When Meesha Shafi-Ali Zafar standoff become a trending topic for public debate, people took sides. There were commentators who said she did this for fame and personal gain, that all women in the entertainment industry are cheap, said her version of the story was a misinterpreted narrative of what really happened, commented on her clothing and behavior at private gatherings, spiraled photos of Ali Zafar and Meesha Shafi standing close to each other and asked “phir aisi industry mein he hi kuin jahan itna gandh he?”
The one different thing this time about how the Pakistani society was reacting to an assault case was that a significant proportion was on Meesha’s side not only supporting her but demanding an official apology from Ali Zafar and all men who, in the past, intentionally or unintentionally had caused a woman to feel harassed. There were women and men who supported Shafi with the words “We believe you” and stood up against the latest alleged sexual predator in the Pakistani Industry, protesting at the premiere of “Teefa in Trouble” the latter’s acting debut for the Pakistani cinema.
— Momina Mustehsan (@MominaMustehsan) April 20, 2018
This is the latest and yet a typical example of how Pakistani society responds to women coming out with their stories of sexual assault and harassment and is nothing different from the reactions seen when Ayesha Golalai, Tanzeela Mazhar, Syeda Sadia Nawazish and Fouzia Saeed. Each of them reported or came out with their own stories but had lesser support compared to the swelling surge in the public protesting in public places against assault, “Meesha ko insaaf do, Ali Zafar Sharam kero” [Give Meesha justice, have some shame Ali Zafar].
Sexual harassment is mostly not reported, but whenever it is, the immediate response and aftermath have been very predictable in the past. However, if one is to slowly dissect and explore the public response, it shows clearly that this time, a lot of people did not just contingently let their intellect follow whatever path the heard is walking. They rather developed an independent take on the matter. The awareness in the wake of #metoo and “Times up!” movement, recent laws, platforms for interactions and protests have caused a limited but an evident change in the social reaction now. Equal rights and participation in social setting and economic statistics remain the vital cause of the polarized shift in the public’s take on sexual assault as opinions. What has acted as causation in propelling this, in a way, positive change?
Going by Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, it seems there is a myriad of sexual harassment cases, of women finding the strength to break the silence. While many users of social media may still call their story partly or completely false, women and even men have found solace in finding people who believe them and hear them out. A Facebook user miles way from an assault victim can provide a therapeutic space for the oppressed by simply showing support and a word of encouragement.
Apna khana khudh garam karo!
Women have started speaking out against abusive workspaces now and any language that degrades the role of women in general. For example, a statement by Justice Saqib Nisar received a backlash by Women’s Action Forum when he quoted Winston Churchill and compared an interesting speech to the length of a woman’s skirt which was “long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.” A wave of fearlessness runs now in the female masses who demonstrate more literacy about the rights they are entitled to as they claimed their right to public space, whether it is riding bikes or sitting at dhabas, and at the same time remind men of the nation that they’re lives are not restricted to the kitchen as the woman’s march chanted with the phrase “apna khana khud garam karlo’ [heat up your own food]. This attitude is against the discrimination that keeps women silent and trickles down in the social dynamics where a woman is asked to remain silent if she becomes an assault victim.
The Marriage Statistics
More women are now working women than ever, stepping out of the house than ever before. This number is set to expected to rise even more. The decision to work and receive at least a higher secondary education before has partially caused the mean age of marriage for women has risen from 16 years in 1961 to 22.8 in 2007. This has caused women to gain more exposure in the job market and the workplace, giving them a first-hand experience of social limitations such as the glass ceiling and unequal gender pay in addition to observing, or in some cases, becoming a prey to sexual harassment in workspaces. These kinds of experiences render women to speak up against the gender bias present in the social dynamic even more because they themselves have seen the privilege at work.
Economic development – A drop in poverty and illiteracy
Poverty has declined in Pakistan by 25 percentage points between 2002 and 2014 according to the World Bank and women are, as a causation of the positive economic figure, less occupied with dealing with the basic household survival needs such as collecting water, subsistence farming or domestic chores. Now they have time to move forward from survival in its most basic dynamic to survival in a world of male privilege.
Pakistan’s female literacy has also slowly risen, reaching 49 percent in 2015. For women in the 15-25 age bracket, the literacy rate is at 66 percent, considerably higher and contributing to a more cumulative literacy level in the future if the same or more level of education is observed for the concerned bracket. According to economist S. Akbar Zaidi, between 2004 and 2014 there has been a 432 percent increase in girls’ enrolment at universities. Women who can visit markets alone rose by 12 percent in the past five years and is now at 37 percent causing an increase in women’s mobility. These figures add up to finish the effect of the bubble in which women are taught to live, causing them to have an educated insight into their narrative as opposed to the social norm that promotes a culture of silence and passive behavior among women.
How can figures completely unrelated to sexual assault possibly encourage our community to come up with a more certain, independent attitude, unlike the one we’ve seen before?
Women now have more awareness. They know a life beyond childrearing and making “gol rotis”. There are laws that support women speaking up about their stories of sexual assault and holding their abusers accountable. Lower rates of poverty have allowed the public of Pakistan to move beyond previously crippling economic issues to working towards issues prevalent otherwise, one of the biggest remains the issue of sexual assault.
Growing literacy rates has provided women of a rational understanding of the dynamics of privilege, sexual assault and blaming the victim, helping them see these problems in rational terms than in terms of the culture of silence. Efforts to shut down victims themselves are going through a silent period of sinister crisis as social media has provided women from across the globe space to break the silence and tell their stories of sexual assault. Made possible by mostly social media again, movements of #metoo and “Times Up!” have further shown the alarmingly high number of women who have faced sexual harassment and sexual assault that women have to face around the globe on almost on a daily basis. Women are also becoming fearless; they are not afraid to claim their right to public spaces, and just like that, not afraid to claim their right towards justice.