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.