World

100 Women: The Pakistani women shamed for their lifestyle

Pakistani actress Mahira Khan poses for a picture during the 8th edition of the Beirut International Awards Festivals (BIAF), in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, on July 9, 2017 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mahira Khan is one of the Pakistani women judged by society

Pakistan is a country of stark contrasts, and when it comes to the treatment of women, they are even clearer, writes the BBC's Shumaila Jaffery.

When I was in secondary school in 1988, Benazir Bhutto's first election was fascinating for me – to the extent that I now feel her presence in those elections prompted my interest in current affairs and landed me in the journalism profession.

But I also remember fierce discussions with one of my classmates. She was the daughter of a prominent politician on the other side.

Rather than give political reasons, my classmate used to refer to Ms Bhutto's liberal lifestyle in London - and as a student in Oxford - to demean her.

It always left me angry.

I felt the same anger recently when famous Pakistani actress Mahira Khan was abused after some pictures went viral on social media.

She was "caught" spending time with Bollywood star Ranbir Kapoor, smoking a cigarette on the streets of New York City. She was wearing a short backless dress inspired by Marilyn Monroe.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Indian actor Ranbir Kapoor - pictured with Khan - did not suffer the same backlash

The pictures caused a social media storm in Pakistan. She was "slut shamed", shunned, and blamed for bringing Pakistan and Islam into disrepute.

And it's not the first time a Pakistani woman has been shamed for her choice of lifestyle.

In 2007, Zill-e-Huma, a provincial minister, was killed by an extremist. Her killer later confessed that he assassinated her for not dressing "appropriately" and for "indulging" in politics.

The same year, another female minister, Nilofar Bakhtiar, was humiliated, threatened, and ditched by her own party - because she hugged her parachute instructor after completing a jump in France.

A cleric issued a religious decree against her. She was forced to resign. Her political career was finished for good.

These were prominent women: high achievers who were celebrated for their contributions, who made their own choices and lived on their own terms.

They brushed the edges of the box created by society for "good women" - and the moment society felt they stepped outside its bounds, they fell from grace.

What is 100 Women?

BBC 100 Women names 100 influential and inspirational women around the world every year. In 2017, we're challenging them to tackle four of the biggest problems facing women today - the glass ceiling, female illiteracy, harassment in public spaces and sexism in sport.

With your help, they'll be coming up with real-life solutions and we want you to get involved with your ideas. Find us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and use #100Women

But misogyny is not limited to prominent women. It is deeply entrenched in the social mindset, and hardly any women escape - though there are exceptions.

Pakistan is a country of stark contrasts, and when it comes to the treatment of women, they are even clearer.

Shortly after Zill-e-Huma and Nilfoar suffered for their actions, a large number of Pakistanis were supporting another woman - Aafia Siddiqui.

She was arrested by US troops in the Ghazni province of Afghanistan in 2008. Pakistanis took to the streets to condemn her detention, and demanded her release. But in 2010, Siddiqui was convicted of seven counts of attempted murder and assault.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Protesters rallied to campaign for the release of a woman convicted of attempted murder

Pakistanis were infuriated, and the verdict became the rallying point for the anti-American sentiment in the country. The reaction was so strong that the government had to express its dismay over the decision, and vowed to bring her back. Siddiqui was called the "daughter of the nation".

When news about San Bernardino shooter Tashfeen Malik appeared in the press in 2015, she was not abused or smeared. A few people spoke about it on social media, but the reaction was muted.

The same pattern was followed when Noreen Laghari, the female militant, was arrested in the eastern city of Lahore earlier this year. She was about to blow up a church, before security agencies caught her during a raid.

Mahira came into the limelight through a famous soap opera called Humsafar, in which she played the role of Khird, a submissive woman. She rose to stardom within months.

But recent events show that it is not Mahira that people fell in love with. It was Khird, the weak and oppressed woman, who won the hearts of Pakistanis.

Khird is well within the box a misogynous society has created.

But Mahira - seen smoking and "hanging out" - is too much to handle for a nation that is still not comfortable with independent and empowered women.