Inspired by the #MeToo movement, some girls from Lahore bravely confronted their harassers — here is a reflection upon their journey
When I joined school, I learnt early on that we had certain teachers who would harass students. It was a cautionary tale told by seniors and classmates. They would tell us to steer clear of these men, to never go to them alone, to always take a friend along and not to visit them unless absolutely necessary.
We would be told that this had been happening for years. Despite several complaints being filed, the administration had taken no action apart from chastising the complainants, and blaming them instead. They would be told they wore inappropriate clothing, that they exhibited a certain type of behaviour and so on. There were people who even dropped out of important subjects, due to persistence of such issues.
After these incidents continued to happen, some of the girls brought it up in a meeting with the administration. As soon as they spoke, one by one everybody in the room chimed in, narrating similar experiences of their own. This was the moment it hit me – that the situation was so serious. The girls also had follow-up meetings with the administration to keep up with the situation. However, no substantial action was taken and the harasser remained in the job - everything went on as usual.
Recently, when the #MeToo movement surged in Pakistan, I saw a lot of people I knew speak up about harassment at their institutes. A lot of them confronted their harassers. This included rape survivors confronting their rapists. I saw how it had a domino effect and how after one person started the conversation, others started speaking up. It hit home when I saw a very close friend of mine muster up the courage to call out her harasser and learnt that many other girls were harassed by the same guy, with similar behaviour and tactics. That was when I realised that it was something that needed to be discussed and talked about so that it did not continue to happen, so that other girls did not have to go through the same ordeal.
Afterwards, a lot of friends, acquaintances, juniors and seniors going back a decade, narrated their own stories. The response was overwhelming. We heard many horrific tales of what took course over many years, unfold all at once. This took a great toll on our mental and emotional health. Despite the years of harassment, we had not been desensitised to it. At one point we stopped eating, sleeping and functioning properly. We lost all sense of self. But, we found peace and solace in one another.
When we finally went public with our stories, people from all over started reaching out, trying to help and checking in to see how we were doing. We supported one another, heard one another out, and tried to solve the issues at hand. It was absolutely amazing how the student fraternity stood in solidarity with one another through all that followed. They were there for us when we could not handle certain issues ourselves.
While the movement garnered ample support from the masses, we were also faced with questions like “why now?”, “why did you not tell your parents?”, “why were you talking to your teachers on social media?” Such remarks were extremely hurtful, the thought that these people could not even sympathise with the victims and instead were trying to shift the blame onto them. They did not realise how some of them could never really identify the harassment because they were not aware of what it exactly was; that it took years to get over the trauma before they could openly talk about it; that not all of them had supportive families who would side with them, that some of them were justifiably afraid of being blamed instead and being placed under severe restrictions.
We heard many horrific tales of what took course over many years, unfold all at once. This took a great toll on our mental and emotional health. At one point we stopped eating, sleeping and functioning properly.
As the movement grew, media outlets, also started covering the news. While we were glad that they were supporting us and helping spread our message, we were highly disappointed by how some people were reporting inaccurate and uncorroborated stories, despite all accounts being available on social media platforms. They seemed to be in a rush to report, rather than put in actual effort into research. Some of them were excessively intrusive and insensitive. When told that we did not want to do certain interviews etc, they kept insisting that it was “so important” and that if we did not agree, we would suffer a great loss. They did not seem to realise what the victims were going through already and disregarded the legal implications for us.
Finally, the government took notice as well. A productive outcome was the decision to establish a sex offender registry in the country, which had not existed before. While the government acknowledging the issue has its benefits, some of their remarks were distressing. Some of the proposed solutions for harassment, such as segregation, invalidated the experiences of the victims who had suffered harassment at the hands of the same gender. They also mentioned requiring written complaints, FIRs etc but the government never really gave us a reason to believe in the system, so much so that the legal advice given to us by those we trusted was NOT to pursue the matter in a court.
Hardly anybody gets convicted for crimes related to sexual violence, we were told. Trials are long and traumatizing, drain victims mentally and physically and often bear no fruit. A lot of the victims’ families would not support them in this either and a lot of them were minors so they could not really do it themselves. Also, it is extremely hard to provide evidence for sexual harassment in most cases. There was also a perpetual fear of defamation cases. (We have recently seen this in some high profile cases.) We had to be extra careful so as to not get caught up in such cases that are so problematic that the victims are the ones who are scared, rather than the harassers.
Some schools did create a sexual harassment and bullying policy in light of these events. However training and awareness of the policy remains lacking, most schools did not create preventive policies. While these steps are encouraging, there is much more needed to root out the menace.
While most people may have forgotten about it all by now, we have not. It is not something one can easily get over, as was evident in people coming out after years of their harassment experience. We have not forgotten how horrifying it was to read those stories, to see that hurt. We have not forgotten taking extra precautions to be safe, even now as I write this piece. We continue to do everything within our capacity to further the movement in whatever way we can. We hope that you will do the same.