In the past week, people have threatened to throw acid on Ayesha Gulalai , tear her house down, and have her fate decided by an enraged mob. She has been vilified and pilloried by countless armchair warriors armed with keyboards and social media accounts, and has been subjected to a sustained process of humiliation by several prominent media channels. Not content with constantly questioning her character, Gulalai’s detractors have also been relentless in claiming that she is nothing more than an opportunistic political mercenary whose accusations against Imran Khan and the PTI are part of a plan hatched by the PML-N. This ongoing and unceasing campaign of ridicule, shame, and intimidation is not just limited to online activists and people sympathetic to the PTI; it has received the tacit endorsement of the party, whose spokespeople have attempted to cast aspersions on Gulalai’s character by attacking her sister for wearing shorts (as part of her career as one of the best female squash players in the world), and have called for her to be handed over to a tribal jirga.

Gulalai’s opponents are extremely fond of asking why she waited four years before coming out with allegations of sexual harassment against Imran Khan and other PTI leaders. The events of the past week should demonstrate precisely why women experiencing such harassment might choose to keep quiet. As Gulalai’s experience has shown, women who make accusations against powerful men are subjected to all kinds of abuse and attack. Their motivations are questioned, their character is invariably found wanting, and the court of public opinion largely presumes that they are guilty regardless of what they do; the default position is to assume the accusations are false but even if they prove not to be, the collective response is usually to suggest that the woman somehow asked for it or encouraged the harassment. In such circumstances, it should hardly be surprising or even difficult to understand why women may hesitate before speaking out against harassment. Indeed, even in parts of the world with greater legal and political protections for women than those found in Pakistan, it is not uncommon for victims of harassment and sexual abuse to wait years and even decades before mustering the courage to go public.

In addition to questioning her timing, those who doubt Gulalai’s accusations are also obsessed with the lack of any evidence thus far to substantiate the allegations that have been made against the PTI leadership. While some journalists have reported that Gulalai is indeed in possession of text messages that could potentially incriminate some of the men she has accused of harassment, such claims have been dismissed as partisan posturing by Gulalai’s opponents. For them, the fact that Gulalai is under no obligation to present her evidence, such as it may be, to anyone other than the relevant investigating authority is of little relevance; what they want is complete and unfettered access to all of her communications data to pore over and interpret as they please. The idea that even the police and the courts may be structurally unsympathetic to seriously investigating allegations of sexual misconduct (as evinced, for example, by Pakistan’s abysmally low reporting and conviction rates for sexual crime) is something that has not even been part of the debate.

This focus on evidence might lead one to believe that Gulalai’s detractors are motivated by a burning desire to see justice being done. However, the fact that that Gulalai’s accusations will remain just that in the absence of corroborating evidence, appears to be of little consequence; not content to simply wait and see, the ferocity with which Gulalai’s opponents have attacked her indicates that their actions are not just animated by a desire to see Imran Khan and others exonerated after due process has been followed. Instead, rather than giving a potential victim of sexual harassment the space and time to make her case, they have chosen to automatically discredit everything Gulalai says even though they themselves have no proof to suggest she is wrong. The notion that they could question her allegations without slinging so much mud at her does not appear to have crossed their minds. It has been an object lesson in how Pakistan’s virulently patriarchal social structure works to silence women who challenge male privilege.

It is also worth bearing in mind that there is more than a little hypocrisy at work in this instance. Readers of a certain age will remember, for example, that Imran Khan was not exactly renowned for his moral probity in his younger years and while things may have changed since then, the idea that he or any other man would never engage in sexual harassment is difficult to endorse. Indeed, PTI spokesperson Naeem-ul-Haque all but admitted on Twitter that he had expressed a desire to marry Ayesha Gulalai (seemingly unaware of how that might be construed as harassment) before quickly backtracking and claiming that his account had been subjected to the most specific hack in human history. Yet, despite all of this, the working assumption thus far has been that the PTI and its (male) leadership are paragons of virtue whose indiscretions were either the result of youthful exuberance or simple misunderstandings. Male politicians with colourful histories are never dragged through the mud and shamed for what they may or may not have done. The entire narrative is one that has infinite patience for men (boys will be boys, after all) even as it pounces on even the slightest perceived transgression by women. Chances are that if Ayesha Gulalai is unable to substantiate her allegations to the satisfaction of the hordes baying for her head, she will never hear the end of it; on the other hand, if she is able to prove that elements of the PTI leadership engaged in sexual harassment, every manner of effort will be made to either forgive and excuse the offence or explain it away.

The hypocrisy does not end with this double-standard. While sexual harassment must be called out and opposed wherever it rears its head, the notion that the PML-N, PPP, or other political parties are bastions of feminism and progressive thought is just laughable. Politics in Pakistan is very much a Boy’s Club, and it has spawned a toxic culture of masculinity in which female politicians (most notably Benazir Bhutto) have been relentlessly jeered, bullied, and harassed for decades. Recently, the PTI’s Shireen Mazari was the recipient of misogynistic abuse from leaders of the PML-N, and it has long been a habit of the political elite to drag mothers, daughters, and wives into the attacks they make on their opponents. While the allegations Ayesha Gulalai has made against the PTI must be taken seriously, it would be a mistake to assume the problem of sexual harassment in politics end there.

The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.

hassan.javid@lums.edu.pk