Bringing justice to victims of harassment in Pakistan seems further than ever. What's holding up accountability?
It’s been a year since #MeToo. The fact that it progressed beyond accusations and has resulted in arrests, resignations and serious questions over unacceptable behaviour, both past and present, speaks of the volume of change #MeToo has brought and the potential it has for more.
Change in Pakistan, however, is still evolving.
Here, #MeToo seemed to be an answer for women suffering in a taboo-stricken and tradition-bound society. The movement began when famous actress Meesha Shafi accused her fellow colleague Ali Zafar of sexual harassment on multiple occasions. Both had their own supporters who stood by them.
What was missing however was a thorough analysis of unchecked behaviour, often protected under the guise of performance requirements, and the need for measures to ensure the entertainment industry is safer for women.
As a result, there are ongoing proceedings in court with Zafar and Shafi still performing, with no clear outcome visible.
In 2018, after a two-year investigation, Professor Sahar Ansari, a famed literary figure in Pakistan, was found guilty of harassing his female colleagues at a top university.
But far from being shunned by society, Ansari continues to garner accolades and reverence, even attending events at the university from which he was barred following harassment allegations.
Female journalist Urooj Zia, in a series of tweets, accused Faisal Edhi, son and heir to Pakistan’s largest philanthropist, of harassment during her interactions with him regarding a welfare project.
The allegations, hardly seconded, received deafening silence and no investigation. Comedian Junaid Akram, who unlike Edhi, faces multiple anonymous accusations, continues to provide comic relief to his undeterred audience.
In local newspaper The Dawn, Xari Jalil, reported on Tanzeela Mazhar, an anchorwoman for state-owned Pakistan Television, writing: “[She] stayed on in PTV for about a decade trying to fight against the sexual harassment she had faced but eventually resigned in 2017. The man [against whom Mazhar had filed a harassment complaint] was still there though, with all his power.”
Jalil cited various incidents in which female journalists –in both print and electronic media– have faced harassment from male colleagues, both young and old, in the form of verbal comments, suggestive messages or even threats.
Speaking out poses a major challenge, simply due to lack of evidence. In many cases, instead of the work organisation involved beginning an investigation, many question the authenticity of an allegation.
Women, especially those belonging to the lower middle class, who work to support their families or their own education expenses, prefer to stay quiet for as long as they can bear it, in order to keep their jobs.
Whether it’s #MeToo or the law -the 'Protection Against Harassment of Women in the Workplace Act' was the first of its kind in South Asia- female employees do not feel confident that their pleas or complaints will be taken seriously and try to maintain their dignity by avoiding troublesome situations or people.
Women who share stories of harassment that happened years ago, are not only snubbed with the question ‘why now?’, but trolled, slut-shamed and accused of attempting to make personal gains, to name a few.
The women still find it difficult to explain that these cases are genuine, and again, stay quiet fearing backlash, loss of their jobs, family upheaval or even social boycott.
The dismal response in Pakistan to even high profile allegations points to an entrenched misogyny as well as the fear of isolation among women, even when they are wronged.
As evident in the cases of Ali Zafar, Professor Ansari, Faisal Edhi and Junaid Akram, in countries like Pakistan, the accused roam free with bared chests and heads held high with impunity due in their knowledge that no serious probe will look into their behaviour.
A lack of camaraderie among women in Pakistan has also put men at an advantage. Women generally either fear lending support to others or deem it wise to stay quiet in order to keep their own jobs or relations intact. Those who suffer believe that it is something shameful and should be hidden from society.
However, a growing number of working women are seeing harassment as a punishable crime, thanks to the awareness brought about by #MeToo. Courage-building may be slow, but it’s evolving and gaining momentum. Women are lending each other support, and newly-established large-scale organisations are trying to take up sexual harassment cases in accordance with the relevant laws.
It is when allegations are not taken seriously, such as the case of Edhi, or when professional excellence is given priority, in the case of Ansari, that the movement suffers a blow.
Moreover, in small-scale companies, where there may be no checks and balances by any authority, men have historically been able to take advantage of the subordination of women, lurking behind ever-newer victims, confident they will never be threatened.
Society in Pakistan, although very receptive to technological and occupational advancements, is still bound by tradition and taboos.
Any change which attempts to shake up the patriarchal structure is almost immediately shunned as a Western or even un-Islamic agenda.
Change however, eventually does come, particularly when it is a matter of prestige and honour.
In today’s awakening of Pakistani women, a change, even if it is late, is bound to come.
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