Pakistan’s missing #MeToo movement

Survivors of sexual harassment, activists, lawyers and lawmakers must come together if Pakistan is to have its #MeToo moments, says Arifa Noor.

Pakistan’s missing #MeToo movement

The #MeToo movement is resonating across the world and has even taken over in India. But in Pakistan, the silence in comparison is intriguing. A celebrity who made her story public and was sued for defamation is the only high-profile case to come to mind.

It reminded a few of us of Tanzeela Mazhar, a journalist and television anchor, whose allegations of sexual harassment against a senior official of state-owned PTV led nowhere. The story ended with her out of a job. A battle fought before Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo, it’s a story that is dusted off and repeated, when asked if Pakistan has had a #MeToo movement.

But a story or two does not a movement make, especially when the first stone cast ends up being the only one thrown. Little else follows to prove that a harasser is a serial abuser or to show that harassment is so pervasive that many, many women have suffered it in one form or another. There were few public outings and even fewer who were brought down. Pakistan hasn’t had its Weinstein or M.J Akbar moment, as such.


This is not to say that a public shaming and bringing down of a big name is the only way to judge the success of a movement — and neither is it without its set of problems. But it shows a changing environment in which voices unheard or dismissed in the past are now being believed. It shows an acceptance of the challenges faced by women — the abuse they have suffered and how it was normalised in the past.

This is perhaps not because the incidents are fewer in Pakistan, or the practice less pervasive, but because of the fewer numbers of working women and the generally conservative environment that prevails in our society. One needs a critical mass of working women (in a certain social class) and those who believe in their right to work for such a movement to catch on.

Think back to most of the #MeToo stories coming out of the world, and recently India — few of them could be told by a woman in Pakistan without her being blamed. The parameters of acceptable social behaviour for women are such that even admitting to being alone in a room with man may not go down well with many. So, it’s hard to imagine getting support for traumatic experiences, including assault. Who in Pakistan would out a Tarun Tejpal – or M.J Akbar-like abuser and ‘live’ after telling the tale?

No wonder then that the survivors who have come forward in Pakistan have not really spoken of rape or assault (attempted or otherwise), unless under the garb of anonymity. (Even in the Meesha Shafi case, no details have been made public.)

This could be one reason the cases coming to light in Pakistan tend to opt for the legal route rather than first making public accounts of abusers, who are then taken to court once the floodgates open. It’s a thought that came to mind due to a tweet by digital rights activist and lawyer Nighat Dad who last week said that she was compiling a list of pro bono lawyers to help #MeToo victims.

Nighat Dad runs an organisation to assist those looking to seek legal recourse from cyberbullying, but she is constantly being approached by women who have faced sexual harassment at the workplace and need help finding lawyers (or better lawyers) to facilitate them in their cases, the defamation suits they may have ended up with, or the fallout of having reported harassment.

It shows the dearth of legal advice available to women struggling with harassment issues. Nighat Dad spoke of a woman who won a sexual harassment case only to face threats. In another case, a woman who had reported a colleague for harassment lost the case as well as her job and faced a defamation case. The sole breadwinner of her family, she now needs legal help to defend herself and wants an out-of-court settlement. She recognises injustice, but feeding her family is more important.

She also tells a story of a woman who complained of harassment by a colleague who would not stop proposing marriage to her and behaved in a manner that could be called stalking. She was among the ‘lucky’ few who got a committee to hear her case — it acknowledged harassment but added that a proposal of marriage was a sign of respect. In other words, the law can only go so far when our cultural and social values are at odds with the idea of harassment. But, the more stories one hears, the more one is forced to wonder how to judge the various kinds of harassment.

And the problem lies not only with culture but also with the anti-harassment law. As Asad Jamal, a lawyer, points out: the law needs much improvement. In his opinion, among other things, it defines neither various levels of harassment nor corresponding levels of punishments or fines.

This is not all. At a theoretical level, he questions the logic of allowing an organisation the power to form a committee to hear complaints filed by one employee against another. Would organisations form a committee fairly, he asks. He goes so far as to call it a form of jirga justice. In addition, if organisations don’t bother (and many have not), the state has not taken upon itself the direct responsibility to force implementation.

Asad Jamal also feels that the law has not provided for details on how to proceed with such a case and how to record evidence; neither are the committee members trained in this regard. This seems like legal nitpicking till he explains: should such a committee take into consideration the general reputation and past record of the accuser and the defendant?

His list of loopholes in the law does not end here. But it simply shows (as does our missing #MeToo, and the problems of those approaching Nighat Dad) that we, as a society, need to push this issue and the debate around it much further. The survivors, the activists, the lawyers and the government need to get together and walk the talk.

The writer is a journalist. Dawn/ANN