In a BBC interview Pakistan’s favourite actress, Mahira Khan, made a profound statement when she was asked what type of conduct on her part led her not to be harassed in the film industry in Pakistan and elsewhere. She said that her conduct had nothing to do with it. Luck did.
Be it an actress, a professional woman or a high achiever like Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, the fact that you escape harassment just means you didn’t step on a landmine that very day. Your path is weaved by them. By angry men waiting to avenge a grievance of their power being diminished.
My last piece in The Express Tribune about Sharmeen’s sister’s harassment awarded me the highest number of hate mail of my writing career. It was in hundreds — filled with one single accusation that settles the oldest feud — that I am a fallen woman.
In a village near Dera Ismail Khan, a girl had her clothes cut up deliberately by a gang of men as she went to fetch water with her cousins. She was stripped naked and paraded naked in a village where men took pictures of her vulnerable state. She was punished for an alleged misconduct of her brother.
Her brother had apparently had an affair with a young girl and once the local Jirga had wind of it they prescribed a fine. Even after the fine was paid, it turned out that it wasn’t enough.
In our country, enough is when you have shamed a woman. Enough is when you have stripped her of all dignity. Enough is when there is ample evidence of that stripping. Enough is when you are sure that there will be no new day without the victim waking up in remembrance of her indignity.
There is nothing we can fix in this country, albeit its economy or its currency depreciation, without first throwing out this ghastly honour code. It ultimately leaves the men of this region with so much hate that there is no way they can be productive, contributing members of society.
As a reaction to the high-profile case, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa police arrested the culprits, but this is so prevalent and insidious that arresting these men will not cut it. It needs to be addressed at the leadership level. It wasn’t.
We need to be asked why women are fair game. Why they need luck to escape patriarchy. Why they need a man to step up and then protect them from the patriarchy itself. It’s a circular system, created to harm women, simply to harm other men, as a means of male warfare. The biggest threat to this faulty system is the sisterhood. As is the case of the Harvey Weinstein debacle in Hollywood where multiple women have come forward to confess that he assaulted or harassed them. The #MeToo campaign takes the power from toxic masculinity and gives it to women — restoring some balance.
It is also built on the principle that women cannot let other women be shamed alone. They need to step in and validate not just their truth, but their feelings also. This is why I spoke up against the online and media trolling that Sharmeen faced. Not necessarily because we agree on everything, but because no woman should be put down for using whatever leverage she has to protect another woman. This eventually is what that one antidote to misogyny is that no one can undo.
So Mahira is spot on when she says luck saved her. Let that sink in. It means two obvious things. One, that even her lifestyle and status and fame can’t save her from it. Two, that it doesn’t mean if it hasn’t happened yet it wouldn’t happen at all. Mahira could have taken that question from the BBC to prop herself up and say, indeed it was her conduct that protected her. She didn’t. She said instead that women’s ability to speak up somewhat protects them.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 12th, 2017.