Imran Khan’s Anti-Feminism and the Social Media Backlash

Once upon a time, Imran Khan was a world-famous cricketer, the founder of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Party (PTI), the jet set drop dead handsome husband of heiress Jemima Goldsmith. His party's name translates literally to “Pakistan Movement for Justice” in English. Those sterling accomplishments notwithstanding, he has always walked a particularly difficult tightrope – somewhat moderate with regards to the West, anti-Taliban, but also strategically, anti-War on Terror. It is not easy being a card-carrying member of the jet set as well as a populist politician in a country where, according to a recent Pew poll, a large percentage of citizens have a favorable view of Sharia law. With regards to equality, Imran Khan has always encouraged women to vote (admittedly, to his party’s benefit), he has been vocal against honor killings, and PTI has pledged free education for girls up to the tenth grade.

While PTI has been good on women’s empowerment through education, his actual rhetoric on women’s rights is beyond discouraging. He is willing to accept women’s votes during election time and offers some beneficial social sweeteners vis-à-vis scholarships, but he still speaks to and for a divisive, decidedly anti-feminist element in conservative Pakistan culture.

Khan is rhetorically catering to his country’s most chauvinistic social element. Then again, PTI – with Khan as spokesman -- was never a bastion of progressive feminism. “In the Pakistani context, a social liberal is a person who is often seen in the presence of non-mehram (unrelated) persons of the opposite sex, wears (westernized) clothes, which for women also means being seen in public without the head or face coverings, listens to music and is relatively tolerant towards people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds,” writes Syed Mansoor Hussain of the Daily Times on PTI.

This, of course, is not Imran Khan’s philosophy. “Watching the PTI’s public meetings on television and considering the participants it does suggest that most, if not all, PTI members subscribe to these points of view,” Mansoor continues, getting to the point. “However, listening to Imran Khan, the leader of the PTI, it is also clear that the PTI is definitely not a liberal political party, populist rhetoric notwithstanding.” Which brings us to Khan’s latest sweet kiss to the antifeminist forces in Pakistan last week. “A mother’s influence is immense in a person’s life, specially if it’s a good mother and a mother in every sense of the word,” Khan told a private news station according to The Daily Times. “I do not agree with the Western concept of feminism. It has degraded role of a mother.” Charmed, I’m sure.

Why does Khan say such problematic things? Of course, the Twitterverse heartily disagreed. Social media erupted against Khan. Journalist Abbas Masir had one of the sharpest responses on Twitter. "Imran Khan's views on feminism show his utter lack of understanding of the issue. He should ensure he is better briefed or not speak on issues he has little knowledge and awareness of." The problem is that Imran Khan, the ex-husband of feminist Jemima Goldsmith, knows exactly what he is doing. Though born to a Pashtun family in Kahore, Imran attended Oxford and launched a cancer hospital in honor of his mother, The Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital & Research Centre.

Dressed in his trademark shalwar kameez, Khan knows where his bread is buttered, politically, in conservative Pakistan. He is now a senior citizen – 65 – and making his last go around running for President of Pakistan. The election is probably in July, and the 200 million population is by no means secular. To this day, funerals are segregated by gender. And as recently as March, women have marched en masse for equality and against gender violence. That March Aurat March was a social media phenomenon, one of the first major online grassroots events in the history of Pakistan. "The idea that women are complicit in maintaining the status quo that decrees them second-class status and are unwilling or unprepared to fight for their rights utterly ignores the protective features of internalized misogyny," says Dawn.com. He has been protested by women in Pakistan, even at impromptu press conferences.

Where does feminist Jemima Goldsmith, Khan’s ex-wife, fit in all this? She recently threatened to sue Khan’s second wife, Reham Khan, over a book that may or may not be published in the UK. "Hell hath no fury like a woman whose children have been scorned (& criminally libelled)," she wrote on Twitter June 7th, one week before Imran’s comments on motherhood. Reham has boasted that her controversial book will recount her years as a “mother, wife, journalist and warrior," which may or may not have caused Imran Khan's overreaction to the media in conservative Pakistan. It will be interesting to see how Jemima Khan responds to these new, ill-considered remarks by her first husband.

This is Imran Khan’s last chance at political glory, at the top job in Pakistan after over twenty years of pursuit. There are many Pakistan-based feminist blogs online, perhaps Khan should check them out before maneuvering in such a Machiavellian fashion. After two decades of studying the job, Imran Khan should know that the leadership of Pakistan is at its best uplifting the people by appealing to their best ideals and not catering to their lowest impulses.