Protesters chant slogans condemning the rape and murder of six-year-old girl Zainab Ansari in Kasur during a march in Karachi on January 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Akhtar Soomro
Protesters chant slogans condemning the rape and murder of six-year-old girl Zainab Ansari in Kasur during a march in Karachi on January 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Akhtar Soomro

Claims of sexual harassment have been making headlines in Pakistan after a well-known singer and actor went public with accusations about a popular male celebrity.

On April 19, Pakistani singer and actor Meesha Shafi accused fellow celebrity Ali Zafar of sexually harassing her.

“I will break the culture of silence that permeates through our society,” Shafi wrote in her tweet, using the #MeToo hashtag, which in October 2017 went viral on social media around the globe and highlighted the prevalence of sexual harassment, following revelations of misconduct by Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein.

Zafar has since ‘categorically denied’ Shafi’s allegations and has sent her a legal notice for defamation. However, Shafi’s claims prompted other women to come forward with similar accusations of harassment against him, while Zafar’s female band members have come out in his support.

While the matter has been taken to court, prominent feminists say the first high-profile case of a prominent entertainment figure being accused of sexual harassment marks the start of Pakistan’s #MeToo movement.

“This is the ‘real’ start of the #MeToo movement in Pakistan,” Hamna Zubair, the culture editor of Pakistan’s leading English daily Dawn, told Asia Times. “Before this, attempts were made to capitalize on the movement, but no one was really calling out high profile figures by name.

“The entertainment industry is so small and co-dependent that, for an artist, speaking out against a peer can mean burning bridges with half the people who you depend on for work, so it can be a very risky and costly decision. It shouldn’t be so hard,” she added.

Feminist writer and entertainment blogger Mahwash Ajaz agreed that Shafi’s allegations signify Pakistan’s #MeToo moment. “She named this term specifically in her post, [and said] that it was her conscience that forced her to speak up. This is definitely the start of a formal #MeToo movement [as] a lot of other women have come forward as well,” she told Asia Times.

“One hopes that it would encourage other women to speak against the distasteful practices in the entertainment industry that have been allowed to happen for far too long”

“I think it’s fantastic #MeToo is catching up here too. Not just women sharing experiences, but naming people,” said Aisha Sarwari, the author of Navigating Pakistani Feminism: Fight by Fight. “These are usually powerful men. They would otherwise not be able to get justice from misogynist judiciary.

“I say this with confidence because if they are slut-shamed to this extent now, imagine a trial where she isn’t in control of the narrative? This is women’s way to show solidarity and to caution other women about certain men’s predatory behavior.”

Speaking to Asia Times, actor Ushna Shah lent her support to the #MeToo movement as well, but warned against the hashtag being misused. “I am a huge supporter of the #MeToo movement and believe that it gives a much-needed voice to women who have been harassed,” she said.

“At its best, the movement affords abused women a voice, courage, respect and strength and gives them an avenue to confront and punish people who have wronged them. At its worst, it is a tool that is used by disgruntled people to settle personal scores, gain publicity, malign innocent people and secure importance. I hope that it is always used for the former and never for the latter.”

Shafi’s assertions, and the debate they instigated, come little over a month after a placard reading Khaana Khud Garam Kar Lo [Heat up your own food] was held up at a women’s march as a call to address gender roles. The placard quickly started to trend on social media.

Khaana Khud Garam Kar Lo started off as a tongue-in-cheek slogan, but the kind of life it has taken now – with the memes and the parodies that have followed – it shows that people are ready to debate,” said Mahwash Ajaz. “This is a subject we need to talk about that why don’t men help around [the house] in Pakistan? Is it because we rely on domestic help, is it because we have severe gender roles? Whatever it is needs to be on the table.”

However,Salima Hashmi, a veteran feminist and the vice-chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said Pakistan has bigger women’s rights issues that it needs to be focusing on. “I’d rather talk about the fact that legislating against child marriage in Pakistan is still generating the animosity of religious parties and Council of Islamic ideology, or the fact that honor killings continue unabated, or the fact that a couple of months ahead of elections there are still 12 million unregistered female voters,” she told Asia Times.

A Human Rights Commission of Pakistan report released earlier this month underscored that Pakistan ranks second from bottom in the Gender Gap Index, with 63% of girls from the most disadvantaged economic backgrounds married off before age 18 and 48.1% of girls having no say in decisions relating to their own healthcare.

“This is not to say that discussion on gender roles isn’t important, but that the attention certain issues are getting is hogging a disproportionate limelight. I’d rather talk about the acid victims in Pakistan, this month alone,” Hashmi added.

Aisha Sarwari, however, maintains that the campaign urging men to pick up after themselves and warm their own food is more than just jest. “It is about women saying enough with the disadvantaged politics of housework. Women are not donkeys. They also get tired. They need the very things men do therefore they should have the same privileges,” she said.

“Men of course don’t want to give those up. Hence the debates, hence the takedowns. I don’t know if we can call this a dialogue or a conversation yet. We have a very long way to go.”

Hamna Zubair too warns against overstating the impact of conversations on social media. “It’s true that a feminist perspective is being voiced more than ever on social media. But is it being heard? I don’t think so.”