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In Pakistan, a divorce underscores society’s chauvinism

Pakistani media are revelling in the details of a high-profile celebrity divorce. But their coverage of the incident is highlighting questionable attitudes to women in the country.

The recent media spotlight in Pakistan on a crucial local government election and earthquake relief efforts has suddenly shifted its focus. There is something bigger and juicer to obsess about: a picture-perfect couple, made up of the loved (and loathed) cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and television journalist Reham Khan (photo above), has fallen apart, with the pair ending their short, tumultuous marriage accompanied by the now mandatory announcements on Twitter. And no one is talking about anything else on or off air.

It is no surprise that the Khans' unfortunate split has met with rabid fascination. Imran Khan's marriage earlier this year to the new face in broadcast journalism elicited a similar reaction. Anchors reported meticulous details of the embroidered shoes he selected for his big day; there were live interviews with the bride's make-up crew; and media pundits indulged in much speculation about how the romance may have blossomed during Khan's indefatigable Islamabad siege last year.

Khan is wildly popular, both as a sportsman and for being the outspoken underdog in government, and the exceptional attention he gets when he does anything even mildly unusual is simply a natural manifestation of Pakistani society's voracious appetite for chatter.

But although one could forgive the media for their overzealous coverage of the happy occasion of Khan's marriage, their treatment of a tragic episode in the lives of two public figures has highlighted a dangerous attitude that is often evident in Pakistan both in everyday life and in popular culture.

Blame it on the woman

Reham Khan, who was widely criticized in the early days of the marriage for being too "broadminded," is today being faulted for being "ambitious" and "outspoken."

"She is only good for doing salsa."

"She is a gold digger."

“She has always been liberal.”

"She just refused to sit at home."

Other than Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, when was the last time a man was blamed for being "too ambitious"? The examples listed above are an illustration of the loaded phrases employed to criticize Reham Khan online. While Imran Khan has also come in for flak over the divorce on social media (mostly by supporters of rival parties), that disapproval is limited to calling him "immature" or "indecisive" – words devoid of overtly sexist undertones.

Local model and actress Hira Tareen took to Facebook to denounce this woman-hating attitude. "[There is] so much male chauvinism and one-sidedness being displayed right now on the news channels regarding a divorce," she writes. "Is a woman being ambitious and wanting to be involved [in politics] a bad thing?"

Karachi-based lawyer and writer Abira Ashfaque says that while she did not support Reham Khan's publicly over-deferential comportment and change of persona, the criticism that Reham has a mind of her own is unfortunate. “What I am hearing is that she was 'too ambitious' but not that he was controlling. The language is not just biased: it's hostile to women,” says Ashfaque.

Role of TV

The same idea is reinforced through widely-watched television dramas, where a female character is placed in the "good" or "bad" drawer depending on her clothing and degree of submissiveness.

Ashfaque continues: "If popular culture is any indication, a man's right to unilateral divorce is celebrated and reinforced in people's minds, whereas a woman's rights within marriage are limited."

A ray of hope?

It is heartening that in this environment of hate and unabashed sexism, Imran Khan has chosen to avoid a mudslinging match with this tweet: “I have the greatest respect for Reham's moral character and her passion for working for and helping the underprivileged.”

Ironically, however, the defense is once again limited to praising her "moral character" – not her independence.

The expectation that Reham Khan should fulfill the role of a meek, obedient wife follows an ugly pattern of outrageous criticism flung at her during the early days of her marriage. Back then, she was described as a "modern" woman, and photos of her wearing smart skirts and dresses from her days as a BBC reporter were splashed on the Internet. Today, despite her demure, dutiful public appearances as the silent sidekick Mrs. Khan, she is still not docile enough.