The backburner is no place for women’s rights.
The law minister of the Punjab has asked me to remain “noncontroversial” and refrain from making any film that features characters based on him or his party bosses. Otherwise, he has warned, he may commission a film based on my “past” that will make my life “difficult.”
The minister scandalously escaped justice after the brutal police killings of at least 14 Minhaj-ul-Quran activists in Lahore last year, and his response to the recent child-rape scandal in Kasur has been reprehensible. If he weren’t so blinded by his unearned self-regard, he would realize that someone like him or his bosses could never be featured, even peripherally, in a work like Janaan—an Urdu-language feature I am producing to promote a positive image of Pakistan.
So the threats on the national airwaves from a man who wears his misogyny and contempt for others on his sleeve surprise no one. What remains a source of endless bafflement and concern is that others accept and condone such rank sexism with their silence.
To be clear, I own my life and my decisions. I am proud of whatever I have been able to achieve and do not cower at the prospect of anyone dredging up my “past.” I have been through battle, many times over. I know how to defend myself. I know how to fight—and win. This isn’t about me. This is about the millions of Pakistani women, far less privileged than I, being told that their gender makes them fair game should they defy the quaint notions of abject domesticity cherished as virtue by small-minded clucks like the Punjab minister.
Society is unaware of how deep the rot goes. Even our educated circles lack gender sensitivity and are unaware of what is appropriate or politically correct. On Aug. 14, I participated in a women’s empowerment event in Karachi. The women speakers shared their daily frustrations and trials, they spoke of the gender bias in our language and media, but they still held out hope that one day women would not be punished for having their own dreams and paths because of their sex. The male host, who is a friend, regaled the audience with sexist verse and jokes.
Self-proclaimed liberals are among the worst offenders. Many of them on social media identify with the Pakistan Peoples Party—which gave the country its first woman prime minister, first woman speaker of the National Assembly, first woman foreign minister—and they routinely and garrulously express indignation over women being wronged in other parts of the world. Yet, when it comes to Pakistani women who do not share their worldview, their vicious, misogynistic attacks fly in the face of everything they claim to represent.
But is fairness to women really an issue when there are far bigger troubles? The daily spate of bad news—crime, lawlessness, energy and water crises, police brutality, injustice—has always pushed the nagging women’s “issue” to the backburner, where it is expected to brew quietly. Even with the so-called bigger issues, there is a disquieting numbness that has come over us. No one bats an eyelid when a self-declared “dacoit” wins the by-election in Haripur’s NA-19 constituency or when the prime minister says accusations of murder against the Punjab law minister are not an issue for law-enforcement agencies but their party’s “internal matter.” In such an age, even those who claim to be enlightened find easy distraction in the sad sport of taking women they judge to be errant down a peg or two.
I campaigned in Haripur at the behest of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf candidate, as I did in April for Karachi’s NA-246 by-election. In both cases, the aim was to show women they have nothing to fear by participating in the political process. But others, and not just the party’s political opponents, relayed another message by attacking me: If “Mrs. Imran Khan” can be mercilessly attacked, the less privileged better stay in line and think twice before daring to step up.
My husband and I have much in common—and not just our last name. I have made my own way, struggling to raise and educate my children. I abandoned all fear a long time ago. Imran didn’t inherit his political mantle; he built his own life. We both know what it is like to fight to make something out of nothing, against all odds. This is what brought us together. And this is why I am able to walk beside him, not behind him. How’s that for tabdeeli?
I support Imran Khan because I believe in his cause. The message we sent through our joint press appearance on Aug. 18 could not be clearer: If my campaigning for the PTI is being taken as some form of entitlement, the misperception must be set right. This is no surrender to the onslaught of sexist attacks. This was our decision and, given how I have been politicized, the correct one. All political parties, including the PTI, must practice what they preach and be the change they promise. This is only possible through brave and honest introspection.
I own my past and my present. I am privileged to have the support of my husband and children, and I am proud of the work that I am able to undertake with their encouragement and abiding faith. I neither have nor aspire to any party position, any government position or official protocol. Imran Khan and I represent a modern, progressive Pakistan. This is the first time that Pakistan has a wife of a political leader who is a working woman, who was a divorcee, who has been a single parent, who works in the media, and who has a voice and mind of her own.
This is what many people apparently cannot handle. That is their problem. I can handle whatever comes, the gratuitous attacks and the scurrilous smears. But the public approval accorded to such vitriol through silence is far more insidious. It is aimed at putting down all women. Fortunately, Pakistani women are battle-hardened. Those who think we will simply wither away, unseen and unheard, have another thing coming. That change is here. But are we ready for it?
Khan is a journalist and filmmaker. From our Aug. 29 – Sept. 5, 2015, issue.