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Imran Khan's ball-tampering in politics and Pakistan's feminist movement

Populist and sexist, can he still make a comeback?


The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is going through heavy turbulence with the former Prime Minister Imran Khan, whose party, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), was ousted on the first-ever no confidence vote in Pakistan’s history, refusing to accept he’s no longer in charge. Fuel prices have skyrocketed, and power outages are as reliable as a good menstrual cycle. These are shaky, speculation-riddled times. Add an unprecedented heat wave to the mix, and there’s a shit storm waiting to happen. 

Pakistan has always been on the brink of an explosion but somehow continues to keep simmering. For the longest time, many Pakistanis believed their nation was created for almighty God, although it’s becoming more evident that it might have been instead for the almighty military. 

The military presence is everywhere in Peshawar, where I grew up and where I’m visiting my family after four years. A stable Pakistan has always been an oxymoron, but this is the first time I’ve felt like an intruder in my own home. Army guards ask for your reasons for going from one part of town to another, and only neighbourhood residents are allowed in certain areas. Ironically this feels less safe than when we’d take the risk of going to the markets when suicide bombings were a regular occurrence. The “Establishment”, as the unofficial governance of military, intelligence and pro-military alliances is known, seems more visible than ever. 

Imran Khan appears to have a hardcore following amongst Pakistanis and ex-pat Pakistanis if one is to judge by social media support. Notable Pakistani celebrities and media stars have been outspoken in their support of PTI. Many of my own family members and friends are staunch supporters. Fascinated by the rockstar status he holds, I wanted to understand what makes Imran Khan so popular even though his government failed to deliver on its grand promise of a “New Pakistan” (unless by new, he meant on the brink of an economic and social disaster). 

“People have a familiarity with Imran Khan,” says Huda Bhurgri, gender inclusion advisor for a development organisation and an organiser of Aurat March (Women’s March), which has been held on International Women’s Day since 2018. “He’s cool; he’s a cricketer, a celebrity. He’s a reformed bad boy. He represents the ordinary Pakistani’s fantasy.”

Gender activist Huda Bhurgri | Supplied


See South Asian Today’s photo story from Aurat March 2020 here.


Imran Khan’s status is forever elevated because he led the team that won the 1992 cricket world cup, the unofficial religion in Pakistan after Islam. His former playboy status doesn’t hurt his image either (one of our boys banging Hollywood celebs? Bring it on!). Plus, he made the first cancer hospital in Pakistan, showcasing skills in being able to rub shoulders with the right people and gaining public support. 

He also has other attributes that helped him come into power in 2018 through a coalition government. For one, he has been vocal about the rampant corruption in Pakistan and vowed to weed it out. This struck a chord with many Pakistanis who firmly believe that the previous government’s corruption is the key reason for the current state of affairs.  According to Huda, PTI offered hope, and those with little or no political acumen or involvement became his ardent supporters:

“They (Pakistani public) were fed up with status quo, like Trump supporters. They were sick of everything and said, let’s try something new.”

The military also thought experimenting with supporting a new political party instead of the established, dynastical parties (Pakistan People’s Party and Pakistan Muslim League) might be worthwhile.

“He wouldn’t have been able to come into power without military support,” says Huda.

And many believe the key reason for his government being ousted was the withdrawal of military support for various reasons, including his botched attempt to replace the current Chief of Army Staff with someone more favourable to Khan’s governance.

According to Huda, even if early elections occur as per Imran Khan’s demands, PTI will not be able to form a government again without military support. And yet, he continues to be popular amongst the public.

Former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan | Image by Awais Khan


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“One of the reasons even the feminists I know are willing to overlook his sexist remarks is that he’s personally not corrupt, but corruption doesn’t happen openly; it happens in an institutionalised way. If he’s not corrupt, what use is that for us? The people in his party have the same corrupt track record,” says Huda. “The question is, is corruption the biggest malice we’re facing or incompetence?” 

The fact that some feminists have sided with Imran Khan is alarming. The former cricketer copped criticism for his misogynistic comments while a new feminist wave was (and is) gaining momentum in Pakistan and worldwide following the #MeToo movement.

"If a woman is wearing very few clothes, it will have an impact on the man unless they are robots. It's common sense," Imran Khan famously told HBO's documentary-news series Axios last year.

Huda details how, under his government, Aurat March organisers faced many difficulties every year, including being denied a “No Objection” certificate from the District Administration. Aurat March organisers in Islamabad were told not to hold the protest at Islamabad Press Club, warning that having their event at the Press Club would attract anti-Aurat March protestors and result in violence. 

“They tried to scare us under the guise of security. We said this is our one day in the year, don’t kick us out,” Huda says.

As well, Aurat March was provided insufficient security by the federal government. 

Feminism is not a popular concept in Pakistan, which makes Pakistan’s #MeToo movement so astonishing in its momentum and how, for the first time in the country, it started conversations about bodily rights, sexual rights and the myth that a woman is safe inside her own home. Aurat March attracts backlash and criticism from extreme-right groups such as Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamia Hafsa, believing feminist movements to be un-Islamic and a Western conspiracy. They carry banners accusing Aurat March participants of ‘indecent and immoral behaviour’, essentially calling them sluts.

It’s worth noting Imran Khan often uses religious sentiments to appease the masses, in stark contrast to his own Western education and experience. 

“Imran Khan came into power because he made lots of compromises. Benazir Bhutto had predicted he’d come into power if he does ‘ball tampering’,” says Huda, adding,  

“He’s a populist and doesn’t have any principles, which makes him dangerous. Imran Khan, in one instance, becomes anti-imperialist and then suddenly goes towards religion. If you analyse his tweets, they use repetition. Imran Khan, in one instance, becomes anti-imperialist and then suddenly goes towards religion. In every tweet, he mentions ‘imported government has sold the state’ and ‘American conspiracy’.”

These tactics echo fascist methods of repetition and provide an insight into Imran Khan’s popularity. 

“The day Imran Khan was ousted from the office through no confidence vote, I think somehow it was a kind of a victory for at least women's rights defenders in Pakistan,” says Huda. 

Now, if Imran Khan cannot regain power as he has fallen from the Establishment’s graces, who will govern Pakistan in the next general elections? The current government led by Shehbaz Sharif is making unpopular economic decisions at the cost of ordinary people’s living standards.

Huda predicts it will be Pakistan People’s Party, and she doesn’t think it will be beyond PTI to make alliances with the same dynastical party that he repeatedly slammed as ‘corrupt’ if that’s what it will take for him to get back some of the power he so desperately desires. 

Imran Khan, or as he’s fondly called IK, is certainly hip, cool and second only to God. It’s only a matter of time before IK garments, shoes and handbags make their way into the market. And like LV, it must be a luxury brand because even if our handsome former captain might not be the most competent leader this country has seen, he’s certainly the most stylish, and he must always get what he wants, no matter the cost.

About the author

Amna Bakhtiar is a writer and comedian currently based in Melbourne. She is a tribal Pashtun woman from Peshawar, Pakistan and has performed stand-ups at Darwin Fringe, Adelaide Fringe, Bellingen Winter Festival and the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. You can find her on Instagram | @amna.bee.comedy



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