In what seems like a page out of a dystopian novel, Pakistani women are no strangers to abuse and toxic comments. And while all women go through some sort of harsh comments on an almost daily basis, women in politics are more vulnerable as they are subjected to unimaginable trolling and abuse.
PML-N leader Uzma Bukhari is a recent victim of such online attacks. She says that she has seen different periods of politics in the last 20 years. She believes there is a marked distinction between men and women in the assembly. Recalling the not-so-distant past, she adds, “In the assembly of 2002, women members were called ‘sweet dish’. In the assembly of 2008, women’s seats were called ‘charity seats’.”
The rise of social media has exposed the level of abuse women politicians face regularly. But this trend is not new. In the past, women used to face the dirtiest propaganda campaigns launched against them by their rivals. It is no wonder then that the sister of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Fatima Jinnah, was also labelled a traitor and an Indian agent by her rivals.
For the longest time, politics in Pakistan remained a boys’ club. Gradually, women from political families entered the arena to get hold of the power. But this space in a male-dominated field has done little to protect women against the filth that is thrown at them. Even today, in a Pakistan that has many laws that protect women at workplace, for women like Marriyum Aurangzeb, Sassui Palijo, Uzma Bukhari, Hina Butt, Firdous Ashiq Awan, Zartaj Gul, Hina Rabbani Khar, Shireen Mazari, Shazia Mari, Ayla Malik and Maryam Nawaz Sharif, no law has proved fruitful.
In 2002, the Pakistani parliament saw a considerable rise in women’s participation in parliamentary politics for the first time. And while this was a laudable achievement and a step in the right direction, it did not help create a safe and non-toxic space for women. Instead of recognising women’s intelligence, the rival groups would accuse these women of “greasing the palms” or “being the favourite of any of the powerful” to reach the position.
But it was the struggle of these women parliamentarians that Pakistan saw the passing of many important laws. They also set up the Women Development Department to empower Pakistani women, which make up 50% of the total population. Years have passed, the old technology has successfully been replaced by new ones – TV has been replaced by social media. But one thing that has remained constant is men’s obnoxious behaviour against women, especially women parliamentarians.
Almost all political parties believe that the PTI social media team and its supporters have participated in abusive trends against women since 2018. Former minister Firdous Ashiq Awan and current information minister Marriyum Aurangzeb have gone through the worst body shaming.
The reason Marvi Memon got active on Twitter was to fight back against the rumours spread with her name. Sassui Palijo also believes that trolling is the last resort of a lost person. Whenever the rival party doesn’t have a logical answer to the questions raised, they resort to trolling to somehow suppress women’s voices. Such tactics, according to Palijo, are used to disturb a woman’s personal life and bully her into silence. But these measures are fast becoming useless as women now have enough strength and courage to defend themselves.
Bukhari adds that in today’s world, it is almost impossible to ignore a woman’s strong role. She blames the PTI for the culture of abuse against women. She says that this tactic of using indecent language against women during talk shows was started by the PTI because they think that such inappropriate behaviour will make a woman step back.
PML-N MPA Hina Pervez Butt shares that accounts responsible for trolling women parliamentarians are being run from within the country and abroad. And while domestic trolls can be controlled, there’s only little that can be done to stop foreign accounts from trolling. Hina thinks that instead of replying to trolls, she believes in furthering her political narrative and hitting them where it hurts them the most.
In many cases, strong and mainstream political parties have failed to provide protection to their women members. Parties should have a strict clause in their code of ethics, discouraging members to avoid using inappropriate language against women. But this seems to be wishful thinking. During a rally in Azad Kashmir, PTI leader Amin Ali Gandapur used such derogatory remarks that reproducing them sounds like an unforgivable sin.
After a short while, the PTI chief’s wife became a target of trolling. Before this, a PTI member Zartaj Gul openly challenged in parliament to produce the videos that were being used to defame her. She categorically made it clear that she wasn’t going to back off because of such blackmailing.
Sassui Palijo thinks that since women are perceived as an easy target, people think that they can get away with their trolling. Strong-headed women are trolled routinely to make them take a back seat. But Palijo also believes that over the years, there has been a significant change in the country’s political culture.
Secretary Women Parliamentary Caucus Shahida Rehmani thinks that cases of harassment against women parliamentarians decline after the passing of an anti-harassment law by the PPP in 2011. She mentions that this doesn’t mean all is well for these women. She recalls the recently held vote of no-confidence and shares that women politicians who abstained from voting faced indescribable trolling on social media. Such incidents, according to Rehmani, make the families of these women question their choices. She says that many female politicians have cut down their use of social media. She shares that she’s one of them and that she rarely looks back on her tweets and goes through the interactions made on her tweets.Parliament is supposed to be a highly respected place for women and men. In Pakistan, the National Assembly has seen quite a few cases where women were disrespected. Many years back, PML-N leader Khawaja Asif used indecent comments against PTI leader Shireen Mazari. It was rather shocking to see a political stalwart talk to his colleague in a rather derogatory manner. What was even more surprising was the fact that Asif’s wife was part of parliament at the time.
Years before this shameful incident, the late Benazir Bhutto also faced a series of verbal attacks and comments on her dress inside the upper house. Before this, she had to go through the vilest campaign where her photos were spread across the country (a helicopter was used to throw the photos at random places).
In a country where politics does not enjoy a good image, it is remarkable that some women have the courage to make their name in the field.