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On Pakistan’s #MeToo reckoning

The #MeToo movement founded by Tarana Burke first gained momentum early October last year after The New York Times published the accounts of three actresses on the sexual abuse they had endured at the hands of renowned American film producer Harvey Weinstein.

At present, over seventy women have accused Weinstein of sexual misconduct of some form.

Although this movement originated in Hollywood, it wasn’t going to stay put. A ripple in the pond started a hurricane. Allegations started pouring in against other abusers.

Three months later, over a hundred powerful men stood accused of sexual harassment.

The #MeToo movement found it’s way in Pakistan through the entertainment industry too when singer and actress Meesha Shafi accused friend and colleague Ali Zafar of physically harassing her on multiple occasions.

But just like everywhere else in the world, the issue was not going to stay confined to the film and music industry.

Sexual harassment is an issue that affects 93% of women in Pakistan. These 101 million women are now finding their voice.

What is alarming is that a lot of these voices echo from various colleges and universities.

Places where parents send their kids to learn to become better human beings are breeding and protecting monsters. Institutions built with the sole purpose of nurturing the future of this country have become hunting grounds for sexual predators.

The first case this year came to light in early January when Professor Sahar Ansari was accused of sexual harassment by multiple students of Karachi University. He was later found guilty by a committee probing the allegations.

However, action was only taken after the issue went public and was followed by consistent media coverage. Ansari had previously been cleared of the allegations against him by another committee.

A few weeks ago more students from different educational institutions came forward with sexual harassment allegations against many male teachers, assistants and fellow students.

A Facebook page with the name TimesUp that provided anonymity to the victims was also set up.

The stories these women shared were horrifying. The accusations ranged from harassment to major sexual assault and even rape.

What was even more frightening though was the response on some of these posts. Many victims were accused of lying for attention. Others of dressing provocatively and “asking for it”. A few days later, this page was taken down.

We have witnessed the most damaging kind of victim shaming and gaslighting in the last few weeks. It takes immeasurable strength to come forward and share stories like this.

Especially in a misogynistic society like ours where you know you will only be met with judgement, abuse, threats and bullying in it’s ugliest form. People who overcome this fear deserve our unconditional support. But it seems we are taking too long to comprehend that.

I urge everyone still struggling to understand the need for the #metoo movement and the logic behind publicly naming and shaming sexual predators to look into the timeline of the Bill Cosby case.

This man was allowed the roam free, abuse his power and sexually assault innumerable women for over five decades because of the “insufficient evidence” against him.

The sixty-three women that accused him of rape and sexual abuse may have won their case last month but know that every single day leading up to April 26, 2018, they lost- because we live in a society of people that took fifty three years and sixty three accusations to realise that when a woman tells her truth, she deserves to be heard and she deserves to be believed.

It is easy to yell “why don’t take it to the courts?” in the face of every woman that gathers the courage to share her story. But that is not only insensitive to the victims but also a sign of ignorance.

Bill Cosby’s first trail failed to get a conviction. Woody Allen’s case wasn’t prosecuted because of the “fragility of the child victim” despite his behavior being described as “grossly inappropriate” by the judge.

Larry Nassar was cleared of child molestation accusations in 2014 before he was sentenced to 175 years in prison in 2018 on the same account.

The criminal justice system has consistently failed victims of sexual violence world round and that is why the #MeToo movement was started.

And all these examples are from the United States. One can only imagine how difficult it must be for victims to speak out in Pakistan with a judicial system in place that allows convicted child rapists from Kasur to walk the streets free and threaten to harm their victims in front of the judge they have come to seek justice from.

There is a dire need for legislation and reform on sexual harassment and the abuse of power.

But before we can pave way for that, it is important to change the way we address and respond to these issues.

The fact that they are as rampant as statistics suggest should be reason enough to believe that we have failed to protect and empower our women. And the undoing of this process will start from having the conversations we have spent years avoiding.

It will start from listening to, believing and standing by survivors. Not judging them for their clothing, profession and lifestyle choices.

Not calling them liars and attention seekers for speaking their truth. Not asking them to suffer in silence if they can’t prove it happened. Not telling to be ashamed. Not telling them it’s their fault.

To anyone whose been through something like this: You are stronger than you think. Your stories are matter. Your voices are powerful. We believe you. We stand by you. And we are so sorry we live in a society that allows these things to happen.


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