Can #MeToo Succeed in a Conservative Pakistan?

09 May, 2018

The Pakistani television and film industry was shocked last month by accusations of sex abuse from a famous singer. Meesha Shafi used the Twitter #metoo to accuse a male co-worker of harassment.

"Sharing this because I believe that by speaking out about my own experience of sexual harassment, I will break the culture of silence," she wrote. She added that such silence is found throughout Pakistani society.

Shafi was not the first woman in Pakistan to use the hashtag or share her story. The #MeToo movement that started in the United States had touched Pakistan already. However, most Pakistani women who have shared their experiences have hidden their identities.

Shafi's act led to public dispute. Criticism of the singer became so severe that she suspended her Facebook and Instagram accounts.

Shafi told the English language newspaper Dawn, "The abuse(and) threats...that I have faced is the reason I felt the strong need to protect not just myself but my family." She said she was worried for her two young children.

Frieha Altaf is a Pakistani businesswoman, social activist and media star. She says she remembers facing a lot of sexual harassment when she was young, such as men touching her and believing it was normal.

Women who protest sexual harassment in the office often are accused of dishonesty.

"I don't think harassment is an issue anywhere. Women are lying when they say they are getting harassed," said Tufail Akhtar, a long-time film industry reporter. He also said that working women often use sex as a tool to move ahead in the business. He said Shafi must be speaking out because of a business dispute or professional jealousy.

FILE - Musician Meesha Shafi performs at a tribute concert to slain journalist Daniel Pearl in Islamabad, Pakistan, Oct. 9, 2010.
FILE - Musician Meesha Shafi performs at a tribute concert to slain journalist Daniel Pearl in Islamabad, Pakistan, Oct. 9, 2010.

Others share Akhtar's opinion. Many social media users have accused Shafi online of trying to get publicity. They have questioned the timing of her accusations.

"...Publicity, nothing more than that," tweeted Invincible Aamir with the handle @m_mflyinghorse.

Pakistani rights activists say such accusations, as well as a fear of losing their jobs, keep most women from telling their stories.

That's the biggest fear," said Kashmala Tariq. She is the newly appointed Federal Ombudsperson for Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplaces.

Reporter Tanzeela Mazhar experienced such a reaction when she accused her supervisor of harassment. She was working for Pakistan's public television station PTV at the time.

She and another female employee resigned after Mazhar protested about her treatment. Mazhar says her former supervisor was dismissed but that she has not found a new job.

She says she has been suffering financially and emotionally from the harassment for years.

She suspects people see her as a trouble maker.

"They know I will raise hell any time I see sexual harassment not just with me but with others around me," she said.

Meanwhile, her former supervisor is working on two legal actions against her. One includes a criminal charge.

"I am out on bail," she said.

Tariq says the law does not protect the women who raise their voices.

"We have proposed amendments and sent them to the law ministry," she said, adding that a member of the senate stopped the amendments. She also said men and transgenders can also be victims.

Tariq said there is another side. She said she had seen cases in which women tried to misuse the harassment law.

Ayesha Tanzeem reported this story for VOA. Susan Shand adapted this story for Learning English. Catherine Weaver was the editor.

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Words in This Story

harassmentn. to annoy or bother (someone) in a constant or repeated way

backlashn. a strong public reaction against something

jealousyn. an unhappy or angry feeling of wanting to have what someone else has

transgender - n. a person who feels that their true nature does not match their sex at birth

bail - n. an amount of money given to a court to allow a prisoner to leave jail and return later for a trial