Editor’s Note: Rafia Zakaria is the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” (Beacon 2015) and “Veil” (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn newspaper in Pakistan and The Baffler. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
If, as Imran Khan claims, his party – the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) – is victorious in the Pakistani general election, the women of that nation may face a disastrous era of gender discrimination and repression.
The clues that Khan’s ascent bodes poorly for Pakistani women can be found in the lead-up to the election. In one recent interview with Hum news, Khan denounced Western feminism as an impediment to motherhood. And his promise of making Pakistan an Islamic state, something that has in the past meant heightened restrictions on women, is also making Pakistani feminists shudder.
Ironically, it was the July 6, 2018, conviction of a woman, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, and her father, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, for corruption that made room for Khan’s victory. With his main opponents sitting in Adiala Jail, there was nothing to stop him.
Leaders from Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League alleged election rigging even before the polls opened. Others pointed fingers at Pakistan’s meddlesome military, which may benefit from Khan, a Pashtun Prime Minister, if elected, who could quell any residual Taliban rebellions and orchestrate post-conflict peace. Though Khan denies suggestions that he’s the military preferred candidate.
If Khan keeps his pro-military stance and wants to appease the militants within the country, his Pakistan will not be a progressive country committed to gender equality. Religious hardliners in Pakistan have, in the past, opposed legislation that criminalizes domestic violence, saying that would “westernize” society. They are unlikely to change this stance.
And many of these extremist hardliners have now been empowered by Khan claiming victory in Pakistan’s disputed elections. They include Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil, one of the early leaders in the anti-Soviet mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s – which eventually gave birth to the Taliban and al Qaeda. Khalil also led, according to Pakistani newspaper Dawn, a designated terrorist organization that has since been banned by the government.
The mission of Khalil’s group, which speedily announced support for Khan’s PTI after meeting one of its top leaders,Asad Umar, includes putting an “end [to] secularist, obscene and risqué culture on media” and giving “support to fighters” that are safeguarding the respect of the Holy Prophet. That “support” included pushing for the release of Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin who shot down Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, in 2011 because Taseer had the temerity to defend a Christian woman accused of blasphemy. (Qadri was eventually executed, but hailed as a martyr at his funeral attended by thousands of people.)
In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the province that Khan’s PTI party controlled, 277 million rupees were allotted to the Darul-Uloom Haqqania, a religious seminary known to have links with the Tehreek-e-Taliban, a militant group that some PTI member have links to.
If these religious hardliners, who share Khan’s anti-Americanism and ultra-nationalism, make up the dominant voice in a PTI-led government, it will be game over for Pakistani women.
Religious hardliners want to implement Sharia law and have long supported increased prosecutions under the Zina and Hudood Ordinances of 1979, which criminalize adultery and fornication. Vaguely written, the laws institute sentences of lashings and even stoning to death – and have been used to imprison women at the mere accusation of illicit behavior.
Increased prosecutions under these laws, which equate control of women as being authentically Islamic and doggedly anti-Western, will destroy the legal and political progress Pakistani women have made in recent years. When women’s progress is seen as a western concept, the result is unending suffering and retrogression for all Pakistani women who want to move toward gender equality.
Khan’s personal life is not a repository of hope either. His second wife, Reham Khan, made accusations of domestic abuse when the pair divorced (Khan denies the claim). And, there was the scandal from August, when Ayesha Gulalai, a young lawmaker from Khan’s own PTI, alleged that Khan had sent her indecent and inappropriate text messages. Khan denied the allegations and the PTI women’a wing threatened to send her to a tribal council for judgment if she didn’t withdraw them.
But Khan could choose to sideline Islamist hardliners and refuse to use restrictions on the visibility of women as symbols of his political power. To silence feminist critics who are dreading Khan’s promised “change” and anti-Western rhetoric as a disavowal of women’s rights, Khan could install PTI women in important positions within his cabinet. Selecting a woman as Pakistan’s Foreign Minister or Interior Minister or both would send a message of hope and inspiration to all Pakistani women.
Khan could also avoid the petulance of previous Pakistani leaders who seek to immediately undo the reforms of their predecessors as soon as they come into power. Take Punjab’s Women Protection Law, which has allowed for the criminalization of domestic violence. The resources the law has provided at the district level has allowed for the arrest of abusers and their public shaming.
Opposed by religious hardliners, the law has been a crucial intervention in a country where every second a woman reports facing violence in the home. If Khan wants to represent all Pakistanis, women included, he should expand the Punjab legislation to the whole country.
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It is also possible that Khan will choose this latter path. Many Pakistani expatriates living in the United States and United Kingdom have supported his candidacy, arguing that his program for a self-sufficient Pakistan, no longer dominated by the usual cadre of feudal and industrialist families, is compelling. Khan’s commitment to these expats is evident in the PTI manifesto, which devotes a separate section to them. This constituency, interested in a visibly progressive Pakistan that is a part of the international community, could serve as a check on religious hardliners and pressure Khan to take an inclusive stance toward women.
Pakistani women know never to expect much from their leaders, scarred as they are by continual disappointments. Perhaps Khan has been waiting to win before he commits to improving the lot of his nation’s women. If that is so, then this is the time to do it, take a stand as a pro-women prime minister whose anti-feudal and anti-corruption platform ushers not a regressive dystopia where Pakistani women must hide and huddle, but one in which they can proudly rise and lead.