Pakistani MP who says Imran Khan harassed her faces wave of abuse
When the Pakistani politician Ayesha Gulalai Wazir accused the cricket-star-turned-opposition-leader Imran Khan of sexual harassment, the vitriol unleashed against her was swift and vicious.
First, leaders of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) party – which Gulalai also belongs to – publicly denounced her and demanded 30 million rupees (£218,000) in compensation for damage to his reputation and “mental torture”.
Then came the trolls.
— Waqar Ahmed (@WaqAhmed84) August 17, 2017
On social media, some said Gulalai, 31, should have acid thrown in her face, others that she should be whipped. She was called a liar and a carpetbagger. Mocking TV hosts asked, smirking, if she actually wanted to marry the man she accused.
Gulalai says the political backlash is evidence of the abuse reserved for Pakistani women who venture to speak out publicly against harassment – abuse that increasingly takes place online.
“They [the party] have sent a message to women of Pakistan, that if you speak out against misuse of authority, you will face this kind of attitude,” Gulalai told the Guardian. “And this is from PTI who [say they] stand for change in Pakistan … because of this culture, women will keep mum.”
70% of the sexual harassment cases are not reported even in US. Very brave from #AyeshaGulalai, if investigation proves her right.
— Sajjad Saleem (@sajjad_saleem) August 4, 2017
Gulalai says Khan began sending her “inappropriate” text messages in 2013, including sexual intimations and propositions to see him alone, and that he persisted after she rebuked him.
ہم غیرت مند اور پختون لوگ ہیں
— Ayesha Gulalai (@AyeshaGulalai_) August 1, 2017
She has declined to publish the messages, saying sharing them with the media would fuel further abuse.
“His abusive brigade is always with him on social media,” Gulalai said of Khan and his supporters.
Instead, she said she would present them to a parliamentary investigation and has called for a forensic audit of her and Khan’s phones.
Khan, 64, has denied Gulalai’s allegations and said he would not comment on the claims unless she released the messages. He declined an interview for this article, but a spokeswoman said: “Unless she can come up with evidence of all she has accused Imran over, he will not be speaking on this matter.”
Meanwhile, the prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, has granted Gulalai round-the-clock security and has called for a special committee to investigate her allegations.
The Women’s Action Forum condemned the reactions to Gulalai’s allegations as “character assassination.”
On Twitter, opinion has been divided between people commending Gulalai for speaking out and others criticising her.
From her own party, support has been scant. A group of female party members, led by Shireen Mazari, whose own daughter left PTI after being called a prostitute, dismissed Gulalai as an opportunist.
Khan’s celebrity and commanding presence have become synonymous with his party. In a recent local election in Lahore, where he personally campaigned for the party candidate, the party won ground.
Some have questioned the timing of Gulalai’s claims. She came forward days after Khan succeeded in his campaign to oust Nawaz Sharif as prime minister on corruption charges in July, leading some to accuse Gulalai of taking money to defend Sharif – a charge she vehemently denies.
“This has nothing to do with Nawaz,” she said. Her allegations were part of a broader tirade against Khan, in which she accused him and the party leadership of corruption. She claimed she had simply lost patience after Khan refused to dismiss the chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa over fraud allegations. The chief minister, Pervez Khattak, denies Gulalai’s allegations of corruption.
Because of this culture, women will keep mum.
Ayesha Gulalai Wazir
In a country where hundreds of women each year are murdered in so-called honour killings, public debasement of women carries real danger.
In 2014, the cricketer Halima Rafiq died, in what her family said was suicide, after accusing a top cricket official of sexual harassment.
In Pakistan, 75-80% of social media users are male, making women an online minority. In a study of 17 Pakistani universities, the Digital Rights Foundation found that 34% of surveyed women had experienced online abuse or harassment by men.
“Online violence encompasses and is encompassed by offline sociocultural issues such as domestic abuse and sexual harassment, and it is further buttressed and aggravated by factors that prevent women from exercising their right to justice,” the report says.
In a prominent incident last year, the social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch was killed after continuously being harangued online. Her brother has admitted killing her.
At 31, Gulalai is Pakistan’s youngest parliamentarian and the first woman from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) to hold such office. Her younger sister, Maria Toorpakai Wazir, is a famous squash player who has also received death threats for playing in shorts and without a headscarf.
Following Gulalai’s accusations, social media users turned on her sister. After two days, Khan called on his supporters to lay off Toorpakai.
Gulalai’s ordeal illustrates the precarious position of female Pakistani MPs, according to Maria Waqar, a PhD student researching female parliamentarians in Pakistan. “Workplace harassment has a lot to do with power. That makes women parliamentarians vulnerable.”
Gulalai has so far resisted calls for her to quit the PTI, although she has raised the idea of starting her own political party in the future. “No one alone makes up a political party. PTI is not the property of Imran Khan,” she said. “This is [also] my party.”