By Rabia Mehmood
23 April 2018
One would think that a woman going public with accusations of sexual harassment against a man and then facing a severe backlash would not be so common in 2018. But in Pakistan, it keeps happening.
On April 19, Meesha Shafi, a Pakistani pop-star, put up a thoughtful Twitter statement accusing Ali Zafar, Pakistani star actor-singer, of sexually harassing her.
"Today, I speak up because my conscience does not allow me to be silent anymore," she wrote in the statement.
Her tweet was retweeted more than 5,400 times, got a little over 10,000 likes and garnered some 3,000 responses, many of them attacking her. The backlash Shafi is facing is quite abusive and much of it is rejecting the existence of sexual harassment or shaming her for making this public.
Conservative commentators and TV personalities have also defended Zafar, who has threatened to sue Shafi. Women from the industry have also come out in his defence, claiming that they were present during interactions between Shafi and Zafar but did not witness any problematic behaviour from him.
There have also been those who backed Shafi, both men and women. Her statement encouraged other women to come out with accusations of sexual harassment against Zafar.
In fact, over the past months, Pakistan has been experiencing a prolonged #MeToo moment. The country did not experience the same flood of stories and a major peak as the West did in the fall of 2017. Instead, little by little, women, and some men, have been gathering the courage to speak out about the trauma of sexual harassment and abuse. Given the difficult and sometimes unsafe circumstances in which people who have suffered sexual assault come out to tell their stories in Pakistan, this sustained trend has been quite remarkable.
Story after Story
Slightly before the sexual assault scandal with Harvey Weinstein erupted in the West and the #MeToo movement gained momentum globally, in August 2017, Pakistani parliamentarian Ayesha Gulalai alleged that her party's chair Imran Khan had sexually harassed her. Prime Minister Shahid Abbasi backed Gulalai and supported the creation of a parliamentary committee to investigate the matter.
It was a rare case of a female political figure speaking out about workplace harassment, an issue never discussed before in the context of political parties. As a result of the allegations she made, she faced severe online abuse and was accused of being a political opportunist.
In late October 2017, Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Chinoy, too, faced a backlash on social media and TV when she tweeted about her sister's harassment by a doctor. Her allegations caused a heated debate even among women on what constitutes harassment.
As the #MeToo movement picked up, there were also some Pakistani voices who joined the global conversation, sharing stories of their own, although it never gained enough momentum to expose men of power who had used their position to enable their predatory behaviour.
In January, the brutal rape and murder of a seven-year-old girl shocked Pakistan and caused a wave of protests. It was in the aftermath of this horrible crime that Nadia Jamil, a popular Pakistani actress, decided to share her story on social media of being sexually abused as a child.
Model Frieha Altaf and fashion designer Maheen Khan also followed suit with their stories of sexual abuse. This was the first time since the #MeToo movement grew globally that high-profile Pakistani women came forward with their traumatic experiences on social media.
Then on April 11, a young woman took to Twitter to share her stories of sexual harassment by the cofounder and CEO of a Pakistani music streaming service, posting screenshots of an alleged WhatsApp conversation with him. Shortly after, another woman joined her, tweeting "I knew that I wasn't the only one who he made so f****** uncomfortable."
The same day, the company announced that its CEO was stepping down and that it has launched an investigation into the alleged misconduct.
Following the scandal, young Pakistanis also took to Twitter to share their stories of harassment, some posting screenshots of conversations in which men crossed boundaries on social media or messenger apps.
Despite Twitter not being a safe environment for women and minorities to come out and share their stories on, as they almost always get attacked by trolls, as well as just regular misogynistic and racist users, this trend to speak up grew.
From sexual abuse suffered during childhood to public groping, thread after thread reflected on personal trauma and societal denial of it. And such stories have not stopped appearing on Pakistani Twitter sphere.
The fact that in these past seven months, Pakistani women, and some men - anonymously or not - have had the courage to come out with their stories of sexual abuse and claim a space within the hostile online environment for their voices to be heard has been truly inspiring.
Testimonies not being taken seriously or survivors fearing to report to the police has been one of the main challenges in addressing sexual violence in Pakistan and elsewhere. The #MeToo movement and its Pakistani rendition (as slow as it has been to pick up) has the potential to introduce meaningful change in our society.
As significant as this has been, we still have a long way to go to make sure women and men are safe from sexual abuse.
Rabia Mehmood is a human rights researcher and journalist from Pakistan.