Consider the following: Under Pakistan’s notorious Hudood Ordinances, women accused of adultery or fornication could be arrested without the need to provide any supporting evidence to corroborate the allegation. Under the same laws, promulgated during the Zia years, women who had been raped but who failed to produce four witnesses to support their account would be imprisoned for adultery or fornication, with the claim of being raped sans witnesses automatically being taken as an admission of engaging in extra-marital sex. While the Hudood Ordinances were finally amended in 2006, eliminating the possibility of arresting women for adultery/fornication without proof, and removing the need for four witnesses in rape cases, thousands of women had already spent years in jail while awaiting trail for their alleged sexual transgressions. As has been well-documented by activists and academics, the Hudood Laws were primarily used to settle scores and punish women who stepped out of line.
Also consider this: while there are no concrete statistics to definitively illustrate the scale of the problem, NGOs, medical professionals, and scholars researching this issue suggest that domestic abuse occurs in anywhere between 35=70% of all households in Pakistan, with some even making the claim that the number could be as high as 90%. The methodology underpinning these estimates varies, as does the definition of domestic abuse (with some including emotional and psychological abuse in this category) but one thing is clear; women are routinely subjected to violence in their homes across Pakistan as part of a broader tendency that cuts across class, ethnicity, and geography. This finds its most gruesome and tragic expression in honour killings; every year, hundreds of young women are killed for defying the boundaries imposed upon them by their families by marrying of their own free will. Fathers, brothers, and uncles commit the crime and admit to it, but usually end up walking away from any punishment after being ‘forgiven’ by their other family members under the Zia-era Qisas and Diyat laws.
Something else to consider: public space in Pakistan is inherently gendered. Women who leave the private sphere to work, to shop, or to engage in any of the everyday activities that their male counterparts take for granted, routinely become targets for harassment. The simple act of walking in public can lead to women being stared at, catcalled, and even subjected to physical assault and intimidation. Many women who drive can recount numerous instances in which they were relentlessly followed and chased by men in cars who derived some kind of dark pleasure from their pursuit. Yet, in typical patriarchal fashion, the popular discourse around this issue predictably pins the blame for this on women themselves; if a woman is harassed, it must be her own fault for stepping out in public, wearing ‘inappropriate’ clothes, or not being accompanied by a male guardian. Sadly but inevitably, this approach also extends to victims of rape and assault.
There is more that could be said about this but suffice to say Pakistan is not exactly a beacon of enlightenment when it comes to the status and treatment of women. As a deeply patriarchal society in which a heady mix of tradition and religion is used to justify the oppression and subjugation of women, it is important to recognise that those women who defy the established order often do so at considerable cost to themselves; ‘unconventional’ women are relentlessly policed as part of attempts to re-establish patriarchal control.
It is in this context that we must consider the allegations made by Meesha Shafi against Ali Zafar, as well as other claims of this kind that have emerged in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Once again, it has been unsurprising to see that much of the discussion around Ms. Shafi’s account of experiencing harassment has focused on discrediting her; we are repeatedly being told by Mr. Zafar’s co-workers and friends that, as a family man, it is unlikely that he could have engaged in any form of sexual harassment, and that the fact that many of the women who have worked with him and know him have not experienced harassment suggests that Ms. Shafi’s allegations are false. Following from this, Ms. Shafi has been subjected to an ongoing campaign of demonisation in which those supporting Mr. Zafar insist that her motivations for making these allegations are suspect.
It should go without saying that the arguments made in Mr. Zafar’s defence do not necessarily discredit what Ms. Shafi has claimed. For example, being married and having children has never been a barrier to sexual predation. Similarly, that many women who have worked with Mr. Zafar have been able to do so without being subjected to any kind of untoward and unwanted advances does not automatically mean that every woman has had the same experience. Indeed, what has been lost in the cacophony around Ms. Shafi’s accusations is the fact that several women initially came out in support of her claims, stating that they too had been harassed by Mr. Zafar.
More often than not, cases such as this devolve into discussion of whether or not the accused is guilty. This, however, is the wrong way to go about this issue; as all the parties involved undoubtedly realise, ‘proving’ harassment is not an easy thing to do given the nature of the offence and how many forms of harassment are simply not criminal offences. It is telling, for example, that of the dosens of men accused of sexual misconduct in Hollywood, only one (Bill Cosby) has actually been convicted of a crime. The rest have largely managed to go about their lives with limited damage to their careers and reputations; even in cases where the accused have admitted to and apologized for wrongdoing (with Louis CK being a prime example), it is increasingly becoming clear that the social and professional ostracisation that they experienced when allegations against them were first made is slowly fading away.
On the other hand, as the case of Meesha Shafi shows, women who make allegations continue to be subjected to all manner of abuse and attack. While people have been quick to accuse Ms. Shafi of slandering Mr. Zafar, much less has been said about the numerous allegations that continue to be made against her, and of the effect these will have on her professional and social life. Indeed, if anything is to be learnt from this episode, it is that women who speak out, especially in places like Pakistan, are likely to experience punished for doing so. In such a context, the very act of saying something requires considerable courage and, given the backlash, is something that women are unlikely to do frivolously or fraudulently. Given the broader context of patriarchy in which accusations of sexual harassment are made and judged by the wider public, and given how the actual consequences of being accused of harassment are far less than they are often made out to be, it is vitally important that women be encouraged to come forward with their accounts and contribute to the creation of an environment in which those who wish to indulge in sexual harassment are forced to think twice about doing so.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.