Monday, August 7, 2017

Pakistan - In defence of Ayesha Gulalai

By Tabinda M. Khan
I was a local worker and elected representative of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) from 2012 to 2015, and can attest to the culture of chauvinism that Naz Baloch and Ayesha Gulalai have spoken about. In 2012, chauvinism in PTI was a bit controlled, but after the party was captured by ‘electables’ in 2013, its internal democratic structures, which protected the interests of grassroots workers, women, and the youth, were progressively weakened and then completely dismantled in 2016. As PTI was de-democratised, Imran Khan and his immediate team became the supreme leaders, unconstrained by party institutions that could regulate or restrain their behaviour.
There has always been zero tolerance for dissent in the party. Javed Hashmi was called senile because he accused Imran Khan of having links with the military during the first sit-in against Nawaz Sharif government in 2013. Justice (Retd) Wajihuddin was called out of touch with political realities when he asked Imran Khan to penalise Jehangir Tareen for rigging the intra-party elections. Tasneem Noorani faded into the background, without a ripple, after he resigned as PTI’s Election Commissioner in 2016. Noorani had insisted that elections for the party leadership be held at all levels, including the national level, but Imran Khan rejected his demand and sided with Tareen’s preference for a top-down structure, in which grassroots workers were dis-empowered.
Naz Baloch was called a turncoat and opportunist, when she left PTI for PPP, and exposed the ‘institutional disarray and chauvinism’ within the party.
Gulalai has committed the ultimate crime of suggesting that perhaps Imran Khan is not the saviour he claims to be, that perhaps he is worse than those he seeks to replace. Unlike other whistle-blowers, her story is receiving greater attention because it has a sexual angle and Pakistani viewers, like those the world over, are titillated by such stories. While other dissenters were called senile, unrealistic, or opportunistic — and promptly faded from the public imagination — Gulalai’s story will be repeated over and over in the media and, therefore, she is a whistle-blower who may leave a greater dent in Imran’s credibility.
Without knowing the facts of Gulalai’s interaction with Imran Khan, we should refrain from issuing judgments. But how are attacks on her character justified? As a former PTI worker, witness to the institutional vacuum in the party and the chauvinistic and elitist attitudes of the national-level (almost entirely male) leadership, I believe the sequence of events she narrates sounds credible and deserves a serious investigation. When most women in Pakistan face unwelcome and repeated sexual advances by male colleagues, what do they do? They initially tend to ignore it but later erect barriers — such as avoiding one-on-one interaction with the man or asking family members to confront him. And finally, if the situation persists, they choose to quit. That is essentially what Gulalai did.
Staying silent about sexual harassment is the norm in our society. Had Gulalai spoken out against Imran Khan in 2013, she would have lost her position in PTI and the opportunity to serve her constituents as an MNA. Staying silent about sexual harassment is the norm in our society. Had Gulalai spoken out against Imran Khan in 2013, she would have lost her position in PTI and the opportunity to serve her constituents as an MNA. It is plausible that she chose to focus her attention on the larger cause — the vision that Imran Khan and PTI ostensibly represented — and ignore unwelcome advances. It is also plausible that she confronted Imran Khan about corruption within PTI during their last meeting, was humiliated by him, and decided to speak out publicly only then, because she felt that it not worth putting up with his behaviour if he had also abandoned his political mission and was selling voters the lie of a corruption-free Pakistan. Several grassroots workers, who have levelled corruption allegations against Jehangir Tareen, Aleem Khan, and Pervez Khattak, have reportedly returned with stories of being humiliated by the chairman. It is plausible that this was the last straw that led her to abandon PTI and voice long-held grievances.
It is difficult to decide who to believe in Pakistan these days and maybe Gulalai was used as a “pawn” by the PML-N, as PTI and her worst critics allege. But PTI’s behavior in the aftermath only confirms its disrespect of women. In the media, PTI spokespeople — men and women — have shamed Gulalai’s sister, a national squash player, for wearing shorts, and have threatened to hold a tribal jirga and demolish her house. KP PTI leaders have accused Gulalai of corruption and the province’s Accountability Bureau is reportedly launching a case against her. Even if we suspend judgment on Gulalai’s allegations till the investigation is done, PTI’s leaders personal attacks on her are condemnable to say the least.
Parliament has formed an inquiry committee but PEMRA and law enforcement agencies should also play their role in protecting Gulalai. The laws against cyber crime should be used to restrain those bullying her and the institutions established under the sexual harassment law should take notice of her case. Human rights activists should use Gulalai’s case as an opportunity to test and strengthen sexual harassment and cyber crime laws so protection of women rights can be ensured.

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