A woman’s conscious struggle to break free from the dehumanisation and shame she has experienced in the past should ideally be lauded, and yet it yields completely the opposite results the minute she speaks out publicly. It happens the world over, and the situation in Pakistan is no different.
On August 1, Ayesha Gulalai – a Member of the National Assembly and now former member of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf – came forward with allegations of harassment against Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chairman Imran Khan and claimed that she had been receiving lewd messages and overtures from him since October 2013.
She also openly condemned the overall problem of misogyny, as well as corruption within the party, particularly among party members at the leadership level. Gulalai’s allegations were largely rejected by the public, leading to a backlash.
The inevitability of the backlash stems from the fact that in the majority of cases involving harassment, women are, more often than not, castigated whenever they speak up and hold a public figure accountable for his actions.
Fans of Khan have also lauded Fawad Chaudhry’s uncalled-for attacks on Gulalai which targeted her sister Maria Toorpakai’s squash career and the fact that she wears shorts – her official sports uniform – during tournaments.
Culture of misogyny
Ayesha Gulalai and her sister are not the same person, and attacking her to defend an alleged harasser points at the very core of the problem. Such comments ultimately speak volumes of the pervasive internal culture of misogyny in Pakistan’s political parties and how easy it is for male party members and supporters alike to disrespect women.
A lot of the criticism stemmed from the fact that Gulalai decided to address the issue after years of silence. Even some women – party members, celebrities, and unfortunately a prominent feminist activist – went out of their way to partake in victim blaming and berate Gulalai for not speaking up sooner, even going so far as to say that she should be dealt with by a jirga or tribal council, as per the tribal customs of South Waziristan, the region she hails from.
Female party workers from Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf decided to use their own experiences as a benchmark to dismiss Gulalai’s experience.
Treating someone’s harassment as a non-issue on the basis of dissimilar experiences and just because it has not happened to oneself is akin to trivialising everyday misogyny and gender-based vitriol.
It also wrongly portrays sexism and harassment as issues that exist outside of political spaces, as if such spaces were somehow exempt from the requirement of providing a dignified and safe workplace for women.
Breaking the silence
It is important to mull over the fact that in most cases of harassment, women are privately encouraged to stay silent, and are chastised if they, one day, decide to break that silence by openly speaking about their experiences. It is no wonder that Gulalai’s account – true or false – has been attacked and dismissed by many people.
It takes years for victims of sexual harassment to move past their fear of social repercussions, guilt, perpetual consternation, and ultimately, their loss of agency, while being at the receiving end of such harrowing experiences.
A woman’s first reaction, after experiencing harassment or abuse of any kind, is not always of anger, or of the determination to report the crime to state authorities. Their reaction is almost always of shock or disbelief, of powerlessness and extreme isolation, and of blaming themselves for letting something so horrible happen to them.
It stems from the betrayal they have experienced at the hands of someone they trusted, thereby instilling a sense of denial. It is an experience of cognitive dissonance, of shutting down, of them fearing the hostility they would face once they decide to share their grievances out in the open.
Burden of proof
One has to understand that sexual harassment, as a crime, involves complete control and power over a victim, so that she is intimidated from speaking regardless of the severity of her experiences.
Furthermore, over-reliance on concrete evidence, on legislation, justice, legal frameworks, and formal legal rights as transformative tools, completely ignores a woman’s subjective experiences of oppression. How does one even begin to prove harassment?
Gulalai has said she will furnish text messages to prove that Imran Khan was indeed harassing her, but can such evidence accurately document the breadth of the abuse she has allegedly experienced?
Recourse to the law is seen as an inevitable and rational conclusion to such claims: “She should go to court if she is telling the truth.”
Approaching a judicial forum is deemed necessary because our law somehow legitimises a woman’s personal experience of abuse, or else it never happened in society’s eyes. It is the only way publicising a private injury would make sense to our society.
However, what people fail to realise is that the law repeatedly fails to take into account a woman’s subjective experiences of mistreatment and is, more often than not, susceptible to legitimising societal norms, especially when applied conservatively.
Hence, the legal system cannot be seen as a neutral entity, but as an institution which is very much a product of Pakistan’s history, and can, many a times, result in the arbitrary exercise of power, and reification of structural discrimination.
This incident lays bare the gender politics of our society. Instead of society providing abused women safe spaces to discuss their harrowing experiences, they are treated like a public spectacle worthy of mockery and disdain.
By discrediting a woman’s experience like this, we willingly ignore the problems that exist at the structural level and in institutional responses, even though they are fraught with challenges.
Moreover, who are we, as the public, to put a limitation period on when a victim of harassment should speak about her experiences? Such victim blaming encourages a culture of discrimination that condones personal attacks, character assassination, and even threats of violence.
One ought to consider the personal, social and professional costs of coming forward with an accusation this serious, instead of resorting to insensitive statements and irresponsible journalism from public figures and citizens alike.
It takes immense courage for a woman to recall the harassment she has experienced at the hands of a well-known man on a public forum, considering the shame involved for her personally in coming forward after suffering in silence for so long.
Considering the differential power dynamics in such cases, a survivor of harassment should be supported, or at least given the benefit of the doubt, if she publicly raises her voice, instead of being accused of making false allegations.
Moreover, Imran Khan is not an ordinary man: being a political figure, particularly one who persistently pushed for accountability in the Panama case, he owes it to the Pakistani public to absolve himself of any alleged crimes, and in any case, should be held accountable as per his own political and moral standards.
The burden of proof rests on him just as much as it does on Gulalai, now that he has served her a legal notice.
Avoiding self-reflection and denying female politicians the right to a redressal mechanism (and also a sense of personal security) is equivalent to turning a blind eye to issues of gender-based violence on the part of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf members as well as its supporters.
This article first appeared on Dawn.