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.