Reham and public space

Imran Khan has never has let a chance pass to flaunt religion, which he conveniently wore on his sleeve: the multiple prayer breaks from the dharna (sit-in) stage, the excessive call for religion in politics, the statement about the Taliban being our brothers, the same Taliban that stand to wipe out women’s rights and girl child rights and also his statements about women and culture never being much to write home about. This is where he segues into what Pakistanis consider the opposite of what he projects in terms of his ethos. With his marriage to Reham Khan, he has determinedly stood on a particular side of the religious line that separates the conservatives from the non-conservatives. This is perhaps one of the only feminist things Imran Khan has done in eons and, no, getting a few party women onto the dharna stage to wave to the crowd does not count.

Reham is an extraordinary woman. What makes her stand out is the fact that she works in Pakistan and that too in an industry that is menacing to women who choose public life as their mode of expression. Reham comments on politics and the political men’s club that Pakistan festers in order to bring some balance to the media and politics ecosystem. No surprise that she has always had a favourable outlook on Imran Khan’s politics without declaring her bias but, still, that can be ignored as her personal choice.

Reham has had a bright career internationally and has worked with the BBC. My personal admiration for her started when we shared a platform on Ejaz Haider’s television show BeLaag on the question of child marriages and the Council of Islamic Ideology’s (CII’s) decree that they were permitted. On this show she effectively silenced the religious sentiment that promoted the hideous crime of underage marriages. She silenced it through reason. This is no ordinary achievement in a place where it often becomes a blur to see when exactly religious sentiment blinds human rights. Not just this, when the PTI’s personal intellectual wasteland advisor, Mr Faizul Hassan Chohan, insulted women from the film Industry, Reham stood up for the women. This was a testament to her understanding of the concrete alliance women need to make with women across all divides.

Yet the reaction Pakistanis have had on Imran Khan’s marriage is nothing short of putrid. They have character assassinated Reham and have subjected her to extreme cyber harassment that would undoubtedly cause much psychological stress. They have attacked her on two grounds: her choice of lifestyle and over choices she probably did nýot make to begin with. In the latter case they have photoshopped pictures of her next to a sex shop and labelled her a lesbian for rubbing the back of another woman. This is typical slut shaming of women that people indulge in as a matter of sport and entertainment. Most of the people doing this are the first to call themselves religious.

In the case of the first, the attack on the ground of what she chooses to wear is even more offensive because these attacks disregard Reham’s individualism. They assume that for a woman to have stepped into public space disempowers her of her right to clothe her body in the way she wants. If this is not a right but a dictate by society, then all religious garb is a product of subjugation, including burkas and thus only a farce. Women cannot be pigeonholed into a mould. They lie on spectrums and so does their fashion sense.

The journey Reham takes now is more important to women in Pakistan than perhaps she realises. Not only should she not fold under the pressures of a society marred with control of women in public life, she should also not fold to pressures that Imran Khan may put on her potentially with the force of his patriarchy and traditionalism, which he reserves for public life alone. Lest we see the Jemimacation of Reham: dupatta clad and in limited public life. The hope is that Imran has shed the ghost of irrationality in his old age. It is sad enough that a woman cannot lead her life without national condemnation over her free choice of marriage or previous divorce for that matter, but it is utterly horrid for that woman to be dragged through the mud for it, her life dissected and up for scrutiny.

With over 89,700 Twitter followers, Reham has more clout than most women opinion makers have in Pakistan. That clout needs to be emphasised more so now than ever. Nothing should eclipse it, especially not a marriage.

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