Breaking the silence

By Adeela Akmal
Tue, 03, 18

This year, on International Women’s Day, You! pays homage to a powerful movement that has turned into a global phenomenon: #Metoo...

This year, on International Women’s Day, You! pays homage to a powerful movement that has turned into a global phenomenon: #Metoo...

Celebrated every year on March 8th, International Women’s Day is when women are recognised for their achievements regardless of their nationality, ethnicity, linguistics, culture, economic or political background. Annually, the day is marked to end gender disparity and empower women; however, this time around, we witnessed unprecedented movements that have brought a significant change in empowering them. This year, on the occasion of International Women’s Day, You! highlights one of the movements that has turned into a global phenomenon: #Metoo.

A story published in The New York Times on October 5th, 2017, caused a stir as it detailed decades of sexual harassment allegations against the Hollywood film producer, Harvey Weinstein. The accusations involved the disgraced mogul asking young actresses for sexual favours in exchange to help them advance in their careers. Around 50 women including Kate Beckinsale, Angelina Jolie, Cara Delevingne, Salma Hayek, Lena Heady, Lysette Anthony and Gwyneth Paltrow have come forward with their unfortunate encounters ranging from rape and harassment by the producer.

On October 16th, Alyssa Milano, an American actress, tweeted out an image in support for fellow actresses and friend, Ashley Judd and Rose McGowan, who were the first ones to call out Weinstein. The image read, “Me too. Suggested by a friend: If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of magnitude of the problem.”

The tweet garnered much attention opening the floodgates to stories of abuse that women have faced during different times in their life. While Weinstein denies all the charges of being involved in non-consensual acts, he has resigned as a member of the board at The Weinstein Company. Not only have the Producers Guild of America banned him for life, he has been stripped off of his Bafta membership and Warner Bros severed ties with him as well.

This entire episode has been a grave example of workplace harassment which is often shrugged off. While women in Hollywood were able to have their voices heard, 700,000 female agricultural workers wrote an open letter directing their attention to the abuse they faced in their occupation. In response to their cry, 300 women from film, television and theatre have come together to set up a legal fund for those men and women who can’t afford to fight back their perpetrators called ‘Time’s Up’. They aim to partner with lawyers and advocates to improve laws and policies to ensure safety and equality in work spaces across the board, from farms to corporate organisations.

The Golden Globes 2018 were a big shout out to the initiative as all the celebrities in attendance were donned in black while also wearing the Time’s Up pin. The coordinated protest was to show solidarity with women who have suffered at the hands of systemic injustice and inequality in all walks of life. Apart from the grandeur of the award show, the issue remained the highlight of the coveted event.

The snowball effect in Pakistan

Majority of the victims of sexual abuse - either a woman or a man - have suffered in silence for years because what will happen if someone finds out about ‘their shame’? After all, it must have been something they did, a gesture or maybe their clothes that provoked their perpetrator. They would prefer burying their stories within as to not face the wrath of society in the form of social harassment; because if word got out, they will be marred for life.

Cases of rape, honour killings and child abuse (especially in Kasur) have been brought to the front multiple times in Pakistan, but the issue is usually brushed under the carpet.

However, women in Pakistan did not hold back when it came to sharing their stories on social media. Public figures like Reham Khan, Nighat Dad and Mehwish Hayat, tweeted in support of the movement; but it was only after the dreadful incident of Zainab Ansari from Kasur that had the entire nation reeling from shock.

A six-year-old Zainab had been kidnapped, raped and then murdered, after she went missing on January 4th and was found in a heap of trash five days later. The news sparked protests nationwide where Mahira Khan, Ayesha Omar, Sanam Saeed and Shehzad Roy were among many public individuals, who urged the authorities to take immediate action to stop such atrocities.

In a bid to raise awareness, three very well-established women from the industry mustered up the courage to share their stories. The internationally acclaimed fashion designer, Maheen Khan, wrote on her Twitter, “The maulvi who came to teach me the Quran abused me sexually. I froze in fear day after day. Share in support of children subjected to sick acts by so called custodians of our religion.”

Another accomplished actress, Nadia Jamil tweeted: “When I was sexually abused, it was by my kari sahib, my driver and then by a highly educated elite family’s son. It’s across the board. Men abuse across the board. My family still wants me to stay silent but the shame IS NOT MINE! Never ever.”

In a candid talk with You! , Nadia says, “This wasn’t the first time I came out with my child abuse story. I have talked in public about this in 2015, to Zarrar Khurro in a TV interview, on my own show, and now also on Twitter. More importantly to close family and friends, it is coin knowledge.”

“It is commonly assumed that harassment is synonymous with gender discrimination which is a false view. When I came out this time after Zainab’s death, so many boys and men have come to me, saying that, ‘me too’. I work with children who are sexually abused, out of which 90 per cent are boys who are raped brutally, in the nine brothels that were shut down in Lahore, last year. There were boys between the ages of 5 and 15 who were sex workers. They are also being raped in this country and have another taboo to break, too. Toxic ideas of what masculinity should be, the gross objectification of women’s bodies and beings are just ideas we should move away from. They empower the kind of men and women who trivialise and allow abuse. So, we need to change this notion that men need to be violent and possess and own a women’s body, not just to protect women, but also, to understand that men are kind and humane, too. It’s okay for anyone to be vulnerable,” she adds.

Following suit, Frieha Altaf shared her past incident, “I was sexually abused by our cook at the age of 6. My parents took action but everyone remained silent as if it was my shame. At 34, I realised how it had impacted my life, the only shame is keeping silent,”

While speaking to You!, PR mogul, Frieha Altaf, confesses that it was nerve-wracking to pen it down but it was important that she does. Inspired by the movement, she has even started a localised version of the campaign called #MeinBhi. “In my entire career, I’ve worked with many charities but I’ve never really taken up something that has made me really angry, until now. We don’t just have to physically raise awareness but also raise money that we can give to credible NGOs who work for the people in need. I was working for Sahil way before the Weinstein case came out and we were going to take up child abuse as our company’s CSR activity. The main thing is that we need to see a visible change and have more people come forward to work, the more the merrier.”

According to Frieha, it was important to have a localised version of the campaign that caters to the people of Pakistan since not everyone understands English. “I am now motivating people to pick up one issue that really makes you angry - it could be anything like minority rights, domestic violence, education, child labour and so on. For instance, Masarrat Misbah has taken up acid burn victims and she is getting the operations done so she would need money for her foundation as well.”

Speak up!

“If you don’t call people out, it’s not going to stop, so you have to speak up. And, I will never judge people who can’t because it’s not an easy thing to do. However, just being able to talk to your best friend can help you because I understand the anger.” stresses Frieha.

Mirroring the same sentiment, Nadia Jamil had words of support and encouragement to offer anyone who’s suffered such an ordeal, “ I am not going to be identified as ‘the girl who was abused’. I’m an actor, an activist, a teacher, and much more. The only reason to talk at all is to give strength to other survivors, so that they never feel shame or never feel like victims. The anger can be worked through and out, life can be a beautiful experience without these demons harassing their feelings and mind. They are not alone. They have me and other survivors with them and most importantly they have themselves,” concludes Nadia.