Much has been predicted about Imran Khan, the incumbent prime minister of Pakistan, and his promised “Naya (New) Pakistan” in the days leading up to and since the July 25 election. Some say he has naively promised the impossible; others say that the passage of time will verify his caliber. One daunting question about his upcoming tenure – in part propelled by personal-life decisions and his public comment about the negative role feminism has played in Pakistan – is how women will fare under the Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government.
Time is, in fact, a tested method to see how someone delivers, but a faster litmus test would be to observe what Khan and his party achieved for women during the five years of power they enjoyed in the provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, one of Pakistan’s four provinces.
A significant piece of women-centric legislation in the last half decade was the domestic violence bill that each province was meant to pass. Sindh was the first to pass this bill in 2013, with Balochistan hot on its heels in 2014. Much to the PTI’s chagrin, the Punjab government also enacted the bill in 2016. Only the PTI-led government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa failed to pass this crucial bill during its five years of leadership – a time period during which the momentum for women’s rights legislation was already present thanks to activists and political leaders, although that’s not to say that crimes against women were drastically reduced.
To defend his party’s failure to pas the bill, Khan told newspapers, “We want to empower women in the province and for that matter we referred the bill to Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) to build consensus so that it would not become controversial, like in Punjab.”
After all, women-centric laws, much like women’s bodies, often become contentious battlegrounds for politicians. And tragically, by continuing to delay the bill, the PTI government did not alter this status quo.
In fact, Aimen Bucha, an activist and lecturer at the Beaconhouse National University in Lahore argued that “Khan’s decision to continue delaying the bill ceded more space to conservative voices such as CII.” Decisions like this convey that gendered legislation may not be as important to the PTI, as showing support for the religious right.
Bucha says that while women-centric legislation is vital, it must be remembered that legislation is a tool that political parties use to solidify their political position; this was seen with the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and Pakistan Peoples Party’s landmark women-focused legislation on acid crimes, domestic violence, and sexual harassment at the workplace. However, the PTI has no such breakthrough legislation to their credit.
While the PTI’s overall performance in regards to women’s legislation does not signal the launch of a “Naya Pakistan,” there are some silver linings. One of these was the PTI provincial government’s decision to allow women to receive royalties from foresting. Every time a forest in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is harvested for commercial sale, the government is due to pay 60 percent of the income from the sale to local residents. The PTI government ensured that this money was not just going to a few influential men but also to local women. Lahore-based academic Sarah Khan describes this decision as a form of “real, material economic empowerment” for women.
Furthermore, Amina Durrani, the program director of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Commission on the Status of Women (KPCSW), points out that the PTI government turned the tables on girl’s education by injecting large amounts of money into sending teachers to “tough areas” to access girls. She says the PTI was also successful in installing an ombudsperson for the harassment in the workplace law – although this is a feat that other provinces achieved much earlier. Sindh appointed its ombudsperson in 2012, almost six years before Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Durrani also talks about how the PTI created the first-ever Women Empowerment Policy Framework, which works at the district level and may prove to be a successful model. Lastly, she mentions that the PTI government was responsible for establishing a Widows’ Foundation and a handful of shelters for women, for recruiting and training female police officers, and the issuance of the sehat sahulat cards, a provincial health insurance policy. The PTI government is also credited for strengthening the KPCSW, the governmental organization that Durrani works for.
Shabina Ayaz, the resident director of the Peshawar chapter of Aurat Foundation, a women-focused nongovernmental organization, whose job is to monitor legislation focused on women, laments that this last one may actually be the PTI’s only service to women. “PTI’s legislation towards women in the last tenure was limited to the amendment they passed to grant the KPCSW financial and administrative powers,” she said.
She added that “In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, more so than in Punjab or Sindh, political parties are hesitant to pass laws that empower women, and PTI is especially partial to the religious clergy. They don’t take women’s laws too seriously.”
While legislation is important, it can’t singlehandedly improve the status of women. Political parties aiming for change also need check their leaders’ views. “Imran Khan’s recent statement about feminism and his refusal to engage with the public about said statement does not bode well for women in the country,” said activist Bucha.
Academic Sarah Khan agrees with this idea. “Political parties in power have the privilege to shape public opinion, and historically many parties have abused this privilege,” she said. She believes that one-liners, such as the one Khan uttered about “feminism degrading the role of a mother,” impact public opinion, which in turn affects the way women are treated across the country.
“If Imran Khan is genuinely worried about the state of working mothers, then should PTI not have used their Election Manifesto to speak about maternal leaves?” asks Bucha. Despite the fact that the PTI manifesto acknowledges that Pakistan is second to worst in gender parity according to the World Economic Forum, it devotes a single page to gender equality.
It is also important to note that a party cannot be separated from their followers. “PTI’s followers have built a reputation for attacking women in online spaces,” said Bucha. A ruling government in Pakistan can no longer pretend that dealing with online harassment is not under the state’s ambit. The government, for better or for worse, has the power to govern social spaces and the PTI needs to take responsibility for its followers — not to mention its own members.
Just this week, Aamir Liaqat, a PTI member of the National Assembly, tweeted a picture of Senator Sherry Rehman and two male politicians along with suggestive Bollywood lyrics. Liaqat later deleted the photo and issued a half-apology, but as one newspaper stated that his tweet stands witness to the “need for PTI to prove that there is no room for casual misogyny in the Parliament of Naya Pakistan.”
What You See May Not Be What You Get
The media often focuses on how political rallies for Khan’s party have a larger presence of women as compared to other political party’s rallies, but this presence does not necessarily translate into women having representation. In fact, when party tickets were being awarded by the PTI, there was much dissatisfaction among the women workers of PTI, who claimed that the tickets had not been allotted for merit and hard work.
And as far as women voter representation is concerned, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is the only province in the country with five constituencies with less than 10 percent female voter turnout. Academic Sarah Khan thinks that apart from everyday patriarchy and conservatism there may be another reason. “Women in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa do not feel engaged in the political process because political parties responsible for reaching out to them have failed in doing so,” she said.
Durrani of the KPCSW says that the issue of non-participation of women is not just restricted to the five constituencies that stood out. In fact, Haji Banda, a neighborhood in the urban city of Peshawar, had 987 women registered to vote, out of which one showed up on election day, despite the women polling agents at the polling station. In the run up to the election, Durrani couldn’t recall the PTI’s workers attempting to encourage women voters.
On the other hand, “Jamiat Ulema Islam and Muttahida Majlis Amal [both rightwing religious parties] held a convention and carried out mobilization campaigns to encourage women to vote,” said Durrani. However, she concluded that as long as the civil society remains persistent in the fight for women’s rights, the PTI government will deliver.
“PTI has not failed in terms of women-centric legislation but it has set itself up for a hard task: They have promised change, and women in this country need change,” said Bucha, summing up the PTI’s previous performance.
During the last government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the PTI met with a strong opposition and it was said that this prevented them from passing many important laws. This time around, at the provincial level, PTI will face a very weak opposition, but at the center PTI will be met with a robust opposition. If the past is to serve as witness, Pakistani women may expect scant changes for the better – unless perhaps Khan’s own voters begin holding him accountable.
Maham Javaid is a freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in Al Jazeera, Foreign Policy, Refinery29, Timeline, and The Nation.