PAKISTANI women have always been active participants in Pakistan’s political scene, in roles of support and leadership since the country’s creation. Yet the terrible incident at the PTI rally in Lahore at Charing Cross on Sunday, when over 50 men sexually assaulted women attending the rally, has people asking the age-old question once more: should Pakistani women stay away from political rallies because it’s too dangerous for them to be there?
According to news reports, men broke into the women’s enclave during the rally and began to molest them. PTI chairman Imran Khan had to actually stop his speech and order the men to stop harassing the women and “be more respectful” of them. The women’s wing of the PTI later wrote an open letter documenting the harassment and demanding better protection during rallies and other public appearances: “It was a nightmare for women… Some women were witnessed crying hysterically and had to be evacuated by ambulance … it is shameful that we are incapable of protecting our women and children whom we claim to be our front face and strength of PTI.”
The men have been identified with the help of media footage of the assaults, criminal cases have been registered, and Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah says an investigation will take place that will include the PTI management, who failed in their duty to provide security for the women attendees.
Women are treated as political pawns to be used or abused at will.
In an attempt to deflect blame, PTI supporters claimed the harassers were PML-N thugs sent in to deliberately disrupt the rally. They say that they have nothing but respect for women, and that the PTI chairman stresses this again and again in communications to his followers. Yet it’s hard not to forget the behaviour of PTI supporters online, who harass and abuse women and men regularly on social media. What happened at the rally, for many who have been targeted by them in the virtual world, is the same behaviour played out in the physical world.
Meanwhile, PML-N politicians are using the event as an excuse to bash the PTI, co-opting the role of women’s protectors in the light of PTI’s failure. It brings to mind the events of the Islamabad dharna last year, when PML-N leaders denigrated the women attending the rally, casting slurs on their morality because they were dancing and enjoying themselves in public. From this blame game, it seems that neither party is sincere in its claims of respecting and protecting women: Pakistani women are political pawns to be used or abused at will, whenever convenient.
In all the rhetoric, we’re in danger of losing sight of the fact that what happened to the women at the PTI rally was sexual assault, regardless of which party the attackers belonged to. If unchecked, sexual harassment and assault at political rallies has the potential to harm much more than just the individual women targeted at rallies.
The PTI must make a serious effort to catch and prosecute the sexual offenders at the Charing Cross rally. If they are found to be PTI members, they must be ejected from the party with no exceptions. This would be the strongest message possible that the PTI does not tolerate the harassment of women. On the other hand, if PML-N members are to blame, it falls upon PML-N to similarly arrest, prosecute, and expel those men from the party.
If we don’t take action now, our political rallies will gain the reputation of Egypt’s Tahrir Square where women were and still are sexually assaulted with impunity. In February 2011, when Hosni Mubarak’s government fell and 10,000 people filled Tahrir Square to celebrate, women were stripped, groped and beaten by men in the crowds. These horrific assaults continued, many perpetrated by the Egyptian military against female protesters over the following months. A gang rape occurred in 2014 during the inauguration of President Sisi. Nine men were sentenced to prison, some for life, seen as a good precedent, but the issue continues to haunt Egypt’s women who want to make their voices heard politically.
PTI spokeswoman Shireen Mazari laid the blame for the Charing Cross rally assaults on PTI workers, and said that women should not bring their children to PTI jalsas because it is “not safe”. Yet we must not tell women to stay at home in order to avoid being assaulted in public spaces and during political rallies. For women to remain part of the democratic political process, they must be ceded public space, safety and security.
All parties must transcend party lines and work together to honour Pakistan’s women, who have fought hard to be included in the party-based political system. Doing so will only strengthen our nascent democratic process, which gets its credibility from adequate representation and support from both men and women.
The writer is an author.
Published in Dawn, May 4th, 2016