Sexual harassment, Pakistan & ‘Me Too’; what you need to know.

'Me Too' women speak out against sexual harassment

In 2007, black activist Tarana Burke initiated a movement titled ‘Me Too. It was an attempt to encourage collective action and healing for sufferers of sexual harassment and abuse.  Particularly looking at the experiences of women of colour, its aim was “amplifying the voices of survivors” and in doing so starting a conversation.

Last week, after news about Harvey Weinstein using his powerful position within the Hollywood status quo to harass budding ingénues made waves, chants of ‘Me Too’ resurfaced. On Sunday, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted this.

Women across America responded. Stories about sexual harassment outside and at the workplace were rehashed in tweets and posts. And before long the movement spread internationally.

Yesterday, it came to my Facebook feed. #MeToo took hold of my virtual reality, as friends, colleagues and family members announced that they too had experiences to share. Some of them even shared them.

Harassment has been a silent reality for most women in Pakistan. In fact, I would wager that it continues to be a reality for all of us. Hence, tweets that affirmed as much came as a shock, but not a surprise. Of course there were stories. But the willingness to share was a surprise. In Pakistan’s lofty offices, as among Hollywood’s in-crowd I imagine, inappropriate gestures and advances were always expected. And hence always accepted as an unpleasant norm. Thus, is the tirade of #MeToo an indication that we’re finally ready to address them?


Sexual harassment in the workplace

I have to begin by giving credit where it is due. While Pakistan has a terrible reputation regarding how it treats its woman (a justifiable reputation I might add) but there is a law against sexual harassment in the workplace.

Organizations across the country had been lobbying for years to address harassment. In 2001 this culminated into Alliance Against Sexual Harassment (AASHA) an umbrella group of six NGOs. Dr. Fouzia, a founding member of AASHA, drafted a code of conduct. This became the foundation for the Protection Against Harassment of Women in the Workplace Act, which was proposed by Sherry Rehman in 2009. In 2010, the act along with the recommended amendments to Pakistan’s penal code were approved.

It offers a rather detailed definition of harassment (so the ‘I didn’t realize I was doing something wrong’ excuse can finally be put away). And not complying with the law could be punishable by dismissal or a fine.

There were some high profile examples of offenders being taken to task for not complying with the law, and currently their website keeps track of organizations that have recently complied with it.


#MeToo, but it can’t end here

Some significant inroads have been made. But we are no where near a solution.

For example, while sexual harassment has been a crime in the country since 2010, talking about it is still daunting, and even dangerous. In January this year, PTV banned two anchors for claiming that they had been harassed by a male colleague. When you read about the case, it becomes clear that the management was more outraged that two of their employees could talk about alleged misconduct, rather than the misconduct itself.

In fact, let me rephrase that. If they had been harassed, then it wasn’t just misconduct; it was a criminal offence. I’m sure that we can agree that for other women, speaking out has had even worse consequences.

Also movements can very quickly leave some people behind. Of course the women who are speaking out represent diverse backgrounds and life experiences. But are we leaving behind the country’s most marginalized, and arguably most at risk?

In America for example, some claim that the newly repackaged #MeToo campaign left black women out of the conversation. In fact, you know how I began this post by mentioning Tarana Burke. Yeah, not everyone is doing that. Many news reports credit Caucasian actress Alyssa Milano for starting the movement.

In Pakistan, while we have adopted the hashtag as our own, we have to be careful to not repeat such follies. Domestic workers, labourers and the like have their own experiences. Maybe we can’t give them a voice just yet. But we can’t forget their struggles either.


A time for solidarity

Despite the shortcomings though, I can’t help but see the ‘Me Too’ movement as a powerful and positive change. Will this end sexual harassment? Of course not! But it has created a trend that I haven’t seen in a long time. In the words of Burke herself, “as a community we create a lot of space for fighting and pushing back. But not enough for connecting and healing.”

While the renewed movement didn’t credit her as its founder, it has inadvertently followed her ideology.

I have often seen Pakistani women pushing back. I have also seen them pushing each other away. Examples of women attacking, and even blaming, each other for their experiences are common. Very, very rarely have I seen them share their experiences. This is one of those rare moments. Of course some may want to use this as a way towards action. Eventually I suppose it will become that. But for now, it is about us as a collective sharing what happened, and supporting each other.


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