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Nawaz Sharif must learn to respect female political activists

I am very much a child of the ‘90s. The decade has had a profound impact on my intellectual development and has ended up shaping my political ideology. It was during that time that I started to realise that religious extremism, mistreatment of women, political conservatism, and civil military imbalance were the gravest problems which Pakistan faced. It was during that decade when a string of  incidents involving blasphemy charges shook me to the core and changed me as a person. It was during that time when I began to realise that our mind-set is largely misogynist and our society’s structure is patriarchal.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in those days was the political articulation of the poison which Ziaul Haq had injected into the bloodstream of the polity. PML-N played a leading role in making the blasphemy law (295-C) harsher. It also constantly tried to whip up nationalism couched in religious lingo.

However, the most repulsive strategy which it adopted was to target Benazir Bhutto and belittle her, at times openly and at times in a veiled manner, for being a woman. Anyone can go through the videos where Nawaz Sharif and Sheikh Rasheed (now a partner of Imran Khan) used filthy language against Bhutto.

Sheikh Rasheed abuses Zardari and Benazir Bhutto by f100000713276688

Nawaz, who also had wanted to be Amirul Momineen in 1998, was overthrown by Pervez Musharraf in 1999 and had to spend eight years in exile. Finally, in December 2007, he returned.

However, this return was not an ordinary return. For many reasons, Nawaz was a changed man. The same person who used to be an establishment stooge in early 1990s, now started to argue for civilian supremacy. He also tried to reach out to Ahmadis when their mosque was attacked. During the five years of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government, Nawaz did not try to destabilise or bring the government down, signalling a departure from his politics in 1990s.

He won the election by resounding majority and came into power. Despite the fact that Nawaz had shown positive signs when in opposition, people like me were apprehensive. With PPP badly thrashed in the elections, Pakistan was now led by two right-wing parties.

However, gradually, Nawaz allayed my fears. During his reign, governance has been a problem but he has taken the right steps on various social issues. He has tried to reach out to minorities, cracked down on sectarian extremists, and most importantly, he has taken some commendable steps for gender empowerment.

In fact, some of the best gender empowerment-related developments have come during his current reign. He met and congratulated Sharmeen Chinoy but more importantly espoused the cause presented in the award-winning documentary. The PML-N government passed the Women Protection Bill, despite opposition from the clergy and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). At the institutional level, the PML-N government in Punjab has taken several measures for women empowerment.

On a personal level, Nawaz started to groom his daughter Maryam Nawaz as a future leader, taking a departure from the traditional practice of preferring sons. One can scoff at legacy politics, but given the reality that political dynasties in our part of the world is essential for continuity of political parties, the fact that Nawaz has chosen his daughter is commendable.

However, despite these positive developments, there have been incidents which reveal the basic mind-set of the party and its leadership to be still partly misogynistic. It became evident to me first when Defence Minister Khawaja Asif called Dr Shireen Mazari a “tractor trolley” and refused to apologise. Nawaz did not condemn the incident. Subsequently, the party’s MNA Javed Latif also used filthy language against the sisters of PTI’s Murad Saeed. Once again, there was no condemnation or disciplinary action from Nawaz’s side. In contrast, when PPP’s provincial minister harassed an opposition member, Bilawal Bhutto condemned the incident and made the minister apologise.

But the most shocking incident for me was when our prime minister made a sexist reference to PTI women in a recent speech. He gave an impression that it was perhaps wrong for the PTI women to attend the political rallies.

I consider myself an extremely harsh critic of PTI and have penned dozens of articles against it. I think that the party is extremely reactionary, a glaring evidence of which was its opposition to the Women Protection Bill. However, I also think that one of PTI’s big achievements has been including women into political rallies. This should be applauded because it helps in breaking the traditional shackles against political participation of women. In 2013, both my wife and sister participated in PTI rallies and also voted for the first time! Today, I see many of my young female cousins and their friends going to political rallies and taking an active interest in the politics of Pakistan. Irrespective of the fact that I disagree with their choice, I love the fact that they are participating with zeal. In my opinion, this is a progressive development and PTI deserves credit for that.

I think the statement by Nawaz is highly condemnable. He should not have made such remarks considering the fact that his own daughter is politically active and his wife led the political movement for him while he had been imprisoned by the Musharraf regime. But most importantly, these remarks are not in accordance with his stature which in recent times has grown among liberals.

I think it’s time Nawaz realised the importance of women in politics and should apologise to PTI women as it will only enhance his stature.

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