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Here’s Why Violation Of Maryam Nawaz’s Privacy Is A Feminist Issue

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It is unfortunate that PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz’s startling claims that cameras were installed in her jail cell and washroom have been met with silence from the authorities. “I have gone to jail twice and if I speak about how I, a woman, was treated in jail, they will not have the audacity to show their faces,” she said in a recent interview. Earlier, the PML-N leader had spoken up about the infamous ‘Karachi incident’ wherein the police broke into her hotel room to arrest her husband retd. Captain Safdar. Safdar had reportedly told the cops to wait for him outside as Maryam Nawaz was in the room, but they proceeded to enter the room after breaking the door.

The grave allegations of cameras inside Maryam Nawaz’s jail cell and washroom merited an explanation from Prime Minister Imran Khan under whose watch members of the opposition critical of the ‘hybrid regime’ have evidently faced victimisation. However, there is little hope that the government would address this alleged mistreatment of a mainstream woman political leader given its dismal record on women rights issues. Pro-government trolls on social media resorted to usual misogynistic slurs in response to Maryam Nawaz’s claims and began circulating suggestive memes.

Although disappointing, this response is hardly surprising given that women in Pakistan face hostilities when they reveal unpleasant details about the ordeals they face due to their gender. “Woman card, “cheap publicity”, “defamation” are some of the terms dolled out to discredit them and dismiss their experiences. That a political leader had to face the same dismissive response lays bare the ugly face of the society as well as absence of structural and institutional mechanisms to address complaints of gender-based mistreatment. The Rawalpindi jail officials responsible for ensuring the well-being of prisoners should have looked into the matter following a former prisoner Maryam Nawaz’s statement and a clarification on whether this kind of treatment with incarcerated politicians is the norm should have been issued.

Maryam Nawaz’s claims also remind one of Pakistan’s record pertaining to treatment of women prisoners. A recent report by Human Rights Ministry had revealed that the laws meant to protect women prisoners were being openly flouted by the officials. The report also observed that Pakistan’s prison laws for women did not comply with international standards. Without systemic policy reforms to improve the condition of jail, women prisoners will continue to be mistreated. Therefore, Maryam Nawaz’s concerns ought to be seen in context of the broader issue of systematic abuse of women that is worsened by the state’s inefficiency and often complicity.

Violence is not always physical. Intimidating a woman by telling her that she is being watched even in the confines of her room and washroom is a severe form of psychological violence. And the state’s alleged role in this harassment is tantamount to endorsing gender-based violence as a tool of political revenge. This draconian policy is disturbing on many levels.

First, the government’s act of mistreating imprisoned opposition leaders in this manner reeks of fascism. Secondly, invading a woman’s personal space by breaking into her bedroom and installing surveillance cameras in her washroom are all attempts to intimidate her into silence. This behaviour stems from the patriarchal society’s uneasiness with outspoken women and the belief that their spirit can be easily broken becauae they are weaker than men.

Whether it is politicians questioning role of the powers-that-be, activists speaking up against sexual harassment or female journalists reporting on issues deemed ‘sensitive’, Pakistan’s women face intimidation if they refuse to back down. Therefore, Maryam Nawaz’s claims of having been harassed in the jail need to be seen through the gender lens. The pattern in which attempts are made to silence women who challenge the status quo must be taken into account. This is not a partisan issue, but a feminist one.

Surveillance — the new norm?

Earlier, Supreme Court justice Qazi Faez Isa’s wife Sarina Isa had raised similar concerns about surveillance the judge’s family was put through by the authorities. Violation of privacy of those considered a threat by the state is certainly not a new phenomenon in Pakistan. In 1996, when Benazir Bhutto’s government was sent packing on charges of surveillance of SC judges, she had denied the allegations claiming that it was in fact her government that faced surveillance at the hands of intelligence agencies.

“They tapped President Farooq Laghari and his family. They tapped my phone calls and then went on to blame us for surveillance,” the late Benazir had told journalist Iftikhar Ahmad in an interview.

Human rights activists must raise their voice and demand an investigation into these serious claims regardless of what they think about Maryam Nawaz’s politics. If daughter of a three-time prime minister is harassed by the state this way, one can only imagine what happens to ordinary women prisoners from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

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