Almost every profile of Imran Khan share an amusing sameness. First comes the house: "the hilltop bungalow"; "the villa, which sprawls on a ridge"; a home "nestled in a lush expanse of manicured lawn and wilderness." This Architectural Digest interlude offers a neat segue to the "drop dead gorgeous" ex-wife.
“My ex-wife, Jemima, designed the house — it is really paradise for me,” Khan tells Pankaj Mishra in the New York Times. In the latest of Time magazine, he "muses" right on cue, "Thank God, Jemima talked me into buying this land." [Not available online]
It's short hop from hot blondes to that de rigeur ingredient: sex. Imran's political ambitions offer the requisite excuse to dwell on his physical attributes, and the effect they have on his likely voters. "Shaggy-haired and craggily handsome, he could be taken for a boomer-era rocker. And the onetime international playboy still maintains a rakish appeal to female voters — 'the weak-in-the-knees club,' as one female columnist here put it," gushes the Washington Post.
"Yes, the crowds at his speeches around town were heavily sprinkled with women, many of whom came out to get a glimpse of the once-famous heartthrob," avers CNN.com. Even a "serious writer" like Mishra cannot resist including a description of Imran's "granitic handsomeness."
Some of this is par for the course for a good-looking politician of either gender. But with Imran, journalists seem compelled to say more, to rush willy-nilly across the line of good taste, like Time's Aryn Baker who jumps right into the mire:
The dashing good looks that made him an international pinup in the 1970s and '80s have diminished little in the ensuing years, attracting legions of fans who appear evenly split between those who want to be him, and those who want to sleep with him.
That may seem a tad bold except it is, in fact, a watered down version of Madiha Tahir's far more vivid claim in a Caravan that opens so:
Sex, or at least, the idea of it, is never far from Imran Khan. It reveals itself in the casual remark of an urbane 20-something friend, a well-educated and usually sensible woman who turned to me and said that she would “do Imran”. “You know,” she further explained, “as a feather in my cap.” It sometimes hangs in the air, almost visible, and as thick as the cloying perfume of the “aunties”—well-heeled middle-aged housewives clutching their fading youth as desperately as they do the last yard of cloth at designer lawn sales—who thrash and push and shove, banging lesser folk with their bulky handbags so they can rub shoulders with Imran, if only for a furtive moment.
In one quick step, Khan moves from pinup to porn star.
It's hard to think of any other male or female politician whose sex appeal is spelled out in such explicit language. Khan may be Pakistan's Sarah Palin to his detractors, but no reporter would wax eloquent about male voters who want to have sex with her. Neither would a New Yorker profile of any other leader — especially female — run with this tagline: "Can a sex symbol and cricket legend run Pakistan?" Note that 'sex symbol' comes first.
Perhaps all this sexy talk doesn't undermine a man quite the same way it does a woman. But Khan's case proves otherwise. The constant, ubiquitous chatter about his off-field activities, "string of rich, well-connected, beautiful women" is favoured ammunition for his most strident critics. While some call him a "pretty boy jihadi" eager to preach Islamic virtue after decades spent living the good Western life, others like Salman Rusdhie cut more bluntly to the chase: “Back in the day when he was a playboy in London, the most common name for him in London circles was Im the Dim.”
Funny, yes, but also evocative of that old sexist trope: the hot, dumb blonde. Of the many question marks that have dogged Khan over his colourful life, the one hanging over his intellect has been a constant. Imran has always been viewed as not so bright — even at his cricketing height — and his sex appeal is seen as damning evidence of the same, especially now he's a politician. Descriptions of "the so-called 'begum brigade' — purse-wielding housewives flush with Khan fever" or of screaming "groupies" at "rallies that resemble pop concerts" are not-so-subtle reminders of the dubious source of his popularity. Even Jemima can't resist a crack at her ex-husband's "backcombed, boy-band hair."
Unfair or not, it's an amusing example of reverse sexism in a part of the world that has plenty of the other kind. What's sauce for the sexy gander...