Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Imran Khan was sworn in on Saturday. He did not make the best impression on local media, which pronounced him poorly tailored and chuckled at his inability to follow protocol or pronounce some of the Urdu words in his oath of office. His wife Bushra Bibi, on the other hand, made a major fashion statement by wearing a white niqab.
Al-Arabiya on Thursday reported a mixture of enthusiastic praise for Bushra Bibi’s outfit and reservations about the image she projects of Pakistan as a regressive Islamist state:
Photos of Bushra Bibi were circulated on social media networks with many describing her as “the bringer of joy for Pakistan.”
However, her burqa stirred controversy as some criticized her for choosing to wear it because it affects the image of Pakistani women in the world.
Journalist and activist Sameera Khan said on Twitter: “She has every right to wear what she wants but as the wife of Pakistan’s leader, she represents all Pakistani women.”
“When the international community sees Pakistan as a regressive state that oppresses women, this is not the greatest representation of Pakistani women,” she also said, adding: “Nowhere in the Quran does it mandate covering everything but the eyes.”
Twitter user Azfar replied to Sameera and said: “So what? She should take off her veil and drop some inches in her cleavage like yourself just to show the western world? How is that a representation of freedom and progressive society??”
Some observers felt too much was being read into Bushra Bibi’s wardrobe choice, while others noted that even wearing a niqab was not good enough to square her with the most hardline Muslim critics, who assailed her for wearing makeup and nail polish.
The swearing-in ceremony was the first public appearance for Khan’s wife since their wedding in February. It was the third marriage for Khan, a cricket star formerly known as a playboy.
His first marriage, lasting from 1995 to 2004, was to a British socialite named Jemima Goldsmith who was “hounded for her family’s Jewish ancestry” while living in Pakistan, as the UK Telegraph put it. She converted to Islam before marrying Khan and remains active in Middle Eastern politics and charity efforts. Her enthusiastic message of congratulations to her ex-husband for winning the prime minister’s post was reportedly very well-received in Pakistan.
Khan’s second wife Reham, formerly a BBC weather presenter, was married to him for less than a year, and their divorce was much less amicable. Reham dropped a book just weeks before the election accusing Imran Khan of being a drug-addicted bisexual who sank into depravity under the influence of his first wife and her “active Zionist” friends and fathered numerous illegitimate children with Indian women.
Khan responded by musing to reporters that getting married to her was “the biggest mistake of my life.”
Khan’s new wife, often known as Bushra Maneka using the surname of her first husband, is widely described as his “spiritual adviser.” She is a practitioner of the mystical Sufi branch of Islam.
“I did not catch a glimpse of my wife’s face until after we were married. I proposed to her without seeing her because she had never met me without her face being covered with a full veil. The only idea I had of what she looked like came from an old photograph I had seen in her house,” the prime minister told the UK Daily Mail in a July interview.
Khan added that during his club-hopping days as a sports star, “it would have been unthinkable if someone had told me I would marry someone whose face I hadn’t seen … I would have thought they were mad.”
Although some worried Khan’s burqa-clad wife could signal a turn toward repression for Pakistan, the new prime minister was applauded on Wednesday for lifting “all political censorship” in state-run media outlets and providing them with “complete editorial independence.”
Khan ran on a platform of reducing corruption and scaling back the power of government. His deregulation of the media happened so fast that it took even his supporters by surprise. “Am I having an LSD flashback?” one Pakistani asked on Twitter after seeing news about opposition politicians on state TV for the first time in years.
The Times of India optimistically noted that Khan seems to be easing up on the anti-American and anti-India rhetoric he used during the campaign when he complained America has been forcing Pakistan to fight the War on Terror on its behalf while India scapegoats him as “a villain from a Bollywood film.”
Unfortunately, as the TOI notes, Pakistan’s military has at least as much to say about foreign policy as the prime minister does, and Pakistan’s drift into China’s orbit could be difficult to reverse even if Khan wants to. The Indian paper suspected Khan will find the Chinese to be an overbearing partner whose pockets are not as deep as they previously led Pakistan to believe.