This week, three women were in the news for three very different reasons but were nonetheless subjected to the same depressingly familiar torrent of abuse and misogyny that tends to be directed towards women who step out of line in the Land of the Pure. Excerpts from Reham Khan’s forthcoming book were greeted with an equal mixture of shock and revulsion, given the nature of some of the claims made in a leaked copy of the manuscript, fellow Nation columnist Gul Bukhari was kidnapped and detained for several hours by ‘unknown’ actors in what is suspected to be yet another attack on journalists critical of the establishment, and Khadija Siddiqui, the young lawyer who was stabbed in broad daylight 23 times in May 2016, watched as a judge of the Lahore High Court acquitted her assailant of all charges even though a lower court had already established the suspect’s guilt beyond any reasonable doubt. In all three instances, the women at the center of these events have spent much of the past week having their motivations questioned and their character maligned.
The reasons why Reham Khan, Gul Bukhari, and Khadija Siddiqui have been in the news are not equivalent, nor is there any reason why they should merit the same response. Whatever one’s political inclinations might be, for example, it is easy to see how much of what Reham Khan has allegedly written in her book is mean-spirited and potentially libelous; independently of the claims she has made about Imran Khan and his politics, the manner in which she has dragged his children, his former wife Jemima Khan, and friends like Wasim Akram into the whole affair is both unnecessary and uncalled for, and whatever broader point she might have had to make about the PTI and its leader has been lost amidst the rancor generated by her hateful comments. This is very different from the Khadija Siddiqui case, which increasingly looks like one of the most blatant miscarriages of justice in recent memory, and the abduction of Gul Bukhari, which seems to have been a brazen and criminal act of intimidation and coercion. In both those instances, Siddiqui and Bukhari should receive our unconditional solidarity and support.
However, the fact that much of what Reham Khan appears to have written in her book is disagreeable does not in anyway justify the kind of attacks that have been made on her on social media and television. Rather than dismissing her claims as being unproven, salacious, and perhaps even fabricated, and then relying on the law and the legal process in Pakistan and the UK to ascertain if she is guilty of libel and should be punished accordingly, Imran Khan’s supporters have taken to the airwaves and to their keyboards to discredit Reham Khan by casting aspersions on her character, employing the most vulgar language at their disposal to somehow invalidate her claims. Pictures of Rehan Khan wearing Western clothing and posing with men, are being circulated as evidence of her moral bankruptcy, and every attempt is being made to discredit her book by targeting her person in the crudest possible terms.
Unbelievably enough, Gul Bukhari has been at the receiving end of similar treatment, albeit for different reasons. As an outspoken critic of the military establishment, Bukhari has largely been attacked by self-declared patriots and nationalists who have been bred on a diet of dogma that suggests all criticism of the state is akin to treason, and that those who raise critical voices in Pakistan must inevitably be part of some kind of global ‘liberal’ conspiracy to defame and undermine Pakistan. As soon as news of Bukhari’s disappearance spread, her many detractors deployed the same tools used by those attacking Reham Khan, employing similar language to question Bukhari’s character and motivations, justifying her illegal and unconscionable detention and treatment in terms of both her alleged anti-state activities and her supposed moral lapses.
Of the three, Khadija Siddiqui has received the most support in the media, although there are voices that, depressingly enough, have been regurgitating the same kind of attack against her that has been deployed against Reham Khan and Gul Bukhari. The worst offender in this instance might be the Lahore High Court itself, with the detailed judgment in the case revealing that Justice Sardar Ahmad Naeem believed that Siddiqui’s past relationship with her alleged attacker somehow meant that her testimony was not entirely valid or truthful. The logic employed in this part of the judgment is disturbingly not far removed from the idea that women who fail to abide by traditional norms of behavior – in this case, not having relationships with men – somehow invite the violence that they might be subjected to. This line of thinking has long been part of the attacks that have been made on Siddiqui and continue to be so after this latest judgment.
Most damning of all, however, is the political thread that has tied these three cases together. Reham Khan, Gul Bukhari, and Khadija Siddiqui have all been accused this past week of acting at the behest of the PML-N to defame its opponents in the state and the political arena; those questioning Khan’s motives have suggested she has written her book after being paid to do so by the PML-N, those cheering Bukhari’s detention did so after assuming her criticism of the establishment was part of a broader PML-N campaign to discredit the military, and even Khadija Siddiqui has been accused of being part of a campaign to attack the judiciary in the wake of the PML-N’s tussle with the Supreme Court. Not unsurprisingly, if social media is anything to go by, many of the disgusting attacks on these women have been launched by young men, and some women, who explicitly identify themselves as being supporters of the PTI, the military, or both. Pakistan’s political discourse has always been coarse, even at the best of time, but the events of this past week have shown just how far it has fallen, with a toxic combination of misogyny, conspiracy theories, and partisan politics providing an unfortunate example of some of the ugliness that lies beneath the surface of Pakistani society.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.