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Sexism in politics

Updated April 26, 2019

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TERMINOLOGY is reflective of the mindset of those who use it. Anyone attempting to justify Prime Minister Imran Khan’s use of the title ‘sahiba’ to refer to PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari is wilfully misrepresenting the issue.

It is not the word but the context that is inappropriate; applying it to a man, with the deliberate intent of causing insult, insinuates that womanhood is inherently inferior. Verbal sparring in the realm of politics, no matter how irreverent, should never devolve into denigrating whole groups of citizens.

Mr Khan is certainly not the first elected representative to bandy about casual sexism to attack political opponents — several PML-N and PPP parliamentarians, some serial offenders, are also complicit — but the fact that even our prime minister would indulge in gendered slurs and stereotypes demonstrates an absence of moral leadership when it comes to representing women in national politics.

As leader of parliament, it is his responsibility to set the tone — within the house and without — of political discourse.

The prime minister’s latest gaffe affords an opportunity that must not be missed, as it has too often in the past. It is time to acknowledge — and address — the fact that sexism in politics not only reflects deeply entrenched misogyny in this country but also perpetuates it.

Misogyny is a systemic issue. From accessing fundamental rights and basic services, to discrimination, harassment and abuse, women are oppressed because of their gender in both private and public spheres.

The only way this can change is if more women — from all socioeconomic, religious and ethnic backgrounds — are empowered to participate meaningfully in public life, in the social and political debates that impact them.

At present, gender in politics rarely factors in legislative discourse except to enforce sanctimonious notions of ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’ designed to browbeat women into submissive roles. And, as a Digital Rights Foundation report released on Wednesday reveals, even online, where conventional wisdom would suggest women would be safer, the majority of respondents reported being targeted by abuse, particularly if they had a public profile or spoke on gender-based issues.

Few expressed faith in official reporting mechanisms, for the obvious reason that the very institutions that ought to protect women also reflect misogynistic attitudes about them.

Combating regressive patriarchal norms is not irrelevant to men; there is a dire need for introspection on the myriad ways in which it is also hurting boys and men, and limiting this country’s progress. Thus, the onus should not be singularly on female politicians to educate their male colleagues in gender-sensitive conduct and women’s issues.

It is also on male parliamentarians — who are elected to represent all of their constituents — to push for greater gender awareness and hold each other accountable for inappropriate conduct. Political culture is enfeebled if it only represents the interests of one half of the population.

Published in Dawn, April 26th, 2019