unit, where he had, among other things, developed and implemented the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act in 2016. The law was controversial, not least because it allowed for speedy hearings on cases, made special provisions for the development of women’s shelters, expedited procedures that allowed for the removal of abusive men from homes, and sought to implement GPS tracking of abusers. The country’s ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), was committed to getting the reforms through in the province of Punjab, and Sufi was there to help it do so.

The days before the bill was finally passed in 2016 were difficult ones for Sufi; religious hard-liners fired shots at his house. At the last minute, male members of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), the political party of the former cricket star Imran Khan, walked off the assembly floor, refusing to vote for the legislation. The women of the party stayed, in protest. Later, when the vote was called, the men never returned. In the words of one female lawmaker, the men “feel they are being plotted against.” Still, the bill passed.

Sufi, who had drafted the original legislation, was relieved when it passed in Punjab. Somewhere in the process, he had approached Khan, the PTI’s chairman, hoping to convince him to introduce similar legislation in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the province where Khan’s party controlled the government. According to Sufi, Khan seemed reluctant. Then, instead of moving the legislation forward, he referred it to the Council of Islamic Ideology, an advisory body of religious scholars. Muhammad Khan Sherani, the head of the council, declared the law against the “spirit of Islam” because husbands are permitted to “lightly beat” their wives.

In the years after the bill’s passage, Sufi focused on its implementation in Punjab as an unpaid volunteer. He opened shelters and established the Women Protection Authority and even introduced gender violence as a topic in the high school social studies curriculum. When he learned of his firing on July 15, 10 days before the general election, he was shocked.

These were tumultuous days in Pakistan; a little over a week earlier, on July 6, a court in Islamabad had found Pakistan’s deposed prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and his daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif guilty of graft. The decision to fire Sufi was made just a few days later. On July 13, both Sharifs were arrested and thrown in prison. Although Nawaz’s brother, Shahbaz—the premier in Punjab province—would still contest the elections, it was clear that the PML-N could not recover. Many alleged that Pakistan’s powerful military was behind the verdict, and the 371,000 soldiers who were deployed to provide security lend some credence to this argument.

When Pakistanis voted on July 25, Khan’s PTI came out ahead, paving the way for him to become prime minister. A day after the polls, Khan declared victory, promising to create a country in the image of Medina, the first Islamic city-state, governed by the Prophet Mohammed in the seventh century. In the meantime, the election observation mission from the European Union declared there had been “systematic attempts to undermine the ruling party” and that there was no “equality of opportunity.”

The victory of one party over another should not herald the end of progress in the realm of women’s rights, not least because Pakistani women are so far behind in terms of literacy and progress. More than 60 percent of the country’s poorest women get married before they are 18. Nearly 100 percent of the poorest are deprived of education, most of them in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the province Khan’s party has led since 2013.

The fact that Khan and his party opposed domestic violence legislation in 2006, failed to back the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act in 2016, and deferred to the Islamic council on Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s law the same year doesn’t bode well. For the 2018 elections, his party selected just six women to run, barely meeting the 5 percent quota that the Election Commission of Pakistan required of all parties to compete in the election. Only two of them won, as opposed to 114 PTI men.

There is some hope. One of the two women elected was 33-year-old Zartaj Gul, a political newcomer, who unseated a longtime feudal candidate belonging to a powerful clan. Gul, who lost her brother in a terrorist attack, connected with a population that has been plagued by both terrorism and military operations. Campaigning tirelessly, Gul held five or six events per day in the last days before the election. Her husband, Akhwand Humayun Raza, ran for a provincial seat from the same constituency, and the two regularly campaigned together. While her win is certainly a cause for celebration, her relative political inexperience and lack of support within the party may mean that she does not have enough clout to push women’s rights initiatives that many of the powerful men, not least Khan himself, oppose.

In Punjab, there is a PTI woman who does have political experience and the clout needed to actually make a difference. Yasmin Rashid, a longtime activist and leader, lost her national assembly seat but did manage to win her Punjab provincial assembly seat in a close race. There was even speculation that she could become the PTI candidate for chief minister of Punjab. After the election, an informal social media campaign pushed her candidacy, with many people declaring support. In the days since, a party whose support the PTI requires for its ruling coalition has demanded the post of chief minister as part of the deal—and that could mean the end of Rashid’s chances.

Finally, there is Shireen Mazari, one of the most vocal and visible women in the PTI and one of Khan’s closest advisors. Mazari is a longtime supporter of the Pakistani military and a fixture in Khan’s immediate circle. She has even defended him against allegations of sexual harassment. Last year, Mazari addressed an all-women press conference in which she refuted then-National Assembly member Ayesha Gulalai’s allegations that Khan had been sending inappropriate text messages and had propositioned her. Calling the charges a “disrespect to all PTI women,” Mazari branded Gulalai an “opportunist.” While the charges were never proved, Mazari’s loyalty certainly was. A repayment of that show of loyalty could come Mazari’s way in the form of the Ministry of Information portfolio in the new government.

But no matter how many senior offices women occupy, it remains an open question whether any of these female PTI members can help Pakistani women fight a regressive social order that does not prioritize their progress. After all, Pakistani women have never voted as a bloc. Patriarchal beliefs ensure that women primarily identify with male politicians’ interests and prioritize those interests over their own. This fact is largely lost even on urban women, who allege that their support for Khan automatically means that he is a pro-woman candidate. PTI women make a similarly circular argument; women such as Gul suggest that they are the embodiment of empowerment and proof that Khan is not “against women.”

The PTI has not yet formed a government, and it is too early to tell if Gul and her colleagues are being naively optimistic or if Khan will prove them right. For regular Pakistani women, there is a more pressing concern: At present, the Special Monitoring Unit in charge of protecting the 50 percent of Pakistani women who face domestic violence is in jeopardy. And laws removing abusers from the home, always the dominion of a man in Pakistan, are proving difficult to pass and even harder to enforce. Pakistan had been making progress in this area in the two years since the passage of the landmark bill in Punjab. But now, with past champions such as Sufi summarily and inexplicably removed from office and new champions hard to find, that progress has stalled.

If the PTI, like Pakistan’s hard-line religious establishment, embraces the premise that all progress for women is a Western intrusion, then Imran Khan’s Pakistan will be a dark, dystopian, and regressive place for all women—including the ones who have so fervently championed his candidacy.

Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan and Veil. She is a columnist for Dawn in Pakistan and writes the "Read Other Women" series at the Boston Review. Twitter: @rafiazakaria

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