Any press might be good press for aging rock stars and actors, but not for politicians. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan is learning that lesson the hard way following a statement earlier this week that seemed to suggest he was opposed to reserved seats for women in Pakistan’s parliament.
Speaking on Sunday at a women’s rights seminar organized by PTI, Khan reportedly told the audience that:
“Legislators in assemblies are representatives of the people. How can some women be representative of women when they haven’t even contested elections? In some areas it is not possible for women to contest elections, but political parties should hold elections within their ranks and promote women into higher leadership positions.”
The immediate and unintended effect of Khan’s remarks was to unite parliamentarians across party lines – against him. Women in parliament were quick to respond, calling Khan’s remarks “highly prejudiced, biased, discriminatory and alarming.”
Khan later clarified his original statement, explaining that what he really meant was that women should compete in special elections for reserved seats, though he did not explain how that would work considering his earlier claim that “in some areas it is not possible for women to contest elections.”
The clarification, however, did not stop the outpouring of responses from women concerned that their current level of representation was under attack.
Bina Shah, a Pakistani author and journalist warned that “forcing an already tiny pool of qualified women to compete against one another for a small number of seats will damage the gains that women are making in our fragile democracy,” and Dr. Farzana Bari, Director of the Department of Gender Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad noted that Khan’s remedy, while possibly well meaning, overlooked the historical context of women in Pakistan’s political history.
Imran Khan must understand that women’s formal involvement in politics does not automatically lead to their substantive representation. Rather, their ability to effectively perform and represent women’s interests depends on the larger context of democracy; how they enter the political arena and to whom they are accountable. The PTI is absolutely correct in suggesting that political parties should hold elections within their ranks and promote women into higher leadership positions. However, he should not forget that political parties in this patriarchal socio-economic set-up and as gatekeepers have deprived women in general, and female party workers in particular, for the last 65 years from attaining decision-making positions.
This is not the first time that Imran Khan’s remarks about women’s rights have raised eyebrows. Speaking to reporters last year, Khan offered confusing and seemingly contradictory statements about whether he believed women should be required to follow a strict dress code in public. And in 2006, Imran Khan campaigned against a Protection of Women’s Rights Bill which he claimed was intended “to introduce a made-in-Washington Islamic system in the country.” The bill amended the infamous Hudood Ordinance promulgated by Gen. Zia-ul-Haq which criminalized adultery and made rape victims liable to prosecution for adultery if they could not produce four male witnesses.
The charismatic cricket hero has made an expansive media campaign central to his party’s election strategy. With national elections anticipated in just a few months, Imran Khan would like to keep his name in the press. But the PTI chief is learning a hard lesson this week: When the cameras are on, anything you say can, and will, be used against you in an election.
A new report by the Center for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan (CIRP) thrilled reporters nearly as much as it embarrassed Pakistani politicians. Finally, in black and white, evidence that confirms what many believed anyway – Pakistan’s lawmakers don’t pay their taxes. But as much as CIRP’s research confirmed people’s perceptions about politicians, it fails to address the fact that tax evasion is a ubiquitous phenomenon in Pakistan.
CIRP’s report repeats the claim that if elected officials do not pay taxes, no one else will either. This may be true, but in Pakistan it is complicated by the fact that tax evasion is not limited to elected officials. In fact, tax evasion is so pervasive that CIRP itself describes tax evasion as “a social norm” in Pakistan. This raises some difficult questions about the report’s conclusion that “the problem starts at the top.”
If tax evasion dissolves the moral authority of elected officials to demand payment of taxes by private citizens, does chronic tax evasion among private citizens erode their moral authority to demand it of elected officials? Certainly we expect elected officials to lead by example, and because of that we hold them to a high standard – one that involves consequences like the public “naming and shaming” carried out by CIRP. But expecting elected officials to pay taxes and absolving everyone else of the same responsibility is not holding elected officials to a higher standard, it’s holding them to a different one.
Recently, the Supreme Court ruled that Pakistan’s Public Accounts Committee could not audit the financial conduct of any Judge of the Supreme Court or of a High Court, whether sitting or retired. And no one has dared to follow up on the research by Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa, author of the book Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy which found that Pakistan’s military operates a multi-billion dollar business enterprise that is virtually unaudited.
Neither the judiciary nor the military are investigated in CIRP’s report.
Second (and more to the point) if tax evasion disqualifies an individual from governing, and nobody pays taxes – who will be qualified to govern? Certainly none of the over 2.3 million of Pakistan’s wealthiest citizens who fail to pay taxes. And it’s not just the rich who don’t pay taxes in Pakistan – almost no one does.
This is confirmed by CIPR’s report:
Out of over 180 million people, around two percent have [National Tax Numbers] (NTN), and less than one-fourth of them actually pay tax. Millions of Pakistanis with taxable incomes are not even registered with the authorities.
Let’s be honest: people aren’t failing to pay taxes just because they see elected officials doing so, they’re refusing to pay taxes because they don’t want to pay taxes and they do not believe that tax evasion bears any real risk.
It’s convenient to excuse this behavior by claiming that Pakistanis don’t pay taxes because politicians don’t, or because they don’t trust the government not to steal the funds; but even if that were true, CIRP acknowledges that Pakistan has a long history of popular tax evasion that has persisted across different civilian and military regimes. This suggests that the true cause is more than mere aping of or distrust in whoever happens to be in government at the time.
Instead of dismissing the question by suggesting that Pakistan’s politicians don’t pay taxes because they’re crooks, we should be asking why nobody in Pakistan pays taxes, and then looking for a way to improve systems to close the tax gap not only among lawmakers, but all Pakistanis. Just don’t expect it to be as easy as embarrassing politicians.
Any marriage counselor will tell you that relationships suffering from degrading lines of communication are fraught with peril. The Pakistan-US alliance is a living example that this truth is not restricted to struggling couples. Dysfunction has pock-marked the last two years of the alliance, with impacts that have spilled over into the wider region. The Raymond Davis incident, the execution of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, the Salala affair and subsequent closure of NATO supply lines ushered in a murky fog that engulfed the partnership, obscuring the mutual interests that had long united both democracies.
Thankfully, for those who longed for the normalization of the US-Pakistan relationship, recent developments should offer some satisfaction.
Pakistan’s military would be far better served in its public relations efforts by ignoring the instinct to be defensive, and instead accentuating its positive efforts at achieving peace in the region.
The News International, an English-language daily in Pakistan, reported this week that the country’s Military Intelligence (MI) has been collecting detailed information about journalists in a door-to-door canvassing operation raising troubling questions about media freedom.
Pakistan’s media has a reputation for being confrontational. After being freed by Gen. Musharraf in 2002, Pakistan’s media grew exponentially and is often credited with playing a role in the dictator’s eventual downfall. Following the 2008 elections, Pakistan’s media has continued in its unrelenting criticism of government officials – an activism defended by Geo TV president Imran Aslam earlier this year as “talking truth to power.” But in Pakistan,it appears that the media is more interested in holding some powers accountable than others.