IN the midst of a heated political tug-of-war between the ousted Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf and the military establishment, a YouTuber makes some startling claims.

It is New Year’s Eve when he posts the following to his Twitter account: “The biggest scandal in Pakistan’s current history… Model girls in safe houses and Mess’. Politics of spying and immoral videos…”

In the video, the YouTube pundit levels scandalous allegations against the outgoing top brass of the Pakistani military, and as ‘proof’ of their so-called debauchery, offers the initials of four women who, he claims, have been used as ‘honey pots’.

Within minutes of the video going live, hundreds of accounts have already shared memes and videos carrying the names and images of four of Pakistan’s leading ladies, inferring their identities from the initials provided.

There is outrage, yes, but no one bats an eye at the fact that four of Pakistan’s leading cultural ambassadors are being dragged through the mud. Their names and faces are perhaps even more ubiquitous than those powerful men whose brawl they have been dragged into. But this, unfortunately, is nothing new.

Historically, Pakistan’s political rivalries have often played out by powerful men using tactics of feminisation or emasculation to humiliate their opponents. The narratives almost always invoke charges of immoral behavior between men and women who are well-known enough to generate intrigue and scandal.

“It’s not just a random vlogger who has circulated the pictures and names of four women,” argues lawyer and activist Nighat Dad. All the actresses in question had previously worked on military-sponsored media productions, so when retired Maj Adil Raja urged his audience to connect the dots for themselves, it seemed obvious that he was referring to these women, even if he didn’t name them.

She believes that the vlogger’s refusal to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions is typical of the way the Pakistani media operates, through sensationalising everything and avoiding accountability. In her view, the allegations and subsequent online smear campaign are not novel occurrences, but part of a designed attack.

For his part, the YouTuber claims he never named anyone, and has in turn accused actor Kubra Khan — who threatened to sue him for defamation — of defaming him. In a later video, he appears to lament the lack of agency women have in general. The actresses he has indirectly accused, he says, are not responsible for their own predicament, but have been “used”.

“How is it possible that the vlogger didn’t know the consequences of leaking this so-called mega scandal,” asks Sanam Maher, journalist and author of A Woman Like Her, about the life and murder of social media personality Qandeel Baloch.

Misogyny in politics

In national politics, a woman’s moral standing is also deliberately targeted to undermine political rivals or women politicians, says journalist Amber Rahim Shamsi. Blackmail and scandal are often used as tactics to control politicians; these can be financial or moral, she says.

“From Muhammad Zubair of the PML-N to PTI chief Imran Khan himself, the establishment has frequently used audio and video leaks to discredit politicians. However, because women are culturally considered to be the custodians of morality, the implications for them are almost always graver,” she says.

Former MQM parliamentarian Saman Jafri agrees. “The creation and circulation of scandal is frequent and voraciously consumed in our society,” she says, adding that if the target of such a campaign speaks up, online trolls and media analysts rush to assassinate her character and gaslight her.

Author Sanam Maher wonders what the response would have been if one of the women accused of being ‘honey pots’ had come forward and made these allegations against a state institution? There have been so many cases where scandalous stereotypes of celebrity women are circulated to defame and discredit them that every time a new case emerges you know the woman will be vilified, she says, whether the woman speaks up or not.

Consequences of defiance

In this case, at least three of the women who are being targeted have spoken out. Both Sajal Aly and Mehwish Hayat — who was also the target of a vicious campaign in 2019 when she was bestowed a presidential award — have condemned the baseless accusations, while Kubra Khan, as mentioned ealier, has threatened legal action. But this has not always been the case.

“The system is rigged against women, and they are almost always accused of inviting the attacks on themselves by virtue of the fact that they are women. The problem is fear of scandal and loss of honour,” Ms Shamsi explains.

In her view, there isn’t much hope until more and more women call out and act against people who use their profession and gender for revenge and political purposes. The onus of protection should never have to be on the targets of such attacks, says Ms Shamsi.

But even when saner voices have tried to call out his behaviour, they have been attacked by a stable of trolls. Take the case of Mussarrat Cheema, for instance, spokesperson for the Punjab government and a card-carrying member of the PTI. When she took offence with Raja’s scandalous accusations and called on him to issue a public apology, his followers quickly pounced on her with a barrage of unsavoury utterances too vile to reproduce.

Ms Shamsi recalls that women are often framed as easy targets in the political arena, as their morality weighs far heavier on the electorate than the morality of men. A historic example is the character assassination of Begum Nusrat Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto throughout the 1990s.

The conservative right-wing parties of the time, such as the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI), which later became the Pakistan Muslim League, frequently attacked these women to undermine them and their politics. In 1988, the IJI’s publicity wing famously circulated images of Nusrat Bhutto on a dance floor and those of Benazir from her student years at Oxford and Harvard, to depict them as westernised and immoral. Pamphlets with doctored photographs were thrown from the air into protest arenas to inflame sentiments.

Contemporary women politicians on both sides of the aisle have also been viciously targeted over the past few years, Ms Shamsi says, noting the perpetual social media sparring between PML-N’s Maryam Nawaz Sharif and PTI chief Imran Khan.

‘Weak’ case for defamation

In strictly legal terms, it might be difficult for the actresses to sue the YouTuber for defamation, Ms Dad says. However, since their names and images have appeared on hundreds of accounts, she suggests that the Federal Investigation Agency’s (FIA) Cyber Crime Wing can take up their complaints under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca).

On the other hand, she says, the institutions and politicians named in Raja’s video have a stronger case for defamation, as they were explicitly named.

Politician Sharmila Faruqi notes with disdain: “Unfortunately, in Pakistan, defamation laws are toothless and take years to conclude without giving any concrete relief to the person defamed. A woman being a victim of a tarnished image is subjected to victim blaming for years. No one cares about her mental and emotional struggles.”

This time, since it would serve the interests of the party in power, it seems the government may be prepared to lend a sympathetic ear to the plight of these women.

In a statement, Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb has urged the FIA to initiate legal action against those involved in spreading salacious claims about the actors, calling it a “malicious campaign aimed at character assassination and spreading insolence and incivility”.

Published in Dawn, January 5th, 2023

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