As the global feminist movement reaches Pakistan, it challenges the status quo and looks to encapsulate more than sexual harassment.
Pakistan is definitely not the most women-friendly country on earth. UN Women ranked it one of the lowest in the world in terms of gender equality. Violence against women has been widespread and an ever-growing issue. Rape, acid attacks, domestic abuse, forced marriages and, honor killings are rampant in the country even today. Disturbing realities are still reported. The 2015 Oslo Summit on Education and Development categorized Pakistan among the worst performing countries in terms of female education. Pakistani NGO, Movement for Solidarity Peace stated that there were thousands of women abductions for forced marriages, especially targeting minority women. Human Rights Watch estimated 1000 honor killings per year as latest as 2019. But one thing for women in Pakistan has certainly changed, the narrative for women’s empowerment has escaped from global conventions and election speeches to streets and internet. In today’s age Pakistan’s commitment to women rights is shown by its evolving narrative around #MeToo, women rights and, a growing anti-patriarchal attitude.
The role of women in Pakistan, since its inception, has been largely limited to households with much of the reason submerged in religion and culture. Pakistan’s main religion, Islam, has largely been interpreted as patriarchal; giving men an overarching edge over women in terms of rights and freedom. The small breathing space left for women liberation is swallowed by cultural values and societal norms that place further restrictions on women. Legislation has been equally, if not more disappointing. While the draconian Hudood Ordinance was repealed after years of blinkered discrimination against women in 2006, it was far from enough to rid the constitution of bias. In fact, only recently a province distributed burqas to female students to observe purdah (religious attire) within school. With such depressing status-quo, the recent advancements are notable and a sonorous display of modernization.
This welcome transformation has managed to sustain its pace and vibrancy despite all the fiendish backlash it has faced. For the global #MeToo movement to find home in an Islamic, eastern, developing country has been refreshing. It is of interest to trace where this stemmed from.
The foremost branch of influence the #MeToo movement in Pakistan has been Lollywood, the Pakistani film industry. Perhaps the most popular and polarizing case has been of the nationwide sensation Meesha Shafi, who was said to have “dragged the #MeToo movement to Pakistan”. Shafi accused noted singer Ali Zafar of sexual harassment during a recording. While reaction was mixed with Zafar’s supporters accusing Shafi of a cheap attempt at publicity and intense online trolling, many also emerged in support of Shafi by echoing her voice and protesting the release of Zafar’s film “Teefa in Trouble”. The case eventually went to court with more women coming out against Zafar. Another storm, albeit smaller, was caused by Fatema Sohail, wife of rising star Mohsin Abbas Haider. Sohail broke silence against her husband’s alleged longstanding torture. Some within the industry confirmed her claim. Haider denied all counts and launched character attacks on his wife. This case proceeded to the judiciary body as well.
The conversation was extended by fashion industry stalwart Freiha Altaf, model Maheen Khan and actress Nadia Jamil all taking their stories to social media asserting the only shame was in staying silent. In a surprise, even a male filmmaker came out in support revealing he had been subject to sexual abuse in the industry thirteen years ago himself. Millions of girls watched this at home and felt their voice resonated by celebrities to a larger audience. They watched as a taboo topic unfolded in the open, one by one.
A battleground between supporters and opposers of #MeToo has been social media that has played an influential role in advancing the movement. A prime example of the previous statement was observed when many high school and college students broke silence against harassment they had encountered in the past and had tolerated for a long time. What started as one girl’s post accusing a harasser flooded Facebook and alike with many women coming out against their perpetrators. Students, inspired by the #MeToo movement, took social media by storm demanding the assaulters to be held accountable and institutions to devise clear policies pertinent to sexual harassment. Accounts titled “TimesUp” with different chapters were created to let out stories of victims keeping them anonymous while exposing the harassers. The movement started in Karachi fled quickly to other metropolitan cities. The campaign could be concluded to be effective. Educational institutes across the country felt the pressure to devise policy against sexual harassment and for the first time, did so.
Figures from Madadgaar National Helpline have shown as high as 93 percent women experience sexual violence. Consequently, activism regarding women rights and sexual harassment has also strengthened in recent years. Political and official candidates have started to be evaluated through the feminist perspective as well. In a fashion show by Ali Xeeshan partnered with UN Women, a bridal walk was concluded by a small girl walking in school uniform to send a powerful message deploring child marriage. Female icons have emerged more strongly attracting more attention and popularity than ever. Perhaps, the landmark achievement is the initiation of “Aurat March” in 2018. Held in three cities, women marched for equality, justice and liberation echoing the tenets of #MeToo amidst vociferous criticism. The march was one of its kind with posters, banners and slogans displaying the passion and unity of women seeking change.
With respect to sexual harassment in Pakistan, the cat is out of the bag. Women, especially the new generation, are up to break cages. However, the movement faces stark denunciation from society, does not appeal to all women, and is strictly limited to urban areas of Pakistan due to limited access to media and education. What the rebels are up against is thousands of years of culture that has fed on patriarchy and misogyny and this is supposed to be no easy fight. But the awakening and progress of the movement cannot be ignored. It is constantly gaining momentum and its true effects are yet to be seen.
Muhammad Shoaib Arshad is a Pakistani undergraduate student of International Political Economy and Diplomacy program at the University of Bridgeport, USA. He is interested in global governance, South Asian affairs, and research.