A month ago, the Pakistani singer and actress Meesha Shafi took to Twitter to reveal her experience of sexual harassment at the hands of fellow actor and singer Ali Zafar. In doing so, Shafi became the pioneer of #MeToo in Pakistan, a movement on which the subcontinent had maintained an uncomfortable silence. Immediately social media was set ablaze. Zafar’s supporters asked crucial and ever so relevant questions such as: ‘why didn’t you speak up earlier?’ and ‘are you sure he wasn’t being friendly?’ Many men resorted to the lowest of patriarchal insults and threatened Shafi with violence.
This phenomenon is not uncommon in Pakistan. We’ve witnessed it time and time again. Every time a woman rises and demands that her cause be heard, men will viciously taint her name and attempt to erase her voice from the conversation. We saw it when Malala campaigned for girls’ education. When Asma Jahangir defended girls who had fallen victim to deeply misogynistic societal power structures. When Ayesha Gulalai Wazir critiqued the sexist tendencies of her political party and revealed inappropriate text messages sent by Imran Khan. When Qandeel Baloch demanded the nation see her as a sexually empowered woman.
In case after case we have seen the patriarchy extend its hateful tentacles when trying to pull women back down into the abyss.
Despite the perception, maintaining Pakistan’s patriarchy is an intricate and delicate balancing act. One strong woman may inspire another. And what if the person she inspires is your sister? That would challenge your personal power and bring shame to the family. In Pakistan, the male identity operates in direct accordance with women’s submission. During partition, women were killed by their male family members so that they wouldn’t be raped by the enemy and the ‘family’ (read ‘male’) honour would remain intact.
Women have historically been the vessels of power used by men as an expendable form of currency to exercise their dominance. So the collective power of men rests on keeping women submissive and weak.
However we are witnessing ripples of change. While social media serves as a megaphone to the voice of the patriarchy, it has also provided a mouthpiece for women to show their solidarity. The number of sexual harassment allegations against Ali Zafar has risen due to victims following Shafi’s lead on social media. When Asma Jahangir passed away, many women shared their grief on social media and showed up in their hundreds at her funeral. Despite Qandeel Baloch’s tragic murder, she inspired women to acknowledge and embrace their own sexual power. And so, with each woman who speaks up, the discourse is altered forever.