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Politics of Dignity: The Case of Sexual Harassment in Pakistan

by Eyza Irene Hamdani Hussain

The society’s problematic relationship with women in Pakistan is evident. The lack of respect accorded to women is apparent in every facet of Pakistani social, economic, family and political life. However, one case of sexual harassment in the entertainment industry particularly illuminates the problem of the lack of dignity and respect accorded to Pakistani women.

Actors and musicians Meesha Shafi and Ali Zafar are high profile names in the entertainment industry in Pakistan. While Shafi has worked as a model, actress and singer, Zafar has amassed a huge following in the country primarily through his musical contributions and work in movies. The issue began when Shafi posted a tweet accusing Zafar of sexually harassing her. The tweet was first posted on the April 19th, 2018 , and reads the following along with a note attached detailing her past relations with Zafar and the nature of the harassment she faced at his hands:

Since the tweet was first published, there has been a flurry of denial, accusations of lying, law suits, counter suits, and finger pointing from both parties. A year later, we arrive at a point where it is quite evident where the people’s sympathies lie, regardless of the truth of the matter. As usual, they are not with the woman.

Shafi’s confession inspired several other women to raise claims of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior against Zafar. Despite this, many people rejected the claims raised by Shafi and these women, asserting Zafar to be a “family man” incapable of such behavior. The reaction to these allegations firstly showed the lack of respect given to women in Pakistan, as the blame fell upon Shafi, who was immediately accused of lying and targeting a well-known figure for the sake of money and fame. Secondly, it displayed the misogynistic mindset held by a large part of the society, including both men and women who were quick to slander Shafi on social media such as Facebook and Twitter while asserting Zafar’s innocence — without knowing the facts of the case. Tweets such as the following are commonly found all over the internet:

Currently, the case continues as Zafar “broke down in tears” on national television discussing the issue on a news channel, contending that Shafi had either made these allegations in order to get Canadian citizenship, or under the influence of the Me Too movement in the West. To counter these claims, Shafi’s legal team sued Zafar on charges of defamation.

As to who is lying or telling the truth in this case remains far from the crux of the issue at hand. What is at stake here is not money, nor fame, nor the truth itself. What is at stake is a woman’s dignity which has been ignored and made secondary to that of a man in Pakistani society. In cases of sexual assault or harassment, which remain rare themselves as the topic is taboo in Pakistan, the majority is often inclined to vindicate the man before they are willing to listen to the woman. In their eyes she is both the inflictor and the inflicted. This problem becomes exacerbated in cases of women who are more likely to be dressed in jeans and a blouse rather than the traditional Pakistani shalwar kameez, as the underlying assumption in society is that such a woman has sold her soul to liberalism; thus, she wouldn’t mind being treated in an affectionate, rather than a reserved way by men. Harshly put, she doesn’t have any dignity to lose as she has already lost it. It has been said that “the most common unspoken consensus is…that the liberal or liberated woman is sexually ‘free’ or ‘available.’” This mindset contributes to diminishing claims of sexual harassment of women who do not conform to the traditional attire as their Western clothing is interpreted as a “willingness” or “openness” to engage in sexual activity. Such a woman is Shafi herself, who has worked as a model and is regularly dressed in Western rather than traditional Pakistani attire. The assumption lies in the notion that her choice of dressing must reflect her actions and interactions, all of which lack dignity in the minds of many Pakistanis, especially the conservatives who prefer traditional over Western clothing and see the latter as a sign of religious and moral decay.

The courage with which Shafi came forward was applauded by few. By the rest, it was disregarded as an attempt to gain popularity. This is consciously being done by the society knowing well that given the current position of women in Pakistan, such allegations would have the contrary effect of destroying rather than making the career of a woman in the entertainment business. If things are to change, mindsets must change first.

The final judgement on this case is going to be of great importance, as it is now a question of whether the “family man” was innocent all along, or whether the “attention seeker” was in fact telling the truth. Either conclusion could have a divisive effect on the society. However, one might say that regardless of the facts of the case itself, the discourse it has started on sexual harassment in Pakistan is of great importance. Although we are a far way from overcoming the issue of sexual harassment, at least through open discussion more preventive measures can be taken against it.

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