Pakistan is a pretty bad place to be a woman.
This is a difficult subject to address because there is a lot of racism and Islamophobia implicit in this loaded statement. The claim of ‘saving’ foreign brown women has always been used to justify imperialism so writing about violence against women in developing countries is like walking on a tightrope.
Still, we shouldn’t let the fear of being co-opted stop us from speaking out. Pakistan consistently ranks at the bottom of global lists when it comes to women’s safety, mobility, or agency. Violence against women, including harassment and rape, is a social tool used to restrict women’s choices and is particularly common and difficult to talk about in Pakistan.
That may finally be changing.
On April 19th, actress and singer Meesha Shafi accused her former co-star Ali Zafar of sexual harassment on Twitter. Shafi knew that coming forward would bring her hate, but she was inspired by #MeToo movement to come forward.
Last year, Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement went viral on social media in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, prompting victims of sexual assault by many powerful men and women to come forward.
The backlash against Shafi was swift and furious. Her character was maligned on social media and the evils of dressing, singing, and acting for women were expounded upon. She was called an attention-seeker, and Zafar took her to court for defamation. Many talked about #MeToo having come too far with the accuser not carrying the burden of proof any longer, despite the fact that men are more likely to be assaulted than falsely accused.
Shafi’s bravery led to two more women accusing Zafar. Many commenters, particularly women, defended her on social media, and newspapers increased their scrutiny on harassment in the country. Questions like “where’s the evidence?” and myths around abuse were hotly lambasted and answered. Accusations against other powerful and influential men followed. Faisal Edhi, the son of Pakistan’s most celebrated philanthropist and known leftist, and Junaid Akram, a popular comedian were accused of sexual misconduct.
Despite all this, it remains to be seen if the movement will lead to any larger socio-legal changes.
Pakistan’s current harassment and rape laws leave much to be desired. Shafi had to prosecute Zafar under Pakistan’s law on workplace harassment because of the lack of legal options for survivors. However, her suit was dismissed because she did not have an “employment relationship” with Zafar.
Older laws on rape were similarly problematic. A 1979 law, that remained on the books for decades before finally being repealed, held accusations of rape to be valid only if the accuser could provide four witnesses to the rape. Failure to do so meant that the accuser could be charged with ‘adultery’ and locked up.
Men accused and found guilty of sexual misconduct in Pakistan have gone onto secure positions in the government, been invited to prestigious literary festivals, and embroiled their victims in defamation suits. Meanwhile, survivors face abuse and death threats for speaking up.
But the tides seem to be slowly shifting.
Pakistan’s federal ombudsperson reported a huge increase in complaints of sexual misconduct in the wake of #MeToo movement. Zafar’s new films dealt with protesters, and when the CEO of a Pakistani music streaming platform was accused of sexual misconduct, he had to step down. The Pakistan branch of UN Women also offered support for the movement.
This small, incremental shift in attitudes regarding abuse in this country has started to break the shame and stigma associated with reporting sexual violence.
So to the women who said #MeToo in Pakistan: thank you for making that happen.