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Making #MeToo Work in Pakistan

The movement has struggled to make an impact in a deeply patriarchal country. But a new generation of feminists is also shaking up the status quo.

Aamir Qureshi/Getty Images

In Pakistan, it is all too easy to become discouraged at a seeming lack of progress when it comes to women’s rights. As in America, the rot starts at the top. Shortly before assuming office in 2018, Prime Minister Imran Khan told an interviewer, “I completely disagree with this Western concept, this feminist movement ... it has degraded the role of the mother.” Though Khan was widely criticized for his statement, he isn’t alone in believing that feminism is a foreign import, incompatible with Pakistan’s so-called Muslim values.

This position is convenient for Khan, who has been accused of sexual harassment himself. In August 2017, Ayesha Gulalai, who then represented Khan’s party in parliament, alleged that he had sent her inappropriate text messages even after she explicitly asked him not to. While the country’s then-prime minster supported the creation of a special parliamentary committee to investigate Gulalia’s claims, she was widely condemned by her own party and in traditional and social media as a political opportunist. Female members of her party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), even held a press conference to dismiss Gulalia’s allegation and list her possible political motives.

Patriarchy is deeply embedded in the cultural, religious, and political fabric of Pakistan, providing a prohibitive backdrop for the #MeToo movement, which landed in the country with mixed results. The case of #MeToo in Pakistan reveals the ways feminism can be compromised by class, status, and self-interest. But it also offers glimmers of hope that the fight for equal rights can gain purchase even in countries where the legal system, the political class, and the predominant culture are stacked overwhelmingly against reform.

Last January, a video of a Pashtun woman alleging harassment by the Pakistani army went viral on Twitter. The grainy video, shot in North Waziristan, a tribal region close to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, features the woman telling a group of men that the army had arrested her husband and was now threatening her. She claims that when the soldiers came to her home in the town of Khaisore, they told her, “Prepare the bed and put a pillow on it. If Sharyat [her husband] can’t come to spend the night then we will.”

Though she used social media to make a public accusation against a harasser, the vast majority of Pakistani feminists did not see this as a #MeToo moment and remained silent. It was apparently too risky to support a woman from a politically suppressed group who was taking on one of the state’s most powerful entities.

The Khaisore incident, on the surface, is an exemplary case of why #MeToo has been seen as a “failed movement” in Pakistan that has barely registered a “murmur.” Women at the forefront of the movement simply failed to speak up, and their silence was especially harmful for women from working-class, minority, and rural backgrounds. As Tooba Syed, a leftist feminist and political worker, noted in a Facebook post, “The incident of #Khaisore is an issue of feminism and it should be taken up as such. If #MeToo is about all women then the woman of Khaisore who spoke up should be the face of the movement in the country.” 

In Pakistan, the poster-women of #MeToo are wealthier, urban, and often secular. (In this respect, #MeToo in Pakistan is not so different from #MeToo in the West, where white celebrities are more likely to be identified as victims of sexual harassment than working-class minorities.) Girls at Dhabas was one of the few groups to come out in support of the woman in Khaisore. The group took off as a social media phenomenon when founder Sadia Khatri, a Karachi native, started posting photos of herself and her friends at dhabas, roadside cafes often frequented by men. With the hashtag #girlsatdhabas, the photos were meant to call attention to the challenges women face in accessing public spaces in Pakistan. The viral campaign led to organized gatherings and events offline, from cricket playing in the streets to bike rallies in Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad.

But as a predominately urban and middle-class group of women, Girls at Dhabas’ reach is limited by class, gender, education, and geography. In a country where only 37 percent of the population knows or has heard of the internet, #MeToo’s reach is inherently restricted. Use and awareness of the internet is lowest among rural, less educated, and lower-income Pakistanis. Furthermore, according to a study by LIRNEasia, there is a 43-percentage point gap between women and men’s use of the internet in Pakistan, and a 50-point gap between their uses of social media.

These disparities are particularly dispiriting when you consider that a full 93 percent of Pakistani women have reported experiencing some sort of sexual violence. The discussion online cannot possibly meet the scale of the problem. In conversations about workplace harassment, for example, little to no attention is given to the experiences of the most vulnerable women, including the over 125,000 lady health workers who go into Pakistan’s poorest neighborhoods providing vaccinations and family planning services; Christian sanitation workers whose plight is complicated by religious discrimination; peasant women in Punjab facing off with the army over land rights; and other women working in informal sectors of the economy, such as domestic workers, who are not covered by the country’s only law protecting women from workplace harassment, the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act of 2010.

“When we talk about #MeToo in Pakistan,” said Mariam Durrani, a Pakistani-American anthropologist and feminist scholar at Hamilton College in New York, “we are still really exclusive in terms of the voices that are being included, there’s a huge majority of Pakistanis who are not included.” 

The way this class-based feminism plays out has at times been discouraging. For example, it was the personal testimonies of women like Frieha Altaf, a socialite and CEO of a public relations company, that propelled #MeToo from the margins of the Pakistani digital sphere to its mainstream. Following the rape and murder of a seven-year-old girl named Zainab Ansari in January 2018, Altaf tweeted that she was sexually abused by her family’s cook when she was six years old. Later, Atlaf launched her own spin-off of #MeToo, called #MainBhi (the Urdu translation of #MeToo), at that year’s Lux Style Awards, Pakistan’s largest entertainment and fashion awards ceremony. However, #MainBhi merely called on people to speak out about social injustice in general—the #MeToo message diluted, perhaps, by the effort’s corporate origins.

Another telling example involves pop star Ali Zafar, who has maintained his professional and celebrity standing despite being accused of harassment by prominent musician Meesha Shafi and many other women. Zafar’s film Teefa in Trouble, released just months after the allegations came out in April 2018, was a box office hit. Zafar’s co-star in Teefa in Trouble, a young actress who often talks about the need for more diverse and substantial roles for women in television, even defended Zafar, citing his family values as proof of his innocence. While young feminists in Lahore and Karachi protested outside of film theaters, elite feminists were largely silent. “When faced with an actual #MainBhi moment, the vast majority of Pakistan’s feminists, the most notable of whom tend to be among the country’s elites, are choosing inaction, ambivalence, or silence,” said the writer Rafia Zakaria.

That ambivalence is felt in politics, too. Shireen Mazari, Pakistan’s minister for human rights, dismissed Gulalia’s allegations against Imran Khan in 2017, even though her own daughter left Khan’s party in 2012 due to the harassment she experienced there. Mazari resigned from the party that year in protest. Mazari ended up rejoining PTI, and in 2016 she was subject to the kind of gendered harassment and abuse that is all too common for female politicians in Pakistan. During a raucous parliament session, a federal minister called Mazari a “tractor trolley,” ridiculing her voice and appearance.

That Mazari dismissed Gulalia’s claims despite her own personal experiences with harassment is as instructive as it is disheartening. “One of the defining characteristics of elite circles in Pakistan is that whenever an allegation of any sort, not even just sexual harassment, comes up against one of their own, they will definitely rally to his or her support, no matter how progressive they proclaim to be,” said Hafsa Khawaja, a writer and recent graduate of the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). “I think that has been a major issue when it comes to #MeToo in Pakistan.”

Still, despite #MeToo’s limits, the emergence of new online feminist movements has coincided with and encouraged a shake-up of how people advocate for women’s rights in Pakistan. “#MeToo merely served as a catalyst for what was already brewing here,” said Alia Amirali, a leftist-feminist political worker and member of the Women’s Democratic Front.

Although the movement for women’s rights and equality in Pakistan began in the early days of the country’s creation in 1947, it has recently been dominated by an NGO-funded model of women’s empowerment that became popular in the country in the 1990s. This model has contributed to ideological differences in Pakistani feminist thought, specifically between the two dominant forms, secular and Islamic. Scholars argue that secular feminists’ “lack of clarity” on the question of religion has allowed Islamic feminists and others to perpetuate the idea that secular feminists are importing Western ideas that conflict with Pakistan’s Islamic and cultural values. And because many secular feminists come from elite and middle-class backgrounds, feminism is thus also seen as a project of the urban, liberal elites.

Men in power often perpetuate and exploit such ideas to belittle feminist organizing and activism. After this year’s International Women’s Day on March 8, when thousands of women marched in rallies across Pakistan, popular television host and politician Aamir Liaquat Husain urged Imran Khan to open an investigation into the marches. “Where did they get the money from. ... Who was behind it?” asked Husain in a video posted on Twitter. Other men were offended by the posters at the march, including one that read, “Keep your dick pics to yourself.”

The split among feminist activists is unfortunate, given that Pakistani women of all backgrounds are sympathetic to feminist ideas. Fauzia Husain, a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Virginia, saw this in her fieldwork with lady health workers, many of whom come from working-class backgrounds. Husain told me that these women used “the most feminist language” of those she surveyed, despite having little to no familiarity with feminist discourse. To the question of “Why women are treated like animals,” one of the workers responded, “We’re treated like this because of the men.” 

The feminist landscape in Pakistan has grown and changed in the past decade. Social media has empowered new feminist voices, organizations, and modes of organizing, while independent feminist organizations have emerged to challenge the dominance of NGO-funded groups. The Women’s Democratic Front (WDF) was created in 2018 by feminists from the political left, and includes members of the Awami Worker’s Party, which is based in Lahore. WDF has been using social media to promote its work in working-class and rural communities. In doing so, the organization has magnified the voices of women who have traditionally been neglected by feminist groups. 

Meanwhile, a growing Pakistani feminist presence on social media, particularly Twitter, has facilitated dialogue between feminists from different professional and ideological backgrounds. “The Essential Pakistani Women on Twitter” list features a diverse set of Pakistani women, many of whom self-identity as feminists, including journalists, academics, activists, and engineers. These women, in turn, are actively contributing to global conversations about feminism, which are then translated back to address Pakistani concerns.

There are plenty of disagreements among the new feminist groups. #MeToo’s focus on sexual harassment, for example, is a point of contention for WDF, which is more concerned with the systemic way in which patriarchy oppresses women in Pakistan. Some feminists are also wary of #MeToo’s name-and-shame approach toward individual bad actors, which likewise may come at the expense of a grassroots, structural approach.

But those differences have not hampered dialogue and collaboration between the groups. Last summer, members of Girls at Dhabas and Women’s Action Forum, one of the oldest independent Pakistani feminist groups, helped create a first-of-its-kind sexual harassment policy for educational institutions in Pakistan. The policy came in response to an ongoing sexual harassment problem at Cedar College, a private high school in Karachi. Because Pakistan has no laws on sexual harassment of students in educational institutions, schools often do not have means to protect students or address issues when they arise. The new policy provides an ample definition of sexual harassment and lays out policies and procedures that schools can use to investigate allegations. Cedar College signed on to the policy and is implementing it. The policy is now being circulated to other schools and universities across the country.

One of the co-writers of the policy was Hiba Thobani, a lawyer who worked on a sexual harassment case that provided a lot of momentum for #MeToo. Thobani spent three years helping a Karachi University assistant professor fight a sexual harassment case against a senior visiting faculty member, who also happens to be a prominent literary figure in the country. Through working on the case, Thobani saw how the processes laid out by the 2010 workplace harassment law were complicated by institutional inefficiencies and disregard for the pain and difficulties that the victims have to endure. The assistant professor’s claims were investigated at least three times, there were instances of evidence tampering, and at one point, the ombudsperson overseeing the case was replaced on corruption charges. By the time that the final verdict came in favor of the victim in early 2018, Thobani had lost confidence in the process. “I don’t think any of us saw it coming,” she said. “We thought we would have to appeal to the high court, but we didn’t need to because we got the verdict in our favor.”

The case not only made the assistant professor an “icon” of #MeToo, but also sparked a larger examination of existing laws and policies on sexual harassment. Lawyers wrote op-eds in leading newspapers about the shortcomings of existing sexual harassment laws. The country’s Supreme Court recently asked federal and provincial governments to simplify and strengthen existing laws and procedures concerning sexual harassment, specifically the 2010 workplace harassment law. This came as the result of efforts by the AGHS Legal Aid Cell, co-founded by the late-human rights lawyer and women’s rights champion Asma Jahangir.

Other feminists are spearheading efforts to make legal services more accessible to sexual harassment victims. The Digital Rights Foundation, run by a leading feminist voice Nighat Dad, recently launched a legal support platform for victims of sexual harassment. The platform, which enables victims to connect with pro-bono lawyers and counselors, was created in response to the legal retaliation that met complaints of harassment from working women and students.

While efforts to reform existing sexual harassment laws have long been in the making, #MeToo has accelerated them. It has not only made feminists more aware of the legal challenges sexual harassment victims face, but also given them an opportunity to affect how those challenges are addressed. In this sense, #MeToo has at least given the problem a new shape. Fiza Khatri, who spearheaded Girls at Dhabas’ work with Cedar College, admits that there is still so much more that #MeToo has to accomplish in Pakistan. “We haven’t experienced #MeToo in full throttle. We’ve experienced it in a burst. We know what works and what doesn’t. We know what the challenges are.” 

Imran Khan’s public rebuke of feminism has made the work of these feminists all the more urgent. “It’s a really exciting time for sure,” said Sadia Khatri of Girls at Dhabas. “The contradictions are real, but they are not to be feared I think. They’re just part and parcel of living here, a country where patriarchy runs so, so deep.”