ISLAMABAD: Proceedings of the National Assembly were marred on Wednesday by an outburst by Water and Power Minister Khawaja Mohammad Asif, who made unfortunate and derogatory remarks about the person of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) chief whip Shireen Mazari, going far beyond the bounds of what may be considered parliamentary language.

But rather than smoothing things over, Speaker Ayaz Sadiq openly sided with the minister and chided Ms Mazari for provoking him, even though the entire opposition bench had been heckling Mr Asif at the time of his outburst.

The incident that caused an opposition furore began when the opposition took issue with some of the claims made in the minister’s speech during the budget debate.

Khawaja Asif had just told the house that consumers were being spared loadshedding at sehr, iftar and taraveeh times when the opposition benches erupted in protest. “Pakistan mein ja kar dekho” or “Go see what’s happening in Pakistan” was the reply from the opposition. But the minister was unfazed and instead, went on the offensive, criticising the PTI for failing to perform in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Speaker sides with government, chides opposition for ‘provoking’ Khawaja Asif

This was met with more jeering and hooting from the opposition benches. But picking on Ms Mazari, Khawaja Asif called out in Punjabi, “aey tractor trolley nu chup karao yaar”, or “someone shut this tractor trolley up”.

At first, the insult did not quite register, as the opposition benches were causing a right din. The speaker called for order and observed that during the speeches on the budget, members were free to talk about any subject under the sun.

When Ms Mazari protested, Khawaja Asif fired his second salvo, saying, “inki pehlay awaz toh theek karwaein”, or “please get her voice fixed”.

This was the last straw, and the opposition erupted. The speaker, however, was unmoved. “You were the ones who disturbed him. I had told you not to disturb [Khawaja Asif],” he said before asking the minister to continue.

He did, but it was no good, since the opposition members were standing in their seats by now. “Will you quiet down? I will expunge the remarks if you sit down. If you don’t want to sit down I won’t expunge it,” roared the speaker.

He then asked Ms Mazari to sit down nine times, but she was insistent that the minister apologise for his remarks.

“I’m not going to apologise, they can do what they want,” was Khawaja Asif’s measured response.

The speaker was completely unrepentant too. “It was you who vitiated the atmosphere. I will not expunge it if you keep on speaking. [The house] is my responsibility and I will not be dictated by you. I’ve taken enough dictation from you,” he thundered, pointing to the opposition benches.

He motioned for Khawaja Asif to continue again, and the minister continued to list key figures for a few minutes, while the opposition did its best to make sure he was not heard.

At this point, Syed Naveed Qamar intervened, ostensibly because he wanted to hear what the minister had to say. This softened the speaker’s tone and he relented, saying, “I am expunging the word used by the honourable minister against an honourable member of the house.”

But Khawaja Asif was unrepentant and maintained: “When a woman does not maintain her self-respect and will heckle me in this way, then she will also get a fitting reply.”

The speaker agreed, saying, “Dr Mazari, you constantly keep talking. Why don’t other members of your party say anything?”

When she was finally given an opportunity to address the house, Dr Mazari was very magnanimous and appreciated the speaker’s judiciousness. “Expunging the word is not the issue. When a man heckles them, they don’t say that the man has lost his self-respect. If I am a woman parliamentarian, why does my gender come into it?”

Women caucus

But this was not the end of the matter. Later in the session, PPP’s Dr Nafisa Shah and PTI’s Munazza Hassan took Ms Mazari’s case to members of the PML-N women caucus during the session. Dr Shah later told Dawn that they had asked the women’s parliamentary caucus to take a stand on the issue and was adamant that Khawaja Asif “has to apologise”.

“We saw the speaker on the side of a man who clearly insulted a woman. Today it was her, tomorrow if it’s me or someone else, who will be responsible? We feel very vulnerable,” she said.

Ms Hassan told Dawn that Shaista Pervaiz – who heads the caucus – had promised to consult the speaker and get back to them on Thursday.

She said that Dr Nafisa Shah would draft a letter from all the women, which would be sent to the speaker, where Khawaja Asif would be asked to apologise to Ms Mazari on the floor of the house.

However, Ms Pervaiz told Dawn that while she believed the incident was “unfortunate, something that shouldn’t have happened”, there were a lot of things that were said on both sides.

She maintained that once the remarks were expunged from the house record, there was no need for an apology. But when asked whether she would support the rest of the women caucus if they decided to move against the minister, she said, “It is not my decision alone, it will be a collective decision.”

Published in Dawn, June 9th, 2016