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Imagining Serfdom in a Scarf


She’s back because she never went back. Pakistan was a nice stopover. Hurrah! She’s a woman. She’s brave. She’s a moderate. She speaks good English. She’s Bristol-educatedah, will make the cut. And she’s not bad looking either.

Now I am mimicking all of these opening lines that Jemima Khan used as she tried going for the kill to claim her pound of legitimacy. The Hermes scarf is the oh-so-flip touch that in fact endows both these women.

Which is what makes the critique a bit like Isadora Duncan’s scarf: “It is red and so am I”. What is precious is Jemima attempting to save world opinion from converting Benazir Bhutto into a martyr. It is unlikely to happen for the simple reason that the lady is so power-hungry that she calls people that have turned into corpses as evidence of democracy and an ‘inevitable’ fallout. Martyrdom requires a bit more.

Who should know this better than the new cleavage-turned-chador-wearing and back to cleavage Jemima Khan? Her nine years in Pakistan were seen as exile from Annabel’s and rather appropriately she was canonised as Blonde Power by the Western press. As I had once stated, there were breathless exclamations deifying her: Look, someone broke into her Fulham house and it was a politically-motivated act! Look, she was called a Zionist conspirator yet she wrote passionately about the Palestinian cause! Look, she campaigned with her husband in the heat and dust and spoke Urdu and a bit of Pashto! Look, she lives with her in-laws and shares her bed with her kids! Look, she took Lahore shadow-work to London! She did these in her capacity as the wife of a man who may have changed jobs but has only one profession: Being Imran Khan.

Of course, Imran is no Asif Zardari. He is rather sophisticated to settle for 10 percent of loot. However, he too is the sanctioned owner of hubris, a necessary requisite in subcontinental politics, unlike the West where it is an adornment.

What I find disturbing about Jemima’s analysis is when she says, “This is no Aung San Suu Kyi, despite her repeated insistence that she’s ‘fighting for democracy’, or even more incredibly, ‘fighting for Pakistan’s poor’.” I find it disturbing because she has a short memory; she has forgotten that Pakistan is still an Islamic Republic where democracy will follow at least some of the religious norms, and fighting for poverty is a slogan all politicians revel using. It is like the posh circles talking about limited edition solitaires.

Ms. Khan was herself being manipulated to reinforce the delusion of British superiority, almost in an Empire strikes back fashion. While Benazir may become a martyr only in the eyes of the West, Jemima became a martyr at the hall of matrimony that soon got consecrated as pedestal politics. Pakistan’s erratic electricity, water supply and the rumour that she did not even have a (shudder!) washing machine became tabloid chatter.

Pity-tinged headlines tried to recall the child of innocence caught in the jungle of Pakistani rough terrain. It might be pointed out here that the UNICEF ambassador post has come courtesy walking around with head covered through these very streets.

Therefore, when Jemima says that “Benazir is a pro at playing to the West. And that’s what counts. She talks about women and extremism and the West applauds. And then conspires”, it really brings back memories of how she was in fact pitted against the same woman by the West. And they found a precedent to harp on, no matter that it was a flawed one, to prove the compromises she would be forced to make: they said Benazir Bhutto gave up her slacks and opted for the shalwar kameez when she came to Pakistan. There are two problems with this. One is that Bhutto was head of the government twice, and represented a particular tradition. Surely, she wasn’t expected to traipse around in strapless gowns at official functions? Two, if Asians in the West wearing traditional clothes become objects of curiosity, if not amusement, then why should Western garb be exempted in Asia? Or is Western attire normal, while Eastern clothes are peculiar?

It was Jemima who became the one off-shoulder gown shoulder to fire the gun from.

She is absolutely right is accusing Benazir of doing nothing to repeal the Hudood Ordinance, but that is where she stops. For Ms. Khan is not in a position to be the total-recall feminist. She changed her religion, her name and her identity to ‘fit in’; it could hardly have been a desire to belong for there was always the charitable stance of wanting to do something. This is as political as it can get. Besides, Jemima still harbours a tunnel-vision of what constitutes gender disparity.

At what cost are women in the West better off? There are women who break through the glass ceiling in the West as they do in India and Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. I would say the areas of exploitation differ and we mistake them for degrees of exploitation.

The problem is that Jemima Khan appears to be grandly granting Benazir the vanity of looking good on Larry King’s sofa while making no attempt to discuss how in the interiors and even in the cities women are fighting against outdated laws every single day. Pakistani politics is a bit more complicated than calculating the euros spent on a Hermes scarf.

FARZANA VERSEY is a Mumbai-based writer-columnist. Her book ‘A Journey Interrupted: An Indian Muslim Woman in Pakistan’, published by Harper Collins, is scheduled for release by year-end. She can be contacted at



Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections

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