In an attempt to belittle his political rival Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, Pakistani PM Imran Khan, who is on the list of 100 most influential figures of 2019 according to Time magazine, referred to him as ‘madam’ (sahiba in Urdu).
— Ali Salman Alvi (@alisalmanalvi) April 24, 2019
As someone who was born and raised in Pakistan, I am hardly surprised. Rather, PM Khan’s misogynist statement makes perfect sense to me, given the hold that patriarchy has over the semi-colonial country.
This is not the first time that PM Khan has made a public display of misogynist behaviour – earlier, he dismissed feminism as a western concept that has degraded the role of the mother. Given the track record of most of our mainstream politicians, it won’t be the PM’s last such display either.
— Bilal Farooqi (@bilalfqi) June 17, 2018
Is feminism so much of a western concept? If it is, then what shall we say about the likes of PM Khan who actually mirror western reactionaries like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro via their sexist indulgences? Unless one lets go of this fixation on the West around which everything revolves, literally everything under the sun can be dismissed as ‘western’.
Now, why is PM Khan’s display of misogyny not shocking? Simply because it mirrors the everyday behaviour of our patriarchal society.
Take a look at the backlash that the current women’s marches in Pakistan received. Most of the criticism is rooted in how the demands – both the ones that were collectively made in public statements by the organisers as well as the ones that individuals came up with to challenge patriarchy on hand-made posters – are a threat to the family. PM Khan’s obsession with the role of the mother is a reiteration of the same fear: if Pakistani women become feminists, they might, one day, want to abandon the institution of the family as they would come to recognise it as the root of their oppression. If they become feminists, they would cease to see motherhood as the only source of value in their lives. If they become feminists, they would not put up with casual sexism and normalised misogyny. If they become feminists, patriarchy would fall apart.
Normalisation of misogyny is a phenomenon that can be found everywhere in Pakistan, be it the public sphere or the private, the rural sphere or urban. If you take issue with jokes that belittle women or other non-male populations, you are asked to simply ‘lighten up’. Similarly, strict codes of gendered behaviour are enforced. Men and women are expected to behave in specific ways and any sort of violation is reprimanded by means of punitive action that can range from ostracism to making the deviant the subject of disgusting jokes. I certainly do not agree with the politics of Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, whom PM Khan has attempted to belittle. Nevertheless, I often see sickening humour being generated at his expense. Most of the jokes revolve around how ‘effeminate’ he is, simply because he does not conform to the hyper-masculine role that is considered desirable for men in Pakistan. This is also one of the examples that go on to show how patriarchy is harmful to all of us. You face the risk of shame the moment you deviate from the gender role that is assigned to you.
So, what can be done to shame Pakistanis into giving up the war against patriarchy, wonder the patriarchs and their sycophants. The most immediate and easily accessible answer they see in sight is to label the movement itself as western and portray it as a contradiction to a presumed monolithic culture. The myth of a homogeneous ‘Pakistani culture’ is perpetuated by the Protectors of Patriarchy. As per this myth, ‘Pakistani culture’ is the same across the country with no possibility of variations along the lines of ethnicity or other markers of identity. This monolithic culture stands on yet another myth, i.e. that it stands on the foundation of Islam, as if Islam, again, were a set of values and practices that were homogeneous across the country and the globe. The fact that Pakistani women, like any women across the globe, have been rising against patriarchy across age and time is something that does not concern the Protectors of Patriarchy. Their concerns revolve around how ‘shameful’ Pakistani feminists are for refusing to heat his food or for saying that if men like the head covering so much, they should wear it.
Nonetheless, as Pakistani women showed it during the women’s marches, all such myths of monolithic culture based on a self-serving interpretation of Islam stand debunked today. People who indulge in misogyny and sexism cannot get away with it any more, regardless of their power. The prime minister must get his act together and apologise for his reactionary indulgences as women in Pakistan will continue to speak truth to power.