THE allegations by MNA and now former PTI member, Ayesha Gulalai, of sexual harassment by Imran Khan have caused no less than a political earthquake. Coming so soon after the Panama Papers verdict, this development has divided a polarised public further along partisan lines. It has also exposed the deep vein of misogyny that permeates all socioeconomic segments of Pakistani society. From the outset, there has only been one prudent course of action in the matter, and that is to determine the veracity, or otherwise, of Ms Gulalai’s claims through a credible investigation, which is the right of any woman alleging sexual harassment. Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s call on Friday for the formation of a special committee — something that Mr Khan has welcomed — to undertake this task is therefore a step in the right direction. Having an in-camera probe will also preserve the dignity of both the accuser and the accused: while allowing one to present her evidence without fear of further public censure, it will give the other the chance to speak freely in his defence.
One could argue that Ms Gulalai would have strengthened her case had she first lodged a formal complaint with the party, rather than going to the media. That said, the reaction to her allegations from a large segment of the public has been despicable. Threats of violence have been hurled at her on social media with such vehemence that the MNA has expressed fears for her life. Even the PTI spokesman plumbed the depths of indecency with his remarks about Ms Gulalai and her family. However, the invective is especially jarring when it comes from women, in particular those belonging to the PTI, whose enthusiastic participation at its rallies has given it an image of a woman-friendly party. A group of PTI female lawmakers has gone so far as to say that their former colleague will be dealt with by a jirga, a proven instrument of women’s subjugation, before being tried in court — and all before her ‘guilt’ has even been proved. Such a stance illustrates how women themselves internalise a patriarchal society’s misogynistic narrative, and thereby unwittingly perpetrate it. Moreover, although the incident has assumed a political colour because of the individuals involved, it also illustrates why victims of sexual harassment, and worse, are reluctant to go public. Only those with extreme fortitude would be able to endure the disbelief their claims evoke and the character assassination they are subjected to.