Khawaja Asif, the parliament’s dignity awaits a real apology

Updated June 09, 2016


Defence Minister Khawaja Asif. —Reuters
Defence Minister Khawaja Asif. —Reuters

It doesn't matter that I am not an Insaafian — one doesn't have to be a PTI supporter to call out the appalling attitude towards women in our National Assembly. What does matter, however, is which side of this debate you and I stand on.

Defense Minister, Mr. Khawaja Asif, yesterday insulted Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf MNA Shireen Mazari. And he did so in a manner horridly inappropriate for a minister clothed in enormous respect and entrusted with the responsibility to maintain composure through provocation that his position naturally comes with.

Using grossly sexist language against the PTI parliamentarian, Asif snapped: “Someone make this tractor trolley shut up!”.

According to an eyewitness, he further insulted Mazari for "talking like a man", and urged her to “make her voice more feminine”.

Displaying neither an ounce of contrition in his posture, nor a modicum of regret in his tone, the smirking minister unequivocally stated that he would not apologise for his egregious remarks, pompously challenging the opposition to “do whatever they want”.

It’s worth noting that the PTI members were, in fact, interrupting Mr. Asif’s speech. There is much to be said about their lack of decorum as well.

Also read: 5 awful responses to Sana Mirza’s harassment at the PTI rally

Tragically, instead of continuing to cruise along the high road, Mr. Asif made the decision to take an exit into a mud-path that the nation's representatives are not expected to travel. And he did so amidst the roaring applause of his fellow parliamentarians, with a glaring lack of awareness of their own respective seats and statures.

Certain members could be heard yelling, “Sit down, aunty!” at Ms. Mazari, limning a culture of sexism in the house that is bigger than the casual insolence of one minister.

Making no effort at challenging this culture, NA speaker Ayaz Sadiq transferred the blame to Mazari, and chided her for not sitting down and remaining silent when told.

This is not the first time Ms. Mazari, or any other woman parliamentarian for that matter, has been subjected to sexist vitriol.

A few years ago, Hassan Nisar infamously joked about Mazari being referred to as ‘bulbul’ by his friend, and suggested calling her “bull bull” instead. Political caricatures and skits almost invariably lash out at Ms. Mazari's appearance, rather than her political points of view.

The televised assembly of the nation’s elected dignitaries transformed into a street theater where women must always be on guard for incoming ‘jugats’ about their voice, appearance, age, or body weight.

It’s a place where the word “aunty” is laughingly lanced at a professional woman as an insult, because it implies agedness, coupled with stereotypical female naiveté.

It’s a place where men carry an air of entitlement in being able to dictate to their female peers what they ought to look like, talk like, and dress like, before even considering to take them seriously.

Also read: Sexism at the sovereign — a norm in Pakistani politics

Earlier today, resting comfortably in a soundproof cocoon, fondly woven by his (predominantly male) well-wishers, Mr. Asif issued an apology — which continues to blame Mazari and other opposition members for his own outburst — to the NA speaker and not Mazari herself.

This 'half apology' is hardly sufficient, as the point isn’t simply that the decorum of the house was disrupted by a random outburst. There was a sexist, personal attack launched at a female member of the assembly on the house floor itself.

This is about women parliamentarians having a right to work among their male peers without being constantly chided for their appearance, or belittled for their femininity. And in addressing a culture that prevents this from happening again, a direct apology to Ms. Mazari would be a vital stepping stone.

Apologists may attempt to minimise the problem by portraying it as a case of bilateral, aggression; where both Mazari and Asif misbehaved and debased each other. I would encourage the disruptive PTI members to earnestly think about their misdemeanors as well, but combating bigotry – in any form – must take precedence.

Sexism isn’t the same as nominal rudeness.

There will be time to fling mud across the aisle at the political party you have, perhaps reasonably, learned to distrust and despise.

But for now, we must learn to hold our elected representatives to a higher standard in terms of maintaining decorum in the national assembly. And, just as importantly, being able to treat women with basic respect.