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With general elections expected in May 2013, Imran Khan’s political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) or Pakistan Movement for Justice is said to be gaining momentum, if its massive October 2011 political rally is any indicator. Buoyed by popular support from an empowered youth demographic (36 million people in Pakistan are between 15-24 years old) and women from varying cross sections of society, many Pakistanis are excited about the impending political change that Khan and PTI represent. Khan falls into the centre right on the political spectrum with a strong emphasis on anti-corruption, judicial reforms, rights for religious and ethnic minorities, women’s empowerment and education.
For those unfamiliar with Imran Khan, he is an Oxford-educated former Pakistani cricketer, who led Pakistan to its one and only World Cup victory in 1992. After retiring from cricket he pursued a number of charitable causes of which Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital is the crowning glory. Named after his mother who died of colon cancer, Shaukat Khanum is said to provide comprehensive care free of cost to thousands of cancer patients. Imran Khan was a Member of Parliament from the Mianwali district from 2002-2007 where he also helped establish Namal College in 2008. He has also made headlines in the past for dating socialites and is alleged to have had a daughter out of wedlock. Despite this, Khan is still widely celebrated for his cricket, social work and now as the celebrated head of PTI.
Although PTI has been around for approximately 15 years, it has only recently gained political traction, with the October 2011 rally finally cementing PTI as a viable political party. Much of the popular support for PTI is a response to the worsening situation when it comes to rule of law, corruption, and human rights abuses (women and minorities), as well as the mismanagement of basic amenities and the ongoing conflict in the Northern Areas of Pakistan. Khan predicts that his centrist party can fix the country’s problems in just 90 days, something his critics suggest reflects his lack of political experience.
With overwhelming support from female voters (PTI has a dedicated women’s wing), it is important to consider some of the rhetoric associated with Khan’s stance on women’s issues in Pakistan. According to the PTI manifesto, the present dismal state of women and children in terms of their access to health care, nutrition, and education cannot be ignored. To overcome these development challenges, Khan aims to provide free education to girls up to Matric (10th grade), introduce scholarships for graduation in pursuit of higher education in computer sciences, medicine, management, and engineering, create social awareness against un-Islamic customs and cruel practices such as sawarra in NWFP and karo kari in Sindh and enforce laws to eradicate such practices.
He has also promised to provide housing and child care assistance to working women, encourage the active involvement of women in the management of community based rural development initiatives, develop a national programme for vocational and skill-based training for income generation, design and implement special functional literacy programmes for women, legislate and enforce laws for in-camera trial of molestation and rape cases, establish separate “women support cells” in each police station at tehsil (city/town) level, which are managed and run by women to support and process criminal cases in which women are the accused, and legislate and enforce a special law on violence against women.
So, on paper, the PTI strategy on women appears worthy and seems to address gaps in policy and programmes geared at Pakistani women. However, whether PTI will be able to raise the political will and commitment necessary to implement such specialized programmes for women is still open to debate.
In a recent video, Khan responded to a query on the type of “revolution” he would bring about for the women in Pakistan. He made two references to education and rule of law, both of which would benefit not just women but the population at large, in a country with approximately 50 percent literacy (with female literacy at 36 percent compared to men at 63 percent). Basically, Khan is enforcing what development researchers have been stating for years, that gender inequality in education and employment has a detrimental impact on economic growth in addition to higher fertility and child mortality rates.
Critics of Imran Khan label him (and his generalized rhetoric and stance) as “Taliban Khan,” or the “Fundofication of PTI,” or “Taliban Apologist.” Much of this is in response to his strategy for dealing with the Taliban and other Islamic militants which has led to charges that he is soft on extremists. Some go so far as to label him a “Ziast” referring to President Zia-ul-Haq who was known for his intolerance, and who was responsible for steering Pakistan through its Islamization period amid the backdrop of the war in Afghanistan. President Zia in particular is known to have introduced the prejudicial ordinances that reduced women’s legal rights. However another author suggests that we should instead view PTI’s Islamism not through the lens of General Zia’s violent Islamization campaign of the 1980s, but through the wider prism of Pakistani history where politicians have used Islam for their respective political gains. But more importantly, does this criticism of Islamist political ties imply a softening and/or a compromise on women’s issues in a country experiencing increasing levels of religious intolerance and Islamization? Nothing concrete can be stated until Khan takes office and is shown to be able to push for the development issues advocated by his party’s platform. A comment on PBS’s News Hour may, however address in part his need to maintain reconciliatory links with conservative factions:
“We have more radicals in this society. I am considered probably the only nationalist who has credibility here. I’m petrified. If I utter one word, which could be perceived as anti-Islamic or anti-jihad, one word, my life is at risk.”
Can Imran Khan deliver on his message of empowerment, not just for women but for every Pakistani wanting to make a difference? Given that other political parties have a mixed record on women’s rights issues, would I vote for him in the upcoming elections? In an ideal setting, yes, I would cast my vote for Khan, because his ideals on the confluence of Islam and democracy and human rights including women’s rights are largely in accordance with my own. However, although Imran Khan may be gaining the necessary political traction to become the next Prime Minister of Pakistan, widespread criticism of his political ties may hurt him in the polls. There is much at stake, as I am learning, and success is not guaranteed.