Why #MeToo will fail in Pakistan

Published: April 28, 2018
The writer is a PhD candidate and the Director of South Asia Study Group at the University of Sydney. He tweets @HNadim87

The writer is a PhD candidate and the Director of South Asia Study Group at the University of Sydney. He tweets @HNadim87

As quickly as it escalated, the Meesha-Ali Zafar harassment scandal has fizzled out in the same breadth. A week into the allegations, Ali is under no danger or threat of losing brand endorsement contracts or films. By now, it is clear that Meesha-Ali issue is reduced to a footnote of Pakistan’s entertainment gossip and reflects just how hard it is to go public against harassment in Pakistan. This has left many of the MeToo supporters in Pakistan disgruntled, angry and cursing over the Pakistani society and people in general for their lack of sympathy on the issue as serious as sexual harassment.

The problem, however, is not the lack of sympathy or that people in Pakistan are savages as some ultra-feminists are trying to project. The real issue is with the methodology to approach the MeToo movement in Pakistan and the people leading the movement belonging to an elite section of society that sow its own seeds of failure. The Meesha-Ali case is just a reflection of why the MeToo movement is unlikely to succeed in Pakistan and there is a theoretical reason for that.

First, it is the context. The MeToo movement has originated in the West in a specific time and space. It is a production of centuries of interrelated and sub-movements that have given agency and power to women to be able to stand on the podium and name their assaulters without a trove of backlash. From a great struggle for emancipation, right to education and equality in workforce, women in the West have and are still trying to carve out their space in a male-dominated global society. Moreover, the Western society has evolved from family as a unit of identity to an individual as an agent empowered that can stand for his/her rights in the individual capacity without an impact on family. In other words, the MeToo movement has come about organically in the West and that is what gives it power to hold.

The case in Pakistan is exactly the opposite. The movement is neither organic nor inclusive. We are trying to force the MeToo movement in the country from top-down without first having the right social conditions and political-economic changes necessary for such movements to be successful. The result of this forceful implant is that it is constantly facing a rejection and a backlash from society on multiple levels that is on a complete different tangent on how to approach such cases. For an average Pakistani, it is hard to understand why Meesha Shafi would go public accusing Ali Zafar without a) first talking to him b) talking to common friends c) filing an official police complaint and d) having no evidence of such harassment. We may not understand it, but for the majority in Pakistan that is still operating on a family as a unit, it is startling that a woman would put her family to shame in such a way. In a way, MeToo is not just about sexual harassment, given the context of Pakistan it is laced and strangled by multiple social narratives. This leads to the second problem of MeToo being an elite-led movement.

Truth be told, the MeToo movement does not stand a chance in Pakistan because the proponents like me, you and those leading the movement are really a bunch of Western educated and inspired local elites. We are in a constant pursuit to connect Pakistan in the global debate, and movements like MeToo give us that chance to be a voice in the global discourse that we long to be a part. Meesha going public against Ali is essentially part of this local-global connect where her actions will not get a traction locally but may find voice in the global space. As a result, for our petty intellectual and Western esteem, we have ended up making MeToo look like an issue of the elite by the elite and for the elite that has no traction or approval in the majority of Pakistan.

It is not to say that we do not care about sexual harassment, we truly do, but we are so distant from the 95% of Pakistan that we are unable to recognise their culture, setting and context and instead shove down our Western-inspired ideals of progress on to them. For that ‘other’ Pakistan, we feel that we are the beacon of hope and light but in reality, we are only agents of globalism living in Pakistan with our minds still in the West. Yet, we wrongly take the public rejection to our notions and ideals as strangely disappointing and a reflection of prevalent savagery in our society.

Copy pasting the MeToo movement in Pakistan without a local context is perhaps the single biggest disservice we have done to the cause against sexual harassment in Pakistan. Pakistan needs to find its own organic voice, own vocabulary and a local discourse free of any global influences to find local solutions to our problems. Until we do that, ground-breaking movements like MeToo that are changing the world will continue to be politicised and rejected in Pakistan.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 28th, 2018.

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Reader Comments (7)

  • shakeel Mahota
    Apr 28, 2018 - 9:37AM

    I fully agree with the point made by the scribe. There is always a danger of misusing such ideas for the sake of settling personal scores.In our country people, including rulers, have always used nice things like religion, democracy, human rights for serving their own interests. MeToo is the latest such a nice sounding idea. Recommend

  • Farhan
    Apr 28, 2018 - 11:01AM

    Good insight. But I disagree with the author on one point.

    Metoo will fail not only in Pakistan but elsewhere as well because there is a BASIC flaw in it.

    It promotes the use of accusations as verdicts without proof.
    Blanket innocence is placed on the accuser and blanket guilt on the accused
    Anyone who is skeptic or asks questions with open mind is guilt tripped with the plight of victims without realization that as HUMANS we are prone to both good and evil intentions. Either accuser or accused could have malafide intent.

  • suleman
    Apr 28, 2018 - 11:56AM

    Pakistani society is patriarchic and feudal. Harassment, rape and killing of women are everyday events fueled by ignorance. Recommend

  • Fahim
    Apr 28, 2018 - 3:28PM

    Definately withour proof, any courts cant take actions againt ali zafar. Public shaming has more problems than benefits. Recommend

  • samunderkerang
    Apr 28, 2018 - 3:57PM

    Completely agree, the small minority of elites on social media think that they can change things with few “likes and followers” but outside in the real world the backlash is going to be faced by poor working class women. Moreover I see so many brave women going to work daily and fighting the odds and yet these so called empowered celebrities cannot handle anything without making a scene.Recommend

  • MD
    May 3, 2018 - 7:26AM

    What is the point of this article? If the author comes from an educated background, shouldn’t he be the one promoting such movements instead of being pessimistic about it. Yes, it is hard for Pakistanis to accept how real and common sexual harassment is but only if people come out and start taking a stand will change come about. If we sit and do absolutely nothing then yes it will fail. We should cheer on people like Meesha Shafi. She took a stand and as should we all when sexual harassment occurs. Society will never be ready for any change but that doesn’t mean we don’t even try.

    Extremely pointless article. Recommend

  • Sara Khan
    Aug 30, 2018 - 2:29PM

    People in our country are less aware then Europeans. But #MeToo campaign has turned a spotlight on workplace misconduct, starting with women. We can not say it will fail or not. I appreciate Meesha Shafi, she took a brave step.Recommend

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