Was Pakistan ready for its #MeToo moment?
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Meesha Shafi must have known that her allegations of sexual harassment would cause an uproar on social media. But, notwithstanding the diverse opinions of the Pakistani people, the polarization the allegations received, as well as the subsequent discussion on sexual harassment, was exceptionally substantial. For those who had been closely watching and supporting the global #MeToo movement, it was an opportunity to set a similar precedent for perpetrators of sexual misconduct in Pakistan.
However, the conversation following Shafi’s accusations, with respect to any informed discourse, proved fairly underwhelming. For many, as had been the case with previous key, socially-conscious events, there was a reinforcement in perspective and bias, not to mention a neglect of key points of other perspectives. Many people could not seem to imagine why she, Shafi, had not made the accusations earlier, or why she never filed an official complaint with the police. The questions they raised targeted virtually everything about the actress-musician, from her appearance, to her morality, to her credibility as an accuser. Feminists and most moderates would argue that these questions indicate a lack of awareness of the incidence of sexual harassment in Pakistan and a routine of accuser-blaming. In any case, with the dissent over the allegations having all but subsided, the division of opinion more emphasized than ever, #MeToo advocates are left discontented with the apparent lack of ground gained.
It was unlikely that Pakistan’s #MeToo moment would lead to any rapid, obvious change in public opinion, let alone legal action. This is clearly illustrated by the trend in recent campaigning for gender equality, most recently the Aurat March that took place the month before the controversy. A large number of observers failed to comprehend the rationale behind the march, others considered it out of line, still others subject the slogans and women to much mockery.
The march, the Shafi controversy, and the reactions to each itself reflect several of the underlying principles of misogyny in our society. In the context of sexual harassment or assault, a woman is very often perceived to dishonor her family by coming forward with allegations, or turned away by relatives and even the police if she does, or remain silent on any occurrences. In essence, the patriarchy-oriented social infrastructure has normalized sexual harassment to the extent that it is almost invariably carried out at one end of the spectrum, and anticipated and habituated at the other.
It is important to realize that the #MeToo movement, which began in Hollywood, was the climax of a multitude of growing concerns about gender discrimination in the workplace. These include the introduction of careerism and more women into the workforce during the Second World War, the current gender pay gap debate, and ultimately, demanding greater accountability for previous celebrities accused of sexual misconduct. To many Pakistanis, these concepts remain alien. Therefore, it should not be surprising that the sudden increase in the number of women sharing their experiences and viewpoints on misogyny would have caught them off-guard, and feminism be seen as a radical movement.
The #MeToo movement, in Hollywood at least, primarily served to initiate a new, more open conversation on gender discrimination. This proved an essential step toward acknowledgement of its prevalence and charges against assailants. Only with the better understanding of the paradigm of gender discrimination could there have been a general shift in perspective. Until then, perpetrators wouldn’t be held accountable on a larger scale, the immediate realization following the Shafi-Zafar controversy.
Nevertheless, the controversy has introduced a grassroots approach, one that focuses on making a larger proportion of our population familiar with these concepts.
A study on gender equality and development was conducted by the World Bank over four decades and in 70 countries. It found that grassroots approaches, lead by both men and women, were more effective in helping survivors of sexual misconduct and other marginalized groups access justice than the impact of the number of female politicians. It concluded that locals in their own cities or villages were best able to detail and explain the dynamics of gender discrimination present in that region. Through collective action and community-based education, they were able to empower survivors, mitigate stigmatization, and subsequently shift public opinion and policy.
Pakistan’s #MeToo moment may not have led to greater action against perpetrators in the short term. But it has provided a platform for supporters to discuss more openly the issues specific to their own community, drawing from general awareness or personal experience. It has, thus, proven instrumental in promoting a fuller understanding of its incidence. This, in turn, has gradually brought more skeptics and neutrals to the table, and eventually, will make perpetrators answerable.