This is Pakistan’s Me Too moment.
A handful of Pakistani women recently went public to accuse famous actor and musician Ali Zafar of sexually harassing and abusing them. Their announcement grabbed headlines, prompted outrage and sparked the Me Too movement in conservative Pakistan, according to USA Today.
The women’s remarkable statements — followed by similar claims in politics and business sectors — are a sea change in this highly traditional Islamic country where female honour killings, child brides and polygamy are commonplace. In Pakistan, women receive only a portion of an inheritance that males get.
“I think in any society it is difficult for women to come forward,” said Nighat Dad, director of the Digital Rights Foundation and an activist for women’s rights. “The Me Too movement has organically come with women coming forward against powerful men, be it Ali Zafar or a CEO of a tech start-up, to finally hold men accountable for their behaviour.”
Victims of sexual abuse and harassment have long suffered in silence in Pakistan, where shame is placed on the woman and not the perpetrator. Most women never report the incidents, but those who do come forward often face shame or questions about their morality.
Pakistani pop singer Meesha Shafi, who accused Zafar of sexually harassing her on multiple occasions, is challenging that tradition.
“Today I am breaking this culture of silence and I hope that by doing that I am setting an example for young women in my country to do the same,” Shafi wrote on Twitter last month. “We only have our voices and the time has come to use them.”
Zafar denied the claims and demanded that Shafi delete the allegation online and issue an apology, or he would file a $9 million defamation suit against her.
“I am deeply aware and in support of the global Me Too movement and what it stands for,” Zafar said in a statement. “I am the father of a young girl and a young boy, a husband to a wife and a son to a mother. I have nothing to hide. Silence is absolutely not an option.”
Shafi has refused to take down her tweets. Her attorney denied she defamed Zafar.
Days after the public dispute erupted, more women came forward against Zafar, who has been compared to Hollywood producer and accused abuser Harvey Weinstein in the Pakistani press.
Leena Ghani, a makeup artist based in London, said Zafar had repeatedly “crossed boundaries” with her.
“His behaviour displays a clear lack of respect for women,” Ghani said on Twitter. “Inappropriate contact, groping, sexual comments should not fall in the gray area between humour and indecency.”
Humna Raza, a blogger from Lahore, accused Zafar of groping her when she asked to take a selfie with him. Another woman, Noor Sehar, a Karachi marketing executive, accused Zafar of sexual misconduct at a party.
Such allegations are not isolated. Khalid Bajwa, chief executive of local music streaming company Patari, stepped down from his post last month following sexual harassment allegations.
While many have supported the Pakistani singer for bravely speaking out, others questioned her accusations.
“I just don’t see any truth in these allegations,” said film actress Resham, who uses a single name for her career. “Ali cannot do such a thing. How can he harass a woman and she doesn’t slap him back, hit him with a shoe, push him away or complain to his wife?”
Shafi also has been shamed on social media after she went public. “The backlash that Meesha has faced, the misogynistic attitudes that she has had to confront also sends women a message that there is still a cost to coming forward,” Dad said.
Others defended her.
“Meesha is a superstar who is really successful and earns as much as the male stars in this country,” said actor and model Iffat Omar in an Instagram post. “So why would she do this if she was not hurt? Many people are claiming that she is doing this for fame or money. She already has more than enough of both.”
Still, many women are afraid to come forward because of possible repercussions.
For example, lawmaker Ayesha Gulali of the mainstream Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf political party, recently accused her party’s leader, Imran Khan, of sending her lewd text messages. She was hit with backlash both online and from her party. Party leaders tried but failed to kick her out of the party and expel her from parliament.
Also, broadcast journalists Tanzeela Mazhar and Yashfeen Jamal pursued a sexual harassment case against the director of current affairs at Pakistan Television, Agha Masood Shorish, they stirred up a storm of criticism before he was eventually fired.
“When I raised my voice, people responded with (degrading) comments about women, our character and personal lives,” Mazhar said.
Still, Shafi encouraged other women to come forward with this answer on Twitter: “It’s only scary till you say it!”