TRIGGER WARNING: Sexual Assault/Rape

The #MeToo movement has been monumental around the world. It has, however, achieved little in Pakistan. To its credit, the movement has helped open up important conversations about sexual harassment and discrimination against women in the country. In recent years, we have seen an increase in the number of women that have spoken up about their experiences of sexual harassment and publicly outed their harassers. However the problem lies within the responses to these accusations, which remains to be mixed. 

The movement made its way to Pakistan in 2018, when singer, Meesha Shafi accused her colleague Ali Zafar of sexual harassment on multiple occasions. Despite court proceedings, there was no visible outcome in the case. Both singers filed defamation suits against one another. 

Since then several other “reputable” media personalities have been accused of sexual harassment, but these accusations were once again met with mixed reactions. Some people immediately question why the victim chose to come forward so many years later. And often times victims are slut-shamed and accused of seeking fame or attention for personal gains.

The backlash against #MeToo heightened the fears of many women forcing them to stay silent about their experiences of harassment. Feminism is largely dismissed as a Western concept by not just the masses but the state premier himself. Pakistan is one of the lowest-ranked countries in the world in terms of gender equality. All forms of violence against women are extremely prevalent. Each year an estimated 1000 women are killed by their families over damaged honor. When the situation is so dire, victims expect little to no empathy or justice.

Victims who have dared to speak have found themselves confronting the stringent cybercrime law that was enacted to protect “women” from online harassment. The 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act allows the government to access user data, censor content, and criminalize certain forms of communication. The bill was labeled “a clear and present danger to human rights” by Human Rights Watch. Victims often take on pseudonyms or anonymously report experiences of sexual assault on social media. 

Whilst many supporters had been disillusioned by the slow progress of the movement, the recent motorway rape incident in Lahore shook the country to its core. A woman was traveling from Lahore to Gujranwala when her car stalled on the motorway. While she waited to receive assistance from the police, she was interjected by two armed men who saw the woman alone with her children took advantage of the situation. The woman was raped by multiple assailants at gunpoint, and her valuables were also taken away. 

The incident on its own was enough to spark a resurgence in the #MeToo movement. What further fueled people’s anger was the police chief’s attempt to blame the victim for the assault. His statement was met with demands for his removal along with reform in the way police respond to sexual violence.

Many expected the case to serve as a catalyst for a major change. Mass protests took place across the country for days after the incident. Protestors put forward several demands, which include criminalization of acts of sexual violence that do not include penetration, structural reform to increase police accountability, and training for police, prosecutors, and judges in handling sexual violence cases, along with other measures to improve safety for women. 

Unfortunately, however, it has been over a month since the incident occurred and little has changed. In fact, in recent weeks we have witnessed a surge in the number of rape cases reported. In some cases, harassers have been arrested and are undergoing investigation. 

According to official statistics, at least 11 rape cases are reported in Pakistan everyday with over 22,000 rape cases reported to the police in the last six years. However, only 77% of the accused are convicted, which makes up only 0.3% of the total figure. Police officials have pointed out that only half of the rape cases are registered, which means that the actual figure of rape cases could be as high as 60,000 in the last five years.

Whilst, the motorway incident sparked the resurgence of the #MeToo movement, the events that followed have once again brought the movement and its role in Pakistan in question. It appears as though the movement has remained largely unsuccessful because we have yet to see a reformation of women’s rights in the country. However, the problem here is a larger one. Perhaps, the problem lies in the mindsets of the masses. Surely, #MeToo can encourage victims of sexual abuse and sexual harassment to speak up about their experiences. However, when the mindsets of the society on the whole are instilled with misogynistic patterns. There is little a movement can change.

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  • Ayesha is studying Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London. She is passionate about amplifying the voices of the marginalized and/or oppressed and initiating unconventional but important conversations.