The #MeToo movement that began two years ago has progressed beyond accusations and resulted in arrests, resignations and serious questions about past and future behaviour. However, is #MeToo really effective in Pakistan?
The taboo surrounding sexual harassment and the muting of women’s voices in Pakistan is very real. Due to the fear of “loug kya kahenge” (what will people say) women are taught to suffer silently and are conditioned to normalise harassment. This especially applies to women from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Moreover, institutions are complicit in the silence that surrounds harassment. Schools, religious institutions, governments and families all perpetuate the belief that men are superior to women.
In Pakistan, #MeToo rose to prominence following Meesha Shafi’s allegations against Ali Zafar. The popular singer alleged that her colleague had sexually harassed her on multiple occasions. What followed was a mass division across the country’s entertainment industry resulting in Shafi facing a defamation lawsuit totalling 1 billion Pakistani Rupees. Today, although Shafi is being lauded by Pakistani women alike for her courage and bravery, it seems unlikely that she will emerge from this legal case as the victor.
What followed was an intense campaign of hatred and abuse against Shafi- people dubbing her a liar and calling for her resignation from the entertainment industry.
Another #MeToo case that rose to prominence in Pakistan was that against Mohsin Abbas Haider. The Pakistani actor was accused of domestic violence against his wife, Fatima Sohail. She provided detail accounts of violent encounters with him and even provided photographic evidence of her battered face. In response to this, Haider conducted a press conference where he swore upon the Quran during live television. This act in and of itself is indicative of the futility of the #MeToo movement against a religiously driven Pakistani mindset. Thus far, there has been no viable outcome from this case aside from Sohail also being the target of abuse from the general public. Recently, popular Pakistani music streaming app Patari endorsed Haider and his upcoming single on social media.
This year, award-winning Pakistani filmmaker Jami shared his experience of sexual assault at the hands of a powerful media tycoon on Twitter. Jami is one of the only men that have been vocal in their support of the #MeToo movement in Pakistan. One major reason why this movement hasn’t been as effective in our region as it has in the West is the reluctance of men to act as allies for women in these instances.
In the tweets Jami mentioned that when he opened up close ones about the thirteen year old assault, not a single person took his ordeal seriously or attempted to help him. He added that despite seeking therapy, he found little support around him. There is an environment of fear when it comes to issues about sexual assault and harassment in Pakistani society. From educational institutions refusing to incorporate sex education in their curriculums, to families refusing to educate their children about sex and the rushed marriages of women in an effort to maintain their “decency”- Pakistani society is one that perpetuates the notion of guilt and shame in relation to sexual instances.
A lack of camaraderie among women in Pakistan has also weakened the #MeToo movement here. Women generally either fear lending support to others or deem it wise to stay quiet in order to keep their own jobs or relations intact. Those who suffer believe that it is something shameful and should be hidden from society.
While the #MeToo movement in Pakistan has definitely been effective to an extent- giving women the courage to speak out against harassers and voice their experiences, it is struggling to support these women, instead allowing them to become the target of abuse the second they manage to speak about their experiences. Pakistan has a long way to go before we can see viable change when it comes to sexual harassment and abuse in the country and change must start from an individual level. It is important to speak up about instances of harassment or abuse and make an effort to educate ourselves and our youth about sex, boundaries and consent.