Why The #MeToo Movement Has Missed Momentum in Pakistan


*Originally published at Himal Southasian. Unedited version below:

As the #MeToo movement steers ahead with momentum across various parts of the world, Pakistan remains largely unaffected by it. Far from making waves, the movement has hardly made ripples in the country.

5ad871cd9d50aPerhaps the only prominent case relating to the movement in Pakistan has been of famous model, singer and actress Meesha Shafi coming forward with allegations of sexual harassment at the hands of fellow musician and actor Ali Zafar. Zafar denied the accusations and subsequently filed a defamation suit against her, while numerous celebrities rallied to his support. In fact, his film Teefa in Trouble, released after the allegations were made public, was screened in theatres all over the country and ended up raking in more than 300 million.

Pakistan’s entertainment industry has not stood unresponsive on the matter of sexual harassment, with scattered statements emerging from within it, but more in distrust than in support of #MeToo. Model Sadaf Kanwal recently remarked disparagingly about the movement on a prime time talk show, declaring that she had never faced sexual harassment or abuse and going on to say that, You know aap ke saath Metoo jab ho, tab boldo. Baad mai aap ko yaad araha hai metoo, So I think jab ho boldo. (You know, when you have a MeToo incident, say it then. Why are you remembering it later? I think when it happens you should say it.)”

Kanwal’s remarks cannot be seen in isolation and indicate a greater malaise at play when it comes to the matter and conversation of sexual harassment in the country.

Why has #MeToo remained a murmur rather than taking the shape of a movement in Pakistan?

This is not without cause.

Stigma and Sanction

Foremost among these is the taboo and stigma surrounding sexual harassment in Pakistan. Any disclosure of sexual harassment or abuse, including child abuse, is considered shameful and a source of indelible stigma and dishonor for the victims or survivors, and their families. As an issue which is preferred suppressed and hushed up by the society, any public conversation about it then becomes inevitably inviting of backlash. The social repercussions for any individual braving their trauma to air their story are deeply undesirable; spanning subjection to blatant vilification, malicious mud-slinging, victim-blaming, outright threats and even ostracization. Victims of sexual harassment and abuse must routinely confront and counter vehement efforts to dismiss, doubt and demean their harrowing experiences.

Condemnations and repudiations of Meesha Shafi’s allegations against Ali Zafar have often commonly been based on the argument that she was simply doing it for “cheap and quick publicity,” thereby trivializing sexual harassment and recasting it as a mere ploy for attention-seeking. That even Meesha, a celebrity who has successfully featured in Hollywood, Bollywood and Lollywood films with an established career as a popular musician, wasn’t spared this charge can only offer a brief view of what an ordinary woman would have to endure were she to openly voice her allegations or ordeal of sexual harassment.

Legal Hurdles

In addition to the oppressive social and cultural treatment of the issue, the legal framework in Pakistan does not aid the creation of an environment conducive to any fight against sexual harassment. Fatima Anwar, a member of Pakistan’s legal community, draws light to the the degree of difficulty involved in taking sexual harassment cases to the courts. “We have basic penal code provisions against harm and laws against workplace harassment, but we do not have a distinct and separate law that directly addresses, criminalizes and deals with sexual harassment as a whole,” she says. It was due to this particular legal loophole that Meesha Shafi’s case against Ali Zafar was rejected as it was pursued under the existing Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, in view of which her relationship with Ali Zafar could not be deemed as being one of employer and employee. Fatima elaborates that “the evidentiary standards, if the case does not pertain to penetrative rape, are very flawed. Sexual harassment rarely happens in broad daylight with multitudes of witnesses, therefore it is usually the word of the survivor against the attacker. Factor into this the institutional sexism of the courts, the internalized sexism of judges and the widespread harassment within the legal profession itself, and you realize that the likelihood of a conviction for a sexual harasser is very low.”

With scarcely any social and cultural structures, or even legal recourses, in place to offer support or redress to victims of sexual harassment, many women in Pakistan choose to keep quiet than to battle the backlash accompanying any disclosure of the distress they may have suffered or continue to suffer.

Feminist Fissures

Another hindrance to the full exposure of sexual harassment cases in Pakistan is grasped by writer Rafia Zakaria, who identifies the fissures, even within feminists, which contribute to the weakness of the movement in Pakistan: “When faced with an actual #MaiBhi moment, the vast majority of Pakistan’s feminists, the most notable of whom tend to be among the country’s elites, are choosing inaction, ambivalence or silence.” Hamna Zubair, an editor at Dawn newspaper, argues “film and entertainment industry’s response to these harassment allegations reveals how, once again, issues of justice and equality in Pakistan take a back seat to the social and financial entanglements of the upper class.”

That class associations, fraternal feelings and financial interests trump a staunch commitment to causes is an indictment of many people in Pakistan and the pervasive parochial tribalism which prompts them to frequently jump to the defense of many solely due to their shared belonging within a group; reducing their faithfulness to social justice, egalitarianism and activism as lip service, and genuine solidarity an act contingent upon convenience.

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Dr. Nida Kirmani, Associate Professor of Sociology at the Lahore University of Management Sciences who writes on gender, Islam and women’s movements in South Asia, opines that “we still have a long way to go when it comes to a wider understanding and sensitivity around sexual harassment. Sadly, even in circles that one would think are progressive, there is little understanding or acceptance of the seriousness of the problem of sexual harassment. While awareness is growing slowly, one would need a wider critical mass of people who are receptive to claims of sexual harassment in order for a Pakistani #MeToo movement to really take off.”

Risking Liberties

A third barrier to galvanization around the #MeToo movement in Pakistan is tied to its potential for being employed to bolster a reversal or restriction on the limited liberties many women are allowed to avail in society such as the freedom to study and work or even mobility in public spaces. Any surfacing of instances of sexual harassment, especially in educational institutions, workplaces or public spaces, is taken, by many, as vindication of the traditional and conservative ideas which call for confining and sequestering women within the four walls of their homes and prohibiting interactions with members of the opposite sex. The argument goes that it is precisely to prevent such unpleasant and unwanted occurrences that religion and culture instruct women to stay in the safety and comfort of their homes under the watchful and protective gaze of their fathers, brothers or husbands, and not venture beyond it unless absolutely necessary. For many women, revealing an experience of sexual harassment, may be used to remove and bar them from the spaces and locations of the occurrence altogether. To disclose, therefore, is to risk hard-won but fragile and precarious liberties. Disclosing instances of sexual harassment or abuse in consensual relationships would endanger these women further since dating is often explicitly forbidden or looked down upon. Consent ceases to be central when the focus shifts to your involvement in a relationship or space that you weren’t supposed to be in, in the first place.

Earlier last year, student and social-media user Ushnaa Habib took to Twitter to collect, compile and publish a stream of anonymous accounts of sexual harassment, many of which named well-known individuals as the perpetrators. Recalling her decision, she describes that “it took an immense strength from the women’s side to even consider opening up. The fact that they wanted to remain anonymous still breaks my heart because the fear of what men will do to them is far greater than you and I can imagine. There were screenshots and testimonies I could not even post, because of how scared the girls were. [But] the main role here, I think, is of the family. Every single girl was scared of her family and not necessarily the men they were naming. They didn’t want their mother and father to find out. But those with supportive families, were fierce and blunt.” Going public with experiences of sexual harassment is then accompanied by the very real fears of reprisals and fear of bringing shame and dishonor to the family. Moreover, such disclosures can be used to advance and implement curtailment of intermingling with the opposite sexes and a limitation of the liberties available to women.

Pushing for Change

Despite the lack of traction gained by the #MeToo movement in Pakistan so far, attempts to change the situation continue in the country through the painstaking efforts of women’s rights activists. Dr. Nida Kirmani provides the reminder that “women’s rights activists have been working consistently and persistently on the issue of sexual harassment for years. It is because of them that we have gotten as far as we have in terms of having a law in place at the national level and some formal mechanisms in particular institutions. The discussion of #MeToo should be seen as part of that wider movement. We have a long way to go, but I see a lot of rays of hope as well in terms of the older and younger generations of feminists working separately and together to lift that stigma and silence and create an environment where it is safe for survivors to speak out and actually get support.” And although Ushnaa Habib eventually found herself at the receiving end of numerous threats, including those of rape and death, in the same spirit of creating an environment where it is safe for survivors to speak it, she maintains her belief that she “did the right thing.” Similarly, Nighat Dad, who heads the Digital Rights Foundation which seeks to combat cyber-bullying and make the internet safe for women, has been in the process of compiling the names of pro bono lawyers willing to facilitate victims of sexual harassment. Renowned director and actress Angeline Malik has also launched the #InkaarKaro (Refuse) initiative that hopes to spread awareness regarding sexual harassment and its various forms, bring people together and “allow them to share their stories and assure them that if they feel they have ever been wronged, there are many others here to support them.”

The results of the #MeToo movement may be uncertain in Pakistan but what is for certain, however, is that it has given rise to a moment that has brought the subject of sexual harassment to the fore; and made possible at least some conversation about it, even if limited or even if uncomfortable, and even if it is a conversation on the movement’s negligible impact itself. #MeToo may not be Pakistan’s defining moment in the uphill struggle against sexual harassment and abuse, but even the silences which rendered the movement largely mute in the country, ironically and piercingly also rendered visible painful everyday risks and realities for women here.

-Hafsa Khawaja