Pakistan is a country that is built upon the identity of its people, so it seems fitting for our culture and traditions to be dearly held and celebrated. As magnificent and unique as they are, our traditions also help preserve conservative mindsets that may be seen as regressive. Because of this deep intertwine, often movements that call for a change are seen as a direct attack on the country’s identity. The dichotomy of tradition and progress has been highlighted multiple times recently, as the #MeToo movement trickles into Pakistan.
While this movement is desperately needed in a patriarchal and heavily gendered society like ours, it is met with just as much resistance because of the threat it poses. The existing system of patriarchy allows men to manipulate the movement over and over again to maintain their favorable position.
The movement extended to Pakistan in April 2018 when Meesha Shafi, a Pakistani singer, came out with allegations against another singer, Ali Zafar. She exposed him on social media and explained that he had been inappropriate with her while they worked together. Shafi was met with a lot of support too, but mostly she dealt with a mob of defensive men and women who perceived this step towards change as an attack on their own values. Shafi was seen as a woman heavily influenced by Western concepts and was condemned for speaking on taboo topics such as inappropriate sexual behavior. As a conservative society, there is a lot of importance given to modesty which was the first thing Shafi challenged as she spoke out frankly about her experience. Shafi’s strength was seen as an attack on patriarchal values, which favored her harasser automatically.
There s something not so right (read convincing) here. She s too bold a person to let it happen firstly; and do nothing to counter the act secondly. I think both of em must ve been doped outa their minds wen it happened. Nothing abnormal in their class,btw
— maliha mansoor (@malihamansoor1) April 19, 2018
Congratulations @itsmeeshashafi You're getting attention. Keep lying. No evidence.
— Sohail (@linktosheikh) April 19, 2018
A sentence for #MeeshaShafi ?
I think she is a piece of shittt.
— Eugene (@iamsherazmalik) May 1, 2019
Zafar played upon this discomfort of the population and manipulated Shafi’s message to favor himself. He used tropes like his celebrity status, reputation as a “family man”, and his philanthropic work, as his defense against Shafi, and instead sued her back for defamation. What started as allegations on social media in April 2018 has now been dragged out to become a messy social spectacle in which Shafi is painted as a scorned entity while Zafar continues to boost his image as a respected, beloved, and above all, traditional man who is familiar for the masses.
Although Shafi is credited with extending the conversation around #MeToo to Pakistan, she is not the first woman to speak out about working with a powerful man who behaved inappropriately. In 2017, a female politician Ayesha Gulalai accused the chief of her political party, Imran Khan, of sending her inappropriate text messages. Gulalai was met with far less support than Shafi, as she was immediately denounced by her own political party, and social media trolls rose to the occasion with aggressive threats.
You are shameless doing press conference,giving interviews , biggest liar, with a filthy tongue wicked and a shame to Pakhtuns.
— Old Lady (@OldLady05142866) August 27, 2017
— 口 裂 け 女 (@WaqAhmed84) August 17, 2017
Needless to say, Gulalai did not get the justice she set out for, but her harasser did become the prime minister of the country. Again, Khan appeals to the traditional mindset of the masses whereas Gulalai was threatening the power men are given over women in countless dynamics. Not only did Khan and his political party ensure the silencing of future victims with their reaction, he has since then also made attacks on feminism saying “I completely disagree with this Western concept, this feminist movement… it has degraded the role of the mother.” Feminism and #MeToo threaten powerful men as they prove that even oppressed voices cannot be muffled forever, which is why these men must resort to manipulating the message so it becomes distasteful for everyone else as well. As Khan’s statement reflects, men in power would much rather manipulate any kind of progress that threatens their superiority, by implying that asking for a change is offensive to our current values and consequently, to our identity.
Women who seek justice and choose to speak out are seen as controversial for not conforming to the ideal “traditional” Pakistani woman who is expected to silently accept the patriarchal system she lives in. If a woman dares to challenge the existing equilibrium, she is instantly demonized by a society that maintains its outdated mindset by hiding behind the excuse of traditions. Unfortunately, powerful men like Imran Khan and Ali Zafar have proved how this intrinsic connection between our identity and traditions makes it so difficult for our society to move towards change. Both of them turned their allegations back around on the victim and criticized the attempt towards change by encouraging the regressive mentality our society holds onto. Unfortunately, as men they have the louder voice, and yet they use their power to foster a toxic environment that allows them to remain in power. However, while their efforts at manipulation have slowed down our progress, social media is helping women reclaim their voices as they remain motivated in their fight against patriarchy.