A Toxic Mix Of Misogyny And Elitism
In an interview with HBO’s Jonathan Swan, Imran Khan was asked about the epidemic of rape and sexual violence in Pakistan. He responded, “if you raise temptation in society . . . it has consequences in the society.” Swan asks if he believes that what women wear is part of this “temptation” to which the Prime Minister responds, “If a woman is wearing very few clothes, it will have an impact on the men unless they are robots. I mean, it’s common sense.” Swan then asks, “yes, but is it really going to provoke acts of sexual violence?” to which IK says, “it depends which society you live in. If in a society people haven’t seen that sort of thing. It will have an impact on them. If you grow up in a society like you [Swan] maybe it won’t have on you.” The PM then goes on to make an argument about how Western standards don’t apply to Pakistan and that it is “cultural imperialism” to say that “whatever is acceptable in ‘our’ culture must be acceptable to everyone else.”
People the world over have rightly expressed outrage that the Prime Minister would be so insensitive towards victims of sexual violence and so clueless about its causes. Imran Khan is saying that Pakistani men, by virtue of our ‘culture,’ cannot control their sexual impulses when faced with the “temptation” of women’s bodies. This is victim blaming and apologia for a culture of sexual violence. This logic shifts the blame away from the perpetrators of sexual violence, primarily men, on to its victims by suggesting that it is what women wear or do that incites and provokes sexual violence. This perspective is entirely out of step with evidence on sexual violence, which shows conclusively that what women are actually wearing has little or nothing to do with how men act and there is no correlation between what a woman is wearing and the likelihood of her being the victim of sexual violence. This is because sexual violence is an act of power and not just a product of “temptation.” It is driven by the desire to control and to dominate another human being and the “pleasure” that one derives from it comes from the exercise of power.
Moreover, we know that sexual violence is directed at all kinds of people and this was evidence recently in the in the case of the grooming and sexual exploitation of a madrassa student by a powerful mufti. The solution to this great epidemic of sexual violence lies not in policing women’s dress but in redefining men’s identities, their masculinity, away from the values of control and domination. This will be a long struggle against patriarchal definitions of masculinity but it is the only way to rid the world of the menace of sexual violence that threatens us all. Imran Khan’s comments both rationalize sexual violence against women and keep us from identifying and dismantling the culture that perpetuates this violence.
It is also a great irony that Imran Khan who is always decrying Islamophobia in the West has actually reinforced some of the worst stereotypes about Pakistani culture and Islam by suggesting that Pakistani men are incapable of controlling their sexual impulses. It is a common and dangerous Islamophobic trope that Muslim men are sexual predators who cannot adjust to Western sexual norms and thus should be policed and barred from immigration. In other words, in order to make an argument against “cultural imperialism,” Imran Khan has reduced Pakistani culture to its worst traits and painted Pakistani men in the worst light possible. This is exactly what Islamophobes say about us. But, our culture is not reducible to a culture of rape and sexual violence, even if that is something we all must battle, and Pakistani or Muslim men are not incapable of self-control. Imran Khan’s claim about Pakistani culture and men casts diaspora Pakistani men in the West as potential sexual deviants. This should infuriate his legion of diaspora supporters who face daily Islamophobic and racist attacks.
People have been pointing out online that Imran Khan lived all his life surrounded by such “temptation” in the West. Surely, he is not saying that he was also a sexual predator during this time? How does he get away from the implication that this characterization of Pakistani men doesn’t apply to him? Simple, by projecting the stereotype on to men who are less enlightened than him. He assumes that as an enlightened man, he has the necessary self-control to navigate temptation. And where does this self-control come from? One source of it is his belief in his own piety, something he constantly touts, but his own logic suggests that self-control comes from being exposed to Western society. As he explains to Swan, Pakistanis “haven’t seen that sort of thing” but those in the West do not succumb to temptation because they have. This is a remarkably elitist but all too common perspective, one that can be traced back to colonialism, that suggests that exposure to the West (to the English language and to Enlightenment thought) allows one to have discipline and control over oneself.. It is a common way that elites have defined their distinction from and superiority to “the masses.”
When Imran Khan refers to “people [who] haven’t seen that sort of thing” he is not talking about himself, his elite friends, or even his cherished Pakistani diaspora supporters. He is talking about the Pakistani everyman, the aam admi, the commoner, a man, bereft of enlightened values and one who is a slave to his sexual impulses. It is the danger posed by this man that must be kept in check through a culture of modesty.
So besides being obviously misogynistic and a rationalization for a culture of sexual violence against women, the Prime Minister’s comments reinforce the worst Islamophobic stereotypes about Pakistani culture and men and are steeped in the elitism of his class background. As they say, you can take the boy out of Aitchison, but you can never take the Aitchison out of the boy.