Manitoba

Manitoba's ex-Liberal leader target of lewd photos, offers of sex during election

Former Liberal leader Rana Bokhari says she received offers of sex hook-ups, racist attacks, death threats and even a photo of a penis while leading the party through the Manitoba election in April. The thick-skinned lawyer, who recently told CBC about her experience, regrets one thing: That she didn't speak about it sooner.

WARNING: This article contains graphic language

Rana Bokhari says that as leader of the Manitoba Liberals during the spring provincial election campaign, she dealt with a battery of sexual harassment and racist comments. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Former Liberal leader Rana Bokhari says she received offers of sex hook-ups, racist attacks, death threats and even a photo of a penis while leading the party through the Manitoba election in April.

Bokhari dealt with an onslaught of sexist and racist attacks during her time as Liberal leader, she said, but the thick-skinned lawyer regrets one thing: That she didn't speak up about them sooner. 

"The inequality in these situations is so extreme that I just want people to understand it," Bokhari said during a lengthy interview with CBC News. 

Rana Bokhari talks about the abusive messages she received during the campaign

6 years ago
Duration 3:33
Former Liberal leader Rana Bokhari says she received offers of sex hook-ups, racist attacks, death threats and even a photo of a penis while leading the party through the Manitoba election in April.

The arrival of a picture of a man's genitals shocked even Bokhari, who has a reputation for toughness.

"I yelled! I got very upset. I got mad … and all I could say was, 'What can I do?'" Bokhari said.

She erased the offensive photo, but the image and all that's behind it linger in her mind.

Bokhari led an inexperienced team that went into the campaign ahead of the April 19 election with high hopes, but a series of blunders and lack of funds meant the Liberals won only three seats in the Manitoba Legislature — a disappointment, but still an improvement on the single seat they held previously.

But as the party struggled to maintain momentum, Bokhari dealt with messages she doesn't hesitate to label sexual harassment, not to mention racist attacks including accusations that she was a terrorist, she said. 

Bokhari shared some messages sent to her via social media. One read 'Your sexyest women Iv ever seen in politics, you work to hard, well if in Brandon and need to unwind, Id be happy to give you a full body massage, our secret of course.' (Rana Bokhari )
"Your sexyest women Iv ever seen in politics, you work to hard, well if in Brandon and need to unwind, Id be happy to give you a full body massage, our secret of course," says one of the messages seen by a CBC reporter.

​"Absolutely they are sexual harassment. I felt like many other women feel like in those situations. What are you willing to take? Are you willing to take the backlash of going public with this or do you just suck it up and keep moving?" Bokhari said.

Bokhari, in full campaign mode, sucked it up and kept moving. 

"I just thought, no matter what I said or what I did I was going to cause my team … like, take me out of the picture. It's my job, it's my responsibility. I have to make sure the team's OK," she said.

Bokhari regrets not saying 'hell no' 

Bokhari said she learned much from the recent campaign, was thrilled to meet people across the province, especially in northern Manitoba, and views it as a net-positive experience, but there is a big "but" hanging over her head.

Former Liberal politician Bokhari says her social media feed clogged up with sexually harassing messages during the campaign earlier this year. (Sean Kavanagh)
Bokhari said she should have contacted police and exposed the people who sent the unwanted advances and offers, but the pressure of campaigning and worries about unwanted attention made her decide to stay silent.

"My biggest regret is this conversation right here. It was my responsibility as a young woman who was dealing with that stuff to come out and say 'hell no.' No, no, no, no. So that other women behind me who are going to deal with it, they are able to say, 'no, she did it — she broke the barrier, now I am going to do it.' And I was unable to do that," Bokhari said.

Crosses party lines and generations

There was no social media when former senator Sharon Carstairs led the Liberals to 20 seats in the Manitoba Legislature and became leader of the Opposition.

Former Liberal leader Sharon Carstairs was harassed in an era before social media. (CBC News)
But Carstairs still felt the lash of hateful comments. She received a card in the mail. On the outside, it read: "What you need." On the inside: "... a good f--k."

Carstairs said though the number of women in politics is growing, gender-based bashing still thrives and as a society, Canada has work to do.

"We haven't reached the stage of genuine equality in this country yet," Carstairs said.

Rochelle Squires, a Manitoba PC MLA who's minister responsible for the status of women, tries to shield her children from the more extreme rhetoric. (CBC News )
PC MLA Rochelle Squires, the minister responsible for the status of women, is all too familiar with hurtful words. She says the social media conversation around her got ugly after her appointment as minister in charge of francophone affairs.

"Very gender specific in some cases; there was some online comments, anonymous comments made, when my body shape and hair colour entered the conversation. Then we know, we aren't dealing with legitimate conversations any more. We're dealing with just absolute bullying and gender-based harassment."

Squires said one of the biggest challenges is sheltering her children from that kind of commentary. However, she's encouraged by the slow but steady rise in the number of women getting into politics, and says finding positive role-models helps push back against the hate.

The language of anger

Both as a cabinet minister and later as a leadership candidate for the NDP, Theresa Oswald was the recipient of some foul language.

"I was called a whore, and a slut, and a bitch and the "C" word," Oswald said, and doubts the men she competed against were getting the same level of hate rhetoric.
Former NDP cabinet minister Theresa Oswald says speaking out is the best weapon against sexually harassing behaviour. (CBC News )

Oswald said that as a minister, her staff shielded her from some of the more vile harassment, but pointed out that it was often other women who had to sift through those communications — exposing them to the ugly language.

Oswald has some advice for women in public life and who are the target of such behaviour — expose it.

"Speak up. And speak up right that minute. Because there will never be an easier time than the moment it's happening. It's so much more difficult in the aftermath," Oswald said.

That advice is close to the conclusion Bokhari reached when her social media feeds continued to get clogged up with nasty words.

"The minute I started to stick up for myself, it definitely did stop. But until I did that, it was constant," Bokhari said.

Bokhari bubbles with enthusiasm about her new job as a lawyer and partner in a firm, and won't rule out politics again some day. But should that time come, she wouldn't suffer the same abuse again. She's not taking it anymore.

Manitoba's ex-Liberal leader target of lewd photos, offers of sex during election

6 years ago
Duration 2:26
Former Liberal leader Rana Bokhari says she received offers of sex hook-ups, racist attacks, death threats and even a photo of a penis while leading the party through the Manitoba election in April.

Part 2 of CBC's conversation with Bokhari on the election will be published on Tuesday.

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