Does Harassment Need a Social Movement?
By Sanveed Adnan Qureshi
CW: sexual harassment; assault
The phrase ‘Me Too’ was coined by activist Tarana Burke in 2006 and was recently popularized by a string of testimonies from Hollywood actresses regarding their experiences of sexual harassment. What subsequently turned into a global #metoo movement has inspired hundreds of women (and men) around the world to talk about their experiences and in many cases, identify their abusers. However, what should have led to a great deal of accountability seems to have failed to produce any significant consequences for the accused in most of the cases. While Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby may have faced grave penalties for their crimes, the continuous support given to abusers like Chris Brown and late Michael Jackson sheds light on how eager we are to dismiss this issue as being trivial.
In Pakistan, the rape and murder of 7 year old Zainab shocked the nation and resulted in widespread ‘me too’ posts on social media platforms. People were collectively outraged and eager to support policy changes to stop such incidents from happening in the future. It took the untimely death of a child to shake us into action. What have we done to protect victims since then?
When actress/singer Meesha Shafi accused her entertainment industry colleague Ali Zafar of sexual harassment, she was met with a disturbing level of victim-shaming. At least 7 other women also came out with similar accounts against Zafar. His career has hardly been impacted by the allegations. Zafar’s movie ‘Teefa in Trouble’ collected 22.31 crore in total globally (as of right now) despite protests against the screening of his movie by feminist groups. Not only this, he also continues to be interviewed by journalists without a single mention of this issue as if it was just a fleeting scandal against him. Actually no. Even a fleeting scandal would probably be mentioned to spice things up but it appears that the possibility of someone being an abuser does not even deserve to be recognized by media.
The popular opinion in Pakistan regarding this issue is that Meesha has used a cheap tactic to defame Ali and his movie, as if falsely accusing someone of harassment is going to do wonders for a woman’s fame in Pakistan. The popular discourse in media seems hell-bent on promoting Zafar and his movie’s success (Shout out to Mehr Bukhari for briefly commenting on the protests against Teefa and supporting Meesha). Above all, the governor of Punjab recently dismissed Meesha’s appeal (under ‘Protection Against harassment Of Women at the Workplace Act 2010’) for not fulfilling conditions of a ‘workplace’ where harassment against Meesha took place. Please do tell us again to take our problems to the courts, not social media.
The big question is, if this case does not fall under the above mentioned act, which act does it fall under according to law? NONE! Which means every type of harassment women face on the streets or in their private spheres can be and most probably will be easily dismissed. While Meesha may decide to appeal to higher court, the trend of dismissing such cases may unfortunately continue and Ali may end up being a socially proclaimed innocent person. A party which openly stood against ‘Women’s Protection Bill’ is now in power and one cannot simply hope against hope that it will address issues like harassment against women.
So what other options does the current social and legal structure leave us with? We can gain inspiration from Marie Laguerre, a woman who was slapped by a harasser publicly in Paris. Despite approval of bill which outlaws gender-based harassment in public in France, she says that law is not enough to address issues like these because for it to be functional, every street needs to have a police officer and those police officers have to have a clear idea what is sexist behavior and these two expectations are pretty non-realistic. Rather, she calls for investment in better education and changing mentalities for which she has also developed a website for women to share their stories. In a similar fashion, a Facebook page called ‘Time’s Up Pakistan’ emerged in 2018 to allow victims a platform to share their experiences.
The current scenario in Pakistan regarding harassment is certainly worse than in France. The legal system does not even recognize harassment on the street as an issue and the female political representation is very minimal and weak. It is such conditions that call for a grassroots movement aimed towards facilitating women to share their experiences of sexual harassment on streets and even in private spheres and to identify the perpetrators. Maybe in this way, enough victims and enough perpetrators can be identified to make people realize the gravity of situation and once it becomes realized as a national issue, we may be able to actively work to address it through education and awareness.
When the system continues to fail us, we don’t have much choice left but to take things into our own hands. Continued complacency won’t change anything, nor will working within a system which is systematically against us and dismissive. Though our history books neglect to tell us about this, a massive militant feminist movement was launched against Zia ul Haq and the introduction of Hudood Ordinances which led to the arrests of many women including the late Asma Jehangir. So it is not like we don’t have a precedent in our rich history of resistance! A social movement is what we need and a social movement is what we shall have if the system continues to deny us justice.