Pakistan Elections: A History of Character Assassination of Women 

Religious oppression and a patriarchal mindset are responsible for women leaders in Pakistan facing censure.

4 min read
Benazir Bhutto (L) & Maryam Sharif (R). Image used for representational purposes.

The current five-year term of the elected government in Pakistan is coming to an end on 31 May 2018 and general elections for electing the new parliament are going to be held on 25 July. In a preamble to the main election campaign, supporters of all political parties have vehemently been asserting the merits of their respective parties.

In the last few years, the political arena has seen a surge of women activists in all cadres, and their presence has also been felt in political debates, be they on TV or social media.

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However, the rise of women leaders and activists has been accompanied with a rise in attacks on women’s characters; another way through which politicians try to weaken the position of the opposing party.

From Benazir Bhutto to Maryam Nawaz Sharif, almost no woman leader in Pakistan has been spared. From their physical attributes to their attire, their male opponents, often lesser than them in rank, haven’t hesitated to criticise any aspect of these women’s beings. Here are three iconic Pakistani women leaders who have faced censure for raising their voice and standing on equal public platforms as men.

Maryam Nawaz Sharif

Maryam Nawaz Sharif, eldest daughter of Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, has been a soft target on social media. More often than not, her marriage has been questioned, with detractors claiming it to be a “love marriage”, something which is frowned upon in conservative Muslim society.

In a TV show, Sharmila Farooqi, a member of PPP, accused Maryam of running away with Safdar Awan, her present husband. 

Maryam has had to face worse remarks, and all because she is a woman. Members of PTI have often used Twitter to ridicule Maryam, using derogatory language against her.


Shireen Mazari

In September 2012, Shireen Mazari decided to leave Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) due to rude remarks that were being passed around by ex-party members. She, along with her daughter, were called ‘prostitutes’, and not even her late father was spared insults. Later, in 2013, Mazari re-joined PTI and was also elected as a member of the national assembly, only to once again face vulgar remarks about her character from the Opposition.

In an interview, State Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, Sheikh Aftab, replied to a question asked by Shireen Mazari as to what international standards of security were being observed at the airports by saying, “In airports abroad, they also strip-search you. Is that the international standard she wants?”

His crude remark was followed by approving laughter. During a public rally, PML-N member Abid Sher Ali made derogatory remarks about Shireen Mazari, and even called her a “tractor trolley”. At one point, when she asked him to keep his distance and to not touch her, he replied by saying that “there is nothing to touch in her.”

Benazir Bhutto

In the 1980s, Benazir Bhutto, the then Pakistani prime minister, returned to her country after completing her studies at Oxford University and tried to defy Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s regime with a huge support-base she had garnered, only to be targeted in the most malicious manner.

The media churned out stories that attacked Bhutto’s character, and circulated photos of her partying at Oxford. The Opposition of the day tried to use any means to defame her, with the intent to destabilise her government.

Bhutto was even declared non-Muslim and hence, an unfit candidate to rule an Islamic State. At one point, while talking about Bhutto at one of his public rallies, Maulana Abdul Sattar Niazi proclaimed that a woman cannot think rationally during her menstrual cycle.

In another incident, when Bhutto entered the parliament wearing a green kameez with white salwar, Sheikh Rasheed called her a ‘veritable parrot’ which did not sit well with Bhutto, leading to an uproar in the parliament.

Women’s characters are often attacked, especially by small time politicos, to shift the public’s focus from their performance to the personal lives of these women. While the plight of women politicians in Pakistan is usually associated with religious oppression, it all really boils down to the deeply ingrained patriarchal mindset of Pakistani society that allows such a toxic culture to flourish.

What makes all this worse is that, when a woman speaks up against abuse — verbal or otherwise — she is seen as demeaning not only herself, but also stripping her family of its dignity. In light of the upcoming elections in Pakistan, this needs to be highlighted, so that a change of attitude against women can be facilitated, and the playing field is levelled.

(Aroona Ahmereen is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. She is a US State Department Exchange Alumna and currently a Mass Communications Scholar at National University Of Science & Technology (NUST), Islamabad. She tweets @AAhmereen.)

(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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