In the better part of 2018, a movement started amongst those that identify as women* in the US which has now grown to a global movement advocating for women’s rights, against all forms of sexual violence. #MeToo allows women to use social media in lieu of the law in order to rectify and bring awareness to issues of sexual harassment and violence. Globally, there is a trend of women not being believed or worse, when they come forward with cases of gendered violence. #MeToo has served as a means of reclaiming power in their narratives and how they choose to share their truth.
As this global movement emboldens women across the globe, Pakistan jolted to action in recent months with survivors of sexual harassment sharing their stories- this time though, high profile women made the claims and well-known men were in the spotlight. This caused national discussions, both in the media, through social media, and in the homes of Pakistanis about sexual violence, consent, and more.
Generally, cases of sexual assault, harassment, and rape are rarely reported on within the country. In a country where 93% of women in Pakistan have experienced sexual violence, one would assume that conversations around these issues would be front and center on a national scale, but that is unfortunately not the case. Between the very real stigma that women face for reporting or even sharing these stories, there is also an issue with the authorities not taking these cases seriously as well. Societal stigma in Pakistan around rape and sexual assault is similar to other parts of the world where women are rarely believed, shamed, and shunned for coming forward. This stigma comes from patriarchal views around purity in relation to virginity embedded in culture over time as well. When women do come forward in Pakistan there is a disturbing trend of police not even registering the accusations, let alone investigating them.
Furthermore, when cases are taken to court, the perpetrators have a history of walking free, as in the case of Khadija Siddiqi. After two years of court, ultimately the perpetrator who was the son of an influential lawyer was able to walk free from attempted murder- even with video evidence available and evidence of harassment as well.
With even female police officers facing issues of sexual harassment, it’s clear that misogyny is very much alive in Pakistan today. Underreporting sexual violence cases is also an alarming yet consistent trend as well. With women and other groups such as the Trans and Khawaja Sira community fearing harassment or victim blaming from authorities such as the police, many don’t come forward. This intersects heavily with classism and access to power as well- while reporting these cases affects all women, in particular, low-income women feel more weight and abuse of power from the authorities as well.
Sarah Zaman of War Against Rape (WAR) shared that “In a country like Pakistan (ours), freedom can be bought with money, and usually in rape cases, the offenders are in some position of influence or power. It is very hard for survivors belonging to lower-income groups to even get the police to believe that they have been raped.”
The wave of #MeToo began in Pakistan in 2017 with the cases of the politician, Ayesha Gulalai, and filmmaker, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy. Gulalai came forward with allegations of sexual harassment against Imran Khan and sexist behavior within the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) as well. The public backlash that Gulalai dealt with was across all channels, with politicians, actors, and activists engaging in defamation of her character and victim blaming as well.
Chinoy, on the other hand, was sharing her outrage over an incident involving her sister in October of last year when the movement began to gain more traction. In the series of tweets, Chinoy accused a doctor who treated her sister of harassment and of breaching ethical boundaries as well. After conducting “a very private examination” of her sister, the doctor then began “leaving comments on photographs and trying to add her as a Facebook friend.” The implication of breaching doctor-patient confidentiality was still not enough to satiate those in opposition to Chinoy’s claims.
Ex-CEO of Patari, Khalid Bajwa was accused of sexual harassment by three young women via Twitter where they chronicled the harassment they faced. This included unwanted hugs, meetings, forced encounters, and inappropriate requests for photos of the women. All of the women had similar stories against Bajwa and the information led to a similar state of polarization in the media. And, although, Bajwa was removed from his position at Patari, PTI wasn’t willing to take action. Patari at least managed to recognize the need for accountability to the survivors.
After the series of tweets women across social media began to share their stories of harassment in Pakistan from their experiences in public spaces such as school or work to their experiences navigating society in general as women. This may have prompted Singer, Meesha Shafi to come forward and chronicle the harassment she endured from another singer, Ali Zafar. She stated that he had on several occasions, sexually harassed her and that it was of a “physical nature” as well.
Sharing this because I believe that by speaking out about my own experience of sexual harassment, I will break the culture of silence that permeates through our society. It is not easy to speak out.. but it is harder to stay silent. My conscience will not allow it anymore #MeToo pic.twitter.com/iwex7e1NLZ
— MEESHA SHAFI (@itsmeeshashafi) April 19, 2018
Within days of her tweet, multiple other women also came forward with similar experiences of harassment relating to Ali Zafar. However, the backlash to this story followed suit to the other major #MeToo moments in Pakistan thus far. With prominent figures in Pakistan weighing in on the issue in favor of Zafar and in some cases supporting separation of the sexes as well.
With these major moments in Pakistan’s #MeToo movement, there were some common threads that proved to be all too telling of where the country stands on issues of sexual harassment.
Many came forward to support the women in these cases but even then across social media channels there was still a strong sense of where the larger Pakistani society stands on these issues. Those in opposition to #MeToo’s national conversations were largely men who addressed the issues via the policing of women, shaming, and victim blaming as well.
However, it is important to remember that lower-class and less privileged women have structural and societal barriers to sharing their stories in the same way. Lower-income women like Mukhtar Mai, who sought justice against those who sexually assaulted her, deserve for their voices to be amplified and centered in Pakistan’s #MeToo moment as well. For every story such as Mukhtar Mai’s, there is a story like Zainab Amin’s as well- sexual violence affects those most vulnerable in the most tragic and fatal ways.
Without the option to seek justice via the authorities due to stigma and lack of accessibility, many cases aren’t reported similarly to other marginalized groups. In 2017- at the same time as the news of Chinoy’s sister dominated national news, three Khawaja Sira’s dealt with violence in Karachi involving murder, rape, and kidnapping. Furthermore, In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2015 alone, there were 300 cases of violent attacks and 46 cases of murder against the Trans and Khawaja Sira community. While the Khawaja Sira and Trans community face violence on a daily basis, there is still a disconnect between how their struggles are represented, if at all, within media and institutions in Pakistan.
There are many more cases that go unreported, unregistered and uninvestigated that continue to go on every day in Pakistan. Pakistan’s #MeToo moment is shaping long-needed conversations about sexual violence on a national scale. It’s a good start to creating a movement that caters to all those who face gendered violence in Pakistan.
As these conversations happen, let’s make sure everyone has a seat at the table.
*women: including Trans and Khawaja Sira women
*Feature Image Source: Dawn*