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Is Ali Zafar sexual harassment case Pakistan's #MeToo moment?

Mehr Tarar
Mehr TararApr 22, 2018 | 12:42

Is Ali Zafar sexual harassment case Pakistan's #MeToo moment?

The Meesha Shafi-Ali Zafar case has made Twitter and media headlines in Pakistan.

Nothing will change until the fundamentals change. This is my firm belief regarding all kinds of undesirable behaviour, mindsets, actions in our society, and in any society that is governed by regressive ideas of right and wrong. Outrage about an act of injustice makes an issue noticeable. Social and online activism makes it gain more momentum, bringing it to mainstream consciousness. Laws are created to elicit deterrence and fear of punishment. All of these, while praiseworthy and essential, go only so far. The real change will come from within. It starts and ends with the individual, and collectively, it changes the fundamental sensibilities of a society.

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The Meesha Shafi-Ali Zafar case has made Twitter and media headlines in Pakistan after Meesha’s #MeToo statement accusing Ali of sexual molestation. Ali, as expected, denied the accusation, adding he would be filing a case against Meesha. Two camps have emerged: pro-Meesha and pro-Ali.

More women have come forward accusing Ali of sexual impropriety. More women – including the young sensation, the very popular singer, Momina Mustehsan – have come forward with their own stories of sexual harassment. And between the two camps, ugliness abounds. Lynch mobs are out, verdicts are being given, reputations are being shredded, rewritten.

Meesha Shafi, a female artist in a patriarchal and misogynistic Pakistan, is a rare exception to the rule: women must remain silent when harassed, molested, or even raped. Women must not harm their honour talking about the indignity they suffer. Women must not inflict pain on their families coming forward about the pain their mind and body endured because of an act of harassment, of sexual abuse. Women must keep their ordeal hidden because what happened to them is not an ordeal to begin with. That is the worst one.

Undeniably, there have been cases where women have levelled false accusations of sexual abuse on men after a bitter divorce, a bad break-up, or an acrimonious parting of ways professionally. Those cases are rare in a male-dominated society where even victims of rape are at times shamed into silence. When you accuse a man of anything sexual, it is you, the woman, whose reputation becomes a target.

While remaining a practitioner of not bringing personal fights on Twitter, I empathise and I comprehend the need to break the silence on a personal issue on a public platform. It is not to shred a reputation to bits, it is not to settle a score, it is not to bring a man down. It is about breaking the unbreakable rule: of silence.

It is about saying no to the idea of keeping an issue private in a world that has come together because of the power of Me Too and Time’s Up movements. It is about the power of collective reaction to demolition of age-old mores of shame and silence. It is about turning the kuch nahin hua into bahut hogaya. It is about diminishing the potency of “men will be men”, making revelation of every act of harassment and molestation count as one step forward into making the world a safe place for women.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: speak up. In person. If something happens/ed to you, talk about it to a family member, a loved one, a close friend, an understanding aunt, a sweet older cousin. And if you happen to be one of those millions who feel unable, for myriad reasons, to confide in people close to them, write and speak up about it on a public forum. There is no shame in talking about your pain. Your pain is not just your pain. And that is something you must, as a victim, as a survivor, never forget. You are not alone. And once you have dealt with the ghosts that haunt your sanity and wellbeing, you will have agency, you will be in charge of your life. No one will tell you how to feel, and how not to react.

The power of NO. And that power is not gauged by who you are, where you are, what your profession is, what your dress code is, whether you are a virgin bride or a serial relationship-changer, monogamous or a flirt, in hijab or in a bikini, a one-man woman or a sex worker, in a causal fling or in a 15-year-old marriage, have sex with one man or have had many sex partners, whether you initiated or simply encouraged or fully participated in a physical act, whether you are shy or promiscuous, you ALWAYS have a right to say no. And you have every right to expect that NO to be heard. Your life, your choice, your yes, your NO. 

And I repeat one more time: nothing will change until male attitudes change. Until you teach your male children how to behave. Until you inculcate the idea of human dignity, of that of respect for all human beings in your children, nothing will change.  Teach your boys to be good, kind, decent children, and you will be opening a path for inculcation of values and principles that help in the formation of a solid personality that neither harms nor endorses a societal system that harms women.

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Nothing will change until men stop being “men.” And that will not happen only because of activism of women, of feminists, of victims and survivors. That will happen when men start to notice what other men do. When men start to stop men. When men tell men: enough. When men tell men: no more. When men tell men: time’s up. The code of brotherhood that supports and encourages undesirable behaviour towards women must be broken.

It must all end: belittling an ex-girlfriend, showing her intimate pictures and videos to friends, mocking her in any way, not standing up for her when someone disrespects her, not speaking up when any woman is mentioned in a derogatory manner, back-slapping and yaar-tu-asli-mard-hai when your friend physically crosses a line with a woman, turning a blind eye to outright abuse – verbal, physical or sexual – of women, and shrugging inappropriate behaviour as a no big deal. Stop. You are the system. And you are the one who can change the system. 

There are many women who endorse and support this behaviour, consciously, subliminally: in solidarity, in friendship, in an attempt to denigrate the former girlfriend/spouse of the man they are with, or even in an effort to keep a relationship going. Stop. Right now. Stop promoting misogyny and abuse that you may become a victim of any day. Stop being complicit in this never-ending cycle of men will be men.

Women are resilient, women are incredibly brave and women can win battles men have perpetuated for a long time. Women must be united to change the world. Shoulder to shoulder with men who know enough is enough, women have the power to form new narratives not just for themselves but for the entire humanity. Changing the world is an arduous, long, soul-numbing and a physically challenging process, and it is constant, consistent and never-ending. Start with yourself. Start at home. Look within. Learn. And then teach. Practise what you teach. Be the change. Be a woman. Proudly

Last updated: June 24, 2018 | 14:01
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