In October last year a social media movement using the hashtag ‘MeToo’ took the world by storm, as mostly women from everywhere took to social platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to break their silence on sexual harassment and assault and rape.
In order to raise more awareness about the movement, which initially began in 2006 by American civil rights activist Tarana Burke, BlankPage Production’s play #MeToo was performed at the Pakistan- American Cultural Centre on Tuesday evening.
Written and directed by Elsa Sajjad, the play revolves around an upper-middle-class Baig family comprising parents Omer and Shamim and their children Mariam, Shanzay and Akbar.
The play starts off with Mariam saying yes to Farrukh’s, a young man she has been seeing for two years, proposal for marriage. The scene then shifts to her household where her mother Shamim is thundering at Shanzay for coming late from school.
Shamim then encourages Akbar to take his studies seriously so he could apply to foreign universities later, while rejecting Shanzay’s request to study abroad, despite her excellent grades, with the retort: “Girls don’t go abroad for further studies!”
However, in spite of having doubts about Farrukh, Shamim begrudgingly accepts his proposal to marry her daughter because her husband says so. Later, when Shanzay and her friends dance at Mariam’s engagement ceremony, they are interrupted by a distant relative who makes sleazy remarks, as Shamim and her friend Mehak reprimand the girls, especially Shanzay, for being “vulgar” and inciting men.
Following this, Mariam, her siblings, Farrukh and Mehak plan an anniversary surprise for Mariam’s parents, but before Shanzay could return with their present, the parents make an entry.
Omer ignores the cake and surprise altogether and heads to his room, while Shamim stands their defending his attitude until Shanzay returns, visibly scared as her uniform’s shalwar is torn.
The whole house starts asking questions, to which she says that some men had started following her while they passed lewd remarks and she got bruises when she fell from the stairs as she tried to run away from them. But instead of comforting her, Omer lashes out at and blames her for leading herself into the situation by going out alone and forbids her to go anywhere except school.
In this whole scenario, Mariam is the only person who stresses that her sister was harassed, but her fiancé dismisses it by saying that it’s an exaggeration. Then both of them get into a fight, and Farrukh is close to hitting her when he decides to leave the house, repeating the words of Mariam’s father, who had asked him to “control” his daughter. The couple does not meet for two months, until Farrukh sends her a bouquet asking for forgiveness.
Meanwhile, Shanzay’s grades drop and her mother reprimands her incessantly, taking out her anger also on Mariam, who tries to make her understand the reason behind a change in Shanzay’s behaviour.
Shanzay’s friends also fail to understand the gravity of the situation and tell her she’s overreacting because, according to them, groping or ogling does not come under harassment, rather they all are a part of life. In order to address the problem, Mariam takes Shanzay to a therapist, who helps her break her silence.
On being away from home for two hours, the girls’ mother loses her temper and reveals that she too had been assaulted in the past, so she sticks to staying away from situations that could lead to harassment, because it was bound to happen. Mariam breaks off her engagement with Farrukh, whose bruised ego is unable to handle the rejection so he tries to hit Mariam, before Shanzay intervenes and asks him to leave forever.
The play does not only highlight the silence around sexual harassment in all its forms but it also shows that privilege does not save women from falling prey to it.
The instance when Farrukh says “chasing a girl isn’t harassment because it isn’t rape” or when Shamim and Shanzay’s friends internalise misogyny – “that’s how it is” – shows that the problem is much deeper than it appears.
The play emphasises that patriarchy makes sure that women who do speak up about their experiences are ostracised so no one speaks at all. In Shanzay’s words, she refused to be like other chickens in the coop that wait for their turn to be slaughtered, her analogy pointing towards countless women who think “it’s a part of life”.
Director Elsa Sajjad says she feels it was important to talk about the campaign because when it came to sexual abuse or harassment, it seems that with women it isn’t a question of “if”, rather of “when”, it would be their turn.
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