Source: Wikimedia Commons
The feminist movement has been an intrinsic part of progress in Pakistan’s narrative and has evolved over the years. The movement today has more tools at its disposal than the street-based activism of the previous generation of feminists; new platforms have emerged and transformed the way protest and dialogue on gender issues can take place. The #MeToo movement uses social media to amplify women’s voice by carving a space for them to share harrowing encounters of being sexually assaulted or incidents of other forms of sexual harassment. One of the criticisms leveled against the movement is that due process is not followed and has resulted in creating binaries between social media and legal recourse. It is important to look at both separately, but also together, and try to come up with a nuanced way forward.
Social media has transformed the activism landscape globally and has allowed women to speak about their injustices, reach out to others who might feel as immobile, and provide an avenue that has for the most part not been available to many. Facilitating women to find solace in comfortable spaces is perhaps social media’s greatest achievement.
Misunderstanding about the #MeToo movement has led to it being criticized as a ‘witch hunt’, leading to reservations against it. The movement is about a certain kind of accountability, which requires men to take responsibility for their actions and exercise caution about improper conduct. With women no longer remaining silent about their experiences, they are trying to transform the discourse by changing the norms around how men treat women and normalizing conversation on sexual harassment, which is scarce, if at all.
In situations where harassment is involved, it is difficult to conceptualize what ‘justice’ would look like, as a result it becomes increasingly complicated to have a universal set of rules. Critics are wary of using social media, and propagate the use of legal recourse. In a country like Pakistan, where legal systems have failed women multiple times, is this the best course of action?
The Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, passed in 2010 requires each organization to have an inquiry committee set up to listen to complaints that employees might have, setting out ‘major’ and ‘minor’ penalties. Complaints can also be reported to the federal or provincial ombudsman specially appointed to handle harassment cases. To complicate this relatively well-drafted law which includes an all-encompassing definition of what harassment is, the Sindh ombudsmen is a male; however, few women would be comfortable speaking to a man about their experience. Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa do not even have ombudsmen, so who do women reach out to when the legislative mechanism (the ombudsman) is absent? In this context if women resort to social media, is it still fair to demonize them for it?
In our work in the Action for Empowerment and Accountability Programme, we have studied politics as an arena in which there is widespread harassment. Legislators have their personal character and physical safety vulnerable to attack; female politicians are frequently verbally harassed during rallies, in talk shows and even on the floor of the parliament, which is routinely covered by national media. Examples include Shireen Mazari being called a tractor trolley, Amir Liaqat’s inappropriate comments about Sherry Rehman and a religious cleric assassinating Punjab Minister for Social Welfare Zille Huma in 2007 for not wearing ‘Muslim clothing’. The National Assembly still has no committee specifically for parliamentarians to hear complaints of harassment. As incidents have become public, some women politicians with voice and agency occasionally take issue and raise objections on the floor of the house.
Strong action across the board is required to make the political arena safe for all women because when we achieve this, women in important positions will be able to ensure that protective laws against women are tabled, passed and implemented. Our research has shown that protection for women politicians is largely missing, and this issue is not class specific nor is it party specific - it’s gender-specific.
Women who speak up are labelled as doing it for attention, fame, vengeance and money, but the movement’s real aim is to create support systems for victims and also help move forward from the trauma. One way to achieve this is the concept of ‘restorative justice’ which ‘emphasizes accountability and making amends, seeks to avoid sentencing, instead focusing on bringing victims and offenders together to understand the magnitude of the harm done, the ways in which healing can be achieved’. Constructive paths like this can only be achieved when there is open discussion about how to deal with harassment; dialogue not punishment can help curtail future behaviors.
The #MeToo movement raises important questions, a pertinent one being why frameworks to deal with sexual harassment are so weak. Even though we have a sexual harassment law passed almost a decade ago, it has taken the #MeToo movement in 2018 to push for more widespread sexual harassment committees at workplaces and a review of the Ombudsmen’s effectiveness. It is important for those who are skeptical of the #MeToo movement to recognize that it has alerted the public of the lack of implementation of the existing laws, forcing women to take to social media. This movement is crucial to give agency to women, and the way forward is if legal recourse and social media stop being seen as antithetical to one another.