The #MeToo movement and feminism on social media have been building momentum across Pakistan. The public response to this, however, highlights that its impacts can be both negative and positive, Tahmina Rashid writes.
#MeToo has certainly impacted the public debate around gender issues in Pakistan, especially gender roles, domestic violence, sexual harassment, and discrimination against women, but it has not been without shortcomings and failures.
Although a number of women have come forward, shared their harassment experiences, and publicly outed men for their behaviour towards colleagues, the response to these accusations has been mixed.
Pakistani musician Ali Zafar for instance, when accused of sexual harassment by fellow singer Meesha Shafi, filed a case for defamation and damage to his reputation. Public support for both singers in the fallout of the case raises significant questions about a lack of public understanding of sexual harassment and institutional responses to these complaints.
Zafar found significant support, and he’s not the only one. Mohsin Abbas Haider, whose wife accused him of domestic violence and filed for divorce, also found public acceptance in the wake of allegations. This shows that often, alleged perpetrators – especially high-profile ones – are not facing long-term social consequences.
Along with the public, it can be difficult to get a fair response from institutions in Pakistan. Those implementing a response are often themselves subject to wider cultural issues such as the notion of female honour. On top of this, unfair weight is often given to the testimonies of the accused when compared with the accuser.
It’s important to note that institutional failures hurt both men and women. A recent case highlights failures in the implementation of the law, with a seemingly very basic administrative failure resulting in tragic consequences.
A college professor who was investigated for allegedly harassing a female student was never issued a formal letter of the outcome by the inquiry committee. Instead, he was verbally told that he has not been found guilty, and despite repeated requests for the letter, it was never issued, making it impossible for him to clear his name.
He later committed suicide, as it impacted his marriage, family relations, and mental health. This suggests that workplace harassment policies have also failed to protect the rights of accused men and these laws are at risk of being applied to settle workplace jealousies.
Of course, women, too, have faced new issues in the wake of the #MeToo movement. In 2019, the International Women’s Day March saw large numbers of predominantly younger women participate in protests in cities across Pakistan, showing their desire for progress on the issue.
However, these women were heavily criticised for displaying ‘obscene’ posters and messages, with critics claiming that their message reflected the influence of Western feminists. Even fellow feminists and social activists called the posters disrespectful to tradition and values.
Many participants were trolled on social media and received death threats, and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assembly even passed a resolution condemning the women’s march for being ‘anti-Islam’ and contrary to the ideology of Pakistan.
There has been a shift in social activism in Pakistan as the younger generation have actively tried to create a space for dialogue, but there is strong resistance, even from some feminists.
One issue heavily criticised, primarily by men, is the activists’ use of the term ‘my body my choice’.
In Pakistan, this is heavily misunderstood, deliberately or otherwise, and opponents equate it with women demanding the right to have as many sexual partners as they want. For feminists, however, it simply means the right to be free from physical intimidation and the guarantee of important reproductive rights.
The opposition to the women’s march shows that there are problems in Pakistan of toxic masculinity, internalised misogyny, and male anxiety that are arising out of this change in public debate.
Despite the many shortcomings of public debate on sexual harassment and feminism and this mixed response to the #MeToo movement, it’s clear it has opened space for some positive discussion.
This flows to both men and women. For instance, #MeToo has opened the door to publicly acknowledging the issue of male rape in Pakistan, a taboo despite the alarming rate of crimes against young boys across the country.
Despite that positive change, double standards remain in Pakistan’s response to the #MeToo movement, and women continue to be judged harshly while in similar cases men are not even reprimanded, along with being subject to bitter public debate about their rights.
Technological change has provided space, at least for the urban middle class, for the people of Pakistan to use social media to have their voices heard, and #MeToo is an example of this.
However, that change is a double-edged sword and has already resulted in the unending trolling and harassment of women, demonstrated by the Women’s March and recent cases of revenge pornography.
#MeToo has opened a space for a frank discussion on taboo topics and had a positive impact, but it has also caused pushback. There is a risk it may even exacerbate existing patriarchal problems by fuelling a negative and toxic national discussion about feminism.
It is too soon to know for sure the true impact of #MeToo on Pakistan, but one thing is certain: social activism on the Internet is poised to have a major impact on the future of women in the country.