Gulalai’s presser and open misogyny: No harassment complaint should be taken lightly or dismissed without probe

This Tuesday looked like one of the worst days for Imran Khan and the PTI, with the party backed candidate, Sheikh Rasheed, losing miserably in the election for the Prime Minister’s seat following the ouster of Nawaz Sharif from the Parliament. The apparent look of disappointment showed on PTI’s key player Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s face, whose refusal to shake hands with the Prime Minister-elect has exposed the PTI’s, or his own, frustration. The failure of key PTI parliamentarians, especially those including Imran Khan and Jehangir Tareen, to cast votes for their own backed candidate is likely to create fissures within their party. It appears as if they were celebrating breaking the backbone of ruling party PML(N) by mobilizing to oust an elected Prime Minister and absolving his powerful cabinet, which has been negated with the party’s powerful parliamentary comeback—despite 12 PML (N) MNAs refraining from voting for their candidate, along with protest by a few other parties. But PTI’s spirit was shattered by another unqualified, yet serious barrage, of accusations coming from one of its female party dissenters, Ayesha Gulalai, a parliamentarian who has just resigned from parliament and the PTI.

Before delving further into it, I think it is important to understand Ayesha Gulalai’s political career in Pakistan. Coming from the nation’s most conservative tribal areas in FATA, she managed to enter into a political arena, a thing most unlikely for women coming from such backgrounds. The credit for her successfully getting launched into human rights activism and politics and her sister into male-dominated sports goes to her father, she boastfully recalls. Her family history also tells of an exciting time when her great grandfather worked as a chief advisor to the then King of Afghanistan, Amanullah Khan, and was later titled with the prestigious pre-partition honor, Khan Bahadur. Her childhood years were bright despite it being a rarity for girls to get education, and an opportunity to speak boldly speak at public forums on issues of women empowerment. In such circumstances, she managed to work for human rights and was ultimately encouraged into politics by icons like Benazir Bhutto whose party offered her tickets for both MPA and MNA – but she couldn’t compete because of her very young age. She remained a fierce advocate for women’s rights in the tribal areas of FATA and also in KPK, and that was perhaps the only motivation for her to join politics. What she is most credited for is her ability to garner the tribals in her support as a woman – a feat that cannot just be easily dismissed. It was only following the military operations in FATA and irreconcilable differences with PPP over it, that she found home in PTI holding on to what Gulalai wanted to promote.

During her tenure with the party, she appeared satisfied and content, and her grievances did not surface as suddenly, and shockingly, before as on the day when PTI was already going through many setbacks. This naturally gave rise to speculations about the motives of Gulalai’s dissent. Later in the day, after announcing her resignation from the party, she gave out a brutal presser against PTI and Imran Khan in particular, leveling serious allegations about his party’s insulting behavior towards its political workers, their support for corruption in KPK and, most devastatingly, about Imran Khan’s lewd behavior towards her. She claimed that proofs were provided before Imran Khan about KPK Chief Minister Pervaiz Khattak’s massive corruption in the province, but PTI leadership ignored that and refused to take any action against him because of his “blackmailing”. She further went on to attack Imran Khan’s character and maintained that a record of his inappropriate text messages can be retrieved from Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA). She further called on the courts to consider his disqualification on the basis of Sadiq and Amin clauses of the Constitution. Though during the presser, she did not specify her mode of taking legal recourse to accuse him officially.

The presser has shocked many in Pakistan. Earlier in the day, powerful women from PTI ranks held a passionate presser in favor of Imran Khan and spoke of his impeccable character and support for women. PTI’s main leaders also frequented TV screens decrying the motives behind Gulalai’s sudden departure from the party and mudslinging. Shireen Mazari, a powerful PTI figure and herself a victim of misogyny, called Gulalai a “pawn”.  One PTI stalwart on TV went as far as referring her to someone who can “sell herself for money”. Gulalai also became subject to public humiliation as she received sexual harassment in the form of abuse by the online trolls run by PTI media cell, calling her a “prostitute” and giving out other innuendos to defame her. All this to punish her for what she said about their leader, while totally ignoring the fact that there had been other women who complained about humiliation and mistreatment they faced while at the party, though none of them had come forward with leveling a serious allegation as sexual harassment.

Whether she chose the right platform to break her silence deserves some concern, as this has made her position more vulnerable. Was there any other recourse to express her concerns with the party before? Another question also comes to mind as to whether this party, like all other political parties, any committee has been formed that looks up to such issues. Are the workers really trained on the Workplace Harassment Bill that was passed by the parliament in the past? These are the genuine questions that need to be answered before heading into forming our biased personal opinions. Harassment of women is not just an issue of one political party. In fact, it is a widespread epidemic in the society where harassment is not even taken as harassment, but as another norm. We have seen during the presser how Gulalai was targeted by inappropriate questions by the reporters that made her leave early. We have seen how she was cursed and condemned for deciding to speak on this matter, and we have seen how many women are discouraged from speaking out against harassment and abuse. And we have seen how many women continue to suffer in silence for the fear of public brutal, soul crushing backlash.

This is not to say that the accuser may not be fabricating the story, but how can one be so sure of her doing so? What is it that made a woman coming from a conservative, traditionally rigid background where ideas of honor and values are still non-negotiable, take such a plunge to tarnish her image among her own people? And even if she did intently make false accusations, then that is mere subject to one’s assumption and speculation. People may not approve of her for what she did, but they cannot also just ignore the accusations she made. No complaint of mistreatment or harassment faced by women should be taken lightly, because we can never know what the truth is until we have it properly probed.

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