Sexual harassment allegations against Imran Khan upend politics in Pakistan

File image of Imran Khan. Source: @ImranKhanPTI

How the sexual harassment allegations against Imran Khan are playing out in Pakistan

There is never a dull moment in Pakistani politics.

No sooner had the riveting Panama Papers leaks case court battle ended, culminating in the disqualification of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, than the main opposition leader Imran Khan became embroiled in a scandal. A lawmaker of Khan’s party has accused him of sending inappropriate text messages.

Ayesha Gulalai, a 34-year old Member of National Assembly (MNA), claimed to be in possession of evidence proving that Imran is ‘characterless’. She said he sent her 13 messages from 2013 to 2016 asking her to meet him alone and marry her. She has shown the messages to certain journalists, but is refusing to make them public until a court or a parliamentary committee summons her.

Gulalai belongs to the Wazir tribe that has its origins in the militancy-hit tribal regions of South Waziristan and North Waziristan in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). But many Wazirs, including her forefathers, shifted to Bannu district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, an area known until 2010 as the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). This is the reason she was elected in May 2013 as an MNA from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to a seat reserved for women. As there is no seat in the parliament for women out of the 20 allotted to FATA, Gulalai can claim to be the first-ever tribeswoman to sit in the National Assembly. She is also one of the youngest members of parliament in Pakistan.

When Gulalai resigned from the PTI recently, after accusing Imran of sending indecent messages to her mobile phone, the party became the third she had quit in her short political career. She first joined the Pakistan People’s Party and described Benazir Bhutto as her role model. Her next destination was General Pervez Musharraf’s All Pakistan Muslim League, but this association proved brief as she realized the party had no future. She joined the PTI in 2012 after being inspired by Imran’s call for change and for staging the ‘long march’ to South Waziristan condemning US drone strikes in Pakistan. The PTI did well in the 2013 polls, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, allowing Gulalai’s election as a lawmaker in one of the seats reserved for women.

Gulalai has earned the ire of the PTI by accusing Imran of sexual harassment and by refusing to resign from the National Assembly. She stood her ground despite the onslaught of PTI activists, who didn’t even spare her younger sister Maria Torpakay, Pakistan’s top squash player, until Imran intervened. Imran’s young followers, who make use of social media to lash out at anyone who criticizes their leader, nastily went after Gulalai and her family. She requested that authorities provide her with security and her family had to move from Peshawar to Islamabad due to threats.

The drama surrounding Gulalai’s bold assertions against Imran is still unfolding. It is extremely rare for women, especially those belonging to the ultra-conservative Pashtun ethnic group, to make such accusations as they often lead to sexist insinuations about their character. If her charges are proven, they could dent Imran’s chances in the next election, even after he has emerged as a major contender for the prime minister’s office due to Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification.

The process of appointing a special ethics committee in the National Assembly to inquire into the issue has already started. The newly-elected Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi called for the committee’s formation, arguing that it was an appropriate move since both Gulalai and Imran were members of the National Assembly.

Subsequently, the National Assembly adopted the motion. The Speaker asked the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the joint opposition to nominate 13 and 7 members respectively to the committee, proportional to their strength in the legislative body.

Imran’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) initially rejected the special committee’s legitimacy, saying that it was dominated by the PTI’s rival parties. Later, Imran agreed to the formation of the committee despite his reservations. However, the committee may not be able to work smoothly in light of the distrust between the two sides. The case hasn’t yet gone to court, but this cannot be ruled out, as courts are currently approached to rule on every imaginable issue.

Predictably, the Gulalai issue has triggered a verbal clash between the PML-N and PTI. Not to be outdone, the PTI struck back by supporting the claim of another young woman, Ayesha Ahad. She claims that Hamza Shahbaz Sharif, the son of Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and nephew of Nawaz Sharif, married her in 2010 but refused to acknowledge the union and give her associated rights. Two senior PTI women leaders accompanied Ahad to the press conference where she provided details of her legal battle against Hamza Shahbaz Sharif, who some suggest might become the next chief minister of Pakistan’s most populous province, Punjab.

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