#MeToo gaining traction in Pakistan

Swat Valley, Pakistan-Tabassum Adnan of Swat Valley was married at 14 and eventually managed to leave her husband. These days, she helps other women fight for their rights as the head of an all-female jirga, or local council. (Photo: Jabeen Bhatti | ARA Network)LAHORE, Pakistan – This is Pakistan’s #MeToo moment.

A handful of Pakistani women recently alleged that famous male actor and musician Ali Zafar assaulted them, garnering headlines, prompting outrage and debates, and sparking the #MeToo movement in conservative Pakistan.

The women’s remarkable public statements – followed by others in the politics and business sectors-- are a sea change in this highly traditional Islamic country where female honor killings, child brides and polygamy are commonplace, and women are only given a portion of an inheritance that males receive.

“The #MeToo movement has organically come with women coming forward against powerful men, be it Ali Zafar or a CEO of a tech start-ups, to finally hold men accountable for their behavior,” said Nighat Dad, director of the Digital Rights Foundation and an activist for women's rights. “Hopefully that will encourage women to come forward.”

Women as victims of sexual harassment have log suffered in silence in Pakistan, where shame is the victim’s and not that of the perpetrator. Most of the women go without reporting the incidents but those who do come forward often suffer shame or face questions about their morality.

But Meesha Shafi, a Pakistani pop singer who accused Zafar of sexually harassing her on multiple occasions, is challenging the country’s culture.

“Today I am breaking this culture of silence and I hope that by doing that I am setting an example for young women in my country to do the same,” Shafi wrote last month on Twitter. “We only have our voices and the time has come to use them.”

Zafar denied the claims and demanded that Shafi delete the allegation on the social network and issue an apology or he would file a $9 million defamation suit against her.

“I am deeply aware and in support of the global #Metoo movement and what it stands for,” Zafar said in a statement. “I am the father of a young girl and a young boy, a husband to a wife and a son to a mother. I have nothing to hide. Silence is absolutely not an option.”

Shafi has refused to take down her tweets. Her attorney has denied she defamed Zafar.

Days after the public dispute erupted, more women came forward against Zafar, who has been compared to Hollywood producer and serial abuser Harvey Weinstein in the Pakistani press.

Leena Ghani, a make-up artist based in London came out saying that Zafar had repeatedly “crossed boundaries” with her.

“His behavior displays a clear lack of respect for women,” Ghani said on Twitter. “Inappropriate contact, groping, sexual comments should not fall in the grey area between humor and indecency.”

Humna Raza, a blogger from Lahore, accused Zafar of groping her when she asked to take a selfie with him. Another girl, Noor Sehar, accused Zafar of sexual misconduct at a party.

There has been a mixed reaction to Shafi and Zafar’s case in Pakistan. While many have supported the singer for bravely speaking out, there have been those who’ve questioned the accusations.

“I just don’t see any truth in these allegations,” questioned film actress Resham, who only uses a single name for her public persona. “Ali cannot do such a thing. How can he harass a woman and she doesn’t slap him back, hit him with a shoe, push him away or complain to his wife?”

The actress has also been shamed on social media.

"The backlash that Meesha has faced, the misogynistic attitudes that she has had to confront also sends women a message that there is still a cost to coming forward,” said Dad.

Others defended Shafi.

“Meesha is a superstar who is really successful and earns as much as the male stars in this country,” said actor and model Iffat Omar in an Instagram post. “So why would she do this if she was not hurt? Many people are claiming that she is doing this for fame or money. She already has more than enough of both.”

The allegations are not isolated.

Khalid Bajwa, chief executive of local music streaming company Patari, stepped down from his post last month following sexual harassment allegations.

Still, many women are afraid to come forward, also because of repercussions they face from a deeply conservative society.

For example, when Ayesha Gulali, a lawmaker from the mainstream Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf political party, recently accused her party’s leader, Imran Khan, of sending her lewd text messages she suffered backlash online and from within her party. Party leaders tried but failed to kick her out of the party and expel her from parliament.

Also, when broadcast journalists Tanzeela Mazhar and Yashfeen Jamal pursued a sexual harassment case against the director of current affairs Pakistan television, Agha Masood Shorish, they stirred up a storm of criticism before he was eventually fired.

“When I raised my voice, people responded with (degrading) comments about women, our character and personal lives,” Mazhar said.

“I think in any society it is difficult for women to come forward,” said Dad.

Still, Shafi’s answer is clear: “It’s only scary till you say it!” she tweeted.

A version of this story can be found in USA Today.
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