Is ‘Me Too’ relevant in Pakistan?

May 13, 2018

Is ‘Me Too’ relevant in Pakistan?

Instep Overview

This is a question many people have asked on Twitter, on television and in real life. To answer this, we must look at the history of ‘Me Too’ and accept that it is greater than the Harvey Weinstein scandal, greater than the Meesha Shafi and Ali Zafar case; much larger than any one person. Instead of getting caught up in mudslinging, one must look to the history of the movement, it’s relevance to Pakistan and whether the current narrative has the power to introduce meaningful change in the country. Instep spoke to some of the most prominent names in the industry to shed light on the matter.

Founded in 2006, the movement hoped to help survivors of sexual violence, which includes attacks such as rape or attempted rape, as well as any unwanted sexual contact or threats. Years later, in 2017 the conversation was thrust into mainstream dialogue with Alyssa Milano’s tweet that roused thousands of women to speak out about their experiences of sexual harassment and assault.

"In 2017 women stood up and said #MeToo. We overcame our fears to #BreakTheSilence. Technology and social media have connected us all," Milano tweeted, and started what many believe, the movement. "We can’t turn away from each other’s pain. We are connected to it. We are connected to each other. We are connected." This was the beginning of a series of tweets that provided statistics of rape and lack of accountability in the US. "For every 100 rapes committed, approximately two rapists will ever serve a day in prison. #BreakTheSilence," she tweeted.

This reckoning appears to have sprung up overnight but it has actually been simmering for years, decades, centuries.

Over the past few months, Pakistan has been experiencing a similar narrative which was triggered mainly by 6-year-old Zainab’s rape and murder. We did not experience the same outpour of stories and a major peak as the West did in the fall of 2017 but there was a slow influx of women who shared their stories on different mediums, mainly online. This sustained trend has been quite remarkable, given the backlash victims face at work, their homes and from society in general when they share their stories. In August 2017, in a rare case of a female politician speaking about workplace harassment, Pakistani parliamentarian Ayesha Gulalai alleged that her party’s chair Imran Khan had sexually harassed her for which she faced severe criticism online. In October 2017, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy too, tweeted about her sister being harassed by a doctor which opened up gates to backlash but also started a debate on social media about what constitutes as harassment. This was a step in the right direction, as it got people talking about acceptable behavior in a professional environment.

Zainab’s brutal rape and murder in January triggered Nadia Jamil, Frieha Altaf and Maheen Khan to come out with their own stories of sexual abuse. This was the first time women in the entertainment and fashion industries joined the narrative but there was no power play involved; at least not the way Weinstein had over his victims besides that of genders. However, for the first time prominent women were sharing stories of their abuse in a public space. In April, the co-founder and CEO of online music portal Patari (Khalid Bajwa) was accused of sexual harassment by a young woman on Twitter. Soon after other women chimed in and shared their own stories of similar harassment and the company announced that the CEO would be stepping down. This was another positive step, whereby the company immediately looked into the matter and removed the perpetrator from the position of power even though the claims didn’t come from inside the work place.

Following this, more people took to Twitter to share screenshots of conversations where they felt people had crossed bounds of "appropriate behavior" and made them feel uncomfortable. They continued facing backlash and being trolled but they kept speaking up and the general public’s intolerance to this became very evident. Still, such stories have not stopped appearing on twitter and this entire discussion added fuel to the fire when Meesha Shafi came out with her own allegations against Ali Zafar for sexual harassment. Me Too wasn’t dying out anytime soon.

It’s pretty inspiring to know that victims have been claiming a space within this hostile Twittersphere. People refrain from sharing their stories because of victim shaming, losing their freedom of movement or the fear of losing their jobs or social positions but more women are talking about it now than ever before. A sense of comradery and togetherness has been created. Since Altaf and Khan shared their stories on Twitter both say that women approach them every other day about their own stories. Me Too is about providing support and a safe space for victims, which is more prevalent than ever before.

Frieha Altaf who came out with her own harassment case in November and launched #MainBhi feels that #MeToo is more relevant to Pakistan than anywhere else.

"In the South Asian region girls get molested and nobody talks about it and the honour of the whole family falls on the woman so this movement is needed even more." Since ‘Main Bhi’ was launched at the Lux Style Awards, we wondered where Altaf plans to take the campaign especially in the wake of the current narrative. "Patriarchal societies have stigmatized victims or survivors of crimes against women that many suffer in silence. I don’t want the movement to die so I’m trying not to lose focus and will keep going slowly and achieve whatever I can. People are coming to me with their stories - men and women and the fact that they are wanting to and able to, is a huge step but it needs to be organized. I’ve been gathering names of powerful women and will form a board or committee and hope to sign a bill to create awareness and give support. In Pakistan, we have a law against sexual harassment, the Protection of Women Against Harassment at the Workplace Act of 2010 so that needs support so women get justice. I also want to host fundraisers to raise money for victims."

Momina Mustehsan feels that ‘Me Too’ is relevant wherever human beings exist and it does have potential to be meaningful in Pakistan. In an exclusive interview with Instep she said, "Me Too is not just about sexual harassment, but it’s also about violating someone’s private space, knowingly or unknowingly. No human is perfect and everyone is guilty of offending someone in some way or form, with or without the intent to do so. Instead of turning this into a mudslinging show or assassinating people’s characters and justifying the incident, focus on the fact that someone was offended or made to feel uncomfortable. It takes a lot of courage and strength of character to admit one’s human failings. And nothing can be corrected without acknowledging there was something wrong that was done."

One criticism of Me Too is that people think that some individuals can hijack it to further their own agendas. "It shouldn’t be used as a means to push another agenda," Mustehsan says. "When a victim comes forward, do ask if there is more to the story and evaluate stakes on both ends. Keep it fair to both parties and aim for a constructive dialogue more than a blame game, so that a solution can be reached and there is more good that comes from it."

Each case should be judged on its own and preconceived notions of anyone are irrelevant when such a case comes to light. Ideas like "the woman will not put her reputation on the line for nothing" or "women are the oppressed gender" or "she was asking for it" are all wrong. Such beliefs tip the balance of power and feminism is about equality for all, irrespective of gender.

Feminists in France have been fighting a culture of victimhood and those who insist that the focus in sexual harassment should be concern for the victims. These different reactions from feminists world over suggest how their struggles play out in France, US or say Pakistan according to the culture and norms of the place. In Pakistan, victim shaming is one of the biggest problems and Rehan Bashir is amongst those at The Creative Process Projects who have started a petition titled "On Sexual Harassment" which calls for all to stand in support of victims rather than silencing them. A number of people from the entertainment and arts industries have signed it including Khadijah Shah, Mira Sethi and Khadija Rahman. He said, "Of what someone’s past has been that can’t take away from whether one has been sexually harassed or not. It’s victim shaming and slander that I’m against. There is too much unwarranted backlash - there are too many things that people shouldn’t be on the fence about."

At the same time, the backlash and lack of support by real voices makes some think that perhaps Pakistan’s Me Too moment is still far away. Maheen Khan feels that everything that has happened is just a drop in the ocean and we have a long way to go. "The conversation has started taking place but it’s happening only in certain circles. What of the villages where sexual violence takes place in most alarming numbers?" Rehan Bashir agrees with Khan in that, when a country has crimes like the burying of little girls for honour killing still persisting, it’s a different story altogether.

Bashir feels that one can’t deny someone the right to feel a certain way because people don’t generally have an idea of personal space in Pakistan. "People are not mindful of boundaries and are very accustomed to being invasive. Many times they don’t do it with that intention but do it anyway and that needs to change."

Mustehsan adds that changes should happen at a grassroots level with a focus on education. "Educate children in school about what someone’s private space is and how important it is to respect it. Also teach them about consent. At the same time, they should be taught how to express their discomfort because a lot of times, victims of abuse don’t speak out in the moment because they don’t know what to say. Sometimes, saying a line as simple as ‘I’m sorry you’re making me uncomfortable, please stop’ helps a lot," she said.

The Me Too movement and its Pakistani rendition has definite potential to introduce meaningful change in our society as long as we look beyond just certain circles and educate the masses. As long as we don’t jump to conclusions the moment we hear about a case and let the trial take place in the court of law rather than letting Twitter be the judge, jury and executioner. It has definitely opened the door on a conversation that may potentially never shut down again.


Is ‘Me Too’ relevant in Pakistan?