People & Society

Meesha Shafi: Raising her voice to a new pitch

Updated 22 Feb, 2019 03:18pm
Illustration by Amara Sikander
Illustration by Amara Sikander

It is easy, in our country, to antagonise the patriarchy. Even without trying, most women manage it every day. But to do so consciously - knowing what backlash lies in store - takes a great deal of courage. In April last year, we watched in awe and alarm as singer and actor Meesha Shafi did exactly that, accusing another artiste, Ali Zafar, of sexual harassment. But we also rejoiced. It was a pivotal moment for all of us, for the conversation on abuse and accountability that the #MeToo movement had activated in our collective imaginations.

Our social media timelines were already flooding with stories. Closed Facebook groups were circulating lists of abusive men. One of them, Khalid Bajwa, had just been removed as the chief executive officer of the Pakistani music streaming app Patari. Right when #MeToo was gaining momentum, Meesha tipped it in the direction we had all been waiting for: she named a powerful public figure, becoming the first person - both in Pakistani and Indian showbiz industry - to call out a renowned celebrity. Now the force, we thought, could only gather strength. Like in the United States, where many women revealed their stories of sexual harassment at the hands of a powerful film producer, Harvey Weinstein, we expected scores of women to come out of the woods, naming all the Ali Zafars in our midst. We hoped the survivors of sexual assault would finally be heard and believed.

Not quite. The later months turned into a nightmare for Meesha and #MeToo. We watched in horror as she was slammed with a one-billion-rupee defamation suit, as she was bullied off social media, as the entire #MeToo movement became suspect. Women were reminded what we have always known: Pakistan is just not ready to deal with sexual violence.

Why is it that a movement, which is only getting louder in other countries even with all its messiness, has failed to take root in Pakistan? The answer is not difficult to find. In a society where women cannot openly talk about their bodies, how can we speak about the trauma our bodies carry? The only place where sex and violence coexist in our imaginations is porn and, of course, television dramas where any woman who survives rape automatically loses her honour. It is impossible for us to speak about sex or sexual violence outside of shame. We go around policing women's bodies in the fear that something might happen to them. But when something does happen, in fiction or in reality, our shame overpowers our support. We blame the woman who accuses - not just socially but also legally. Cue the draconian Section 18 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act. This criminal defamation clause dictates that harming another person's reputation or privacy can land you in jail or can attract exorbitant fines. No wonder #MeToo has been trammelled in Pakistan even before it took off.

But the movement's impact here must be measured differently. Even with Meesha losing legal ground and Ali Zafar's movie thriving at the box office, even with close to zero action being taken against the others who have been named and shamed - even with all this, #MeToo has not been in vain. We have to pay closer attention to what #MeToo's failure has brought to light. Painfully but vividly, it has made visible the workings of patriarchy as well as the forces that will undo it: silence and the labour of women.

In Meesha's case, and also in #MeToo's case, we can see how power works, how it silences. Meesha was subjected to personal hate and professional vitriol, effectively shut down and forced to retreat. Ali Zafar's defamation suit set a precedent so students and teenagers, who were taking to social media to name and shame, ended up deleting their testimonies for the fear of lawsuits. Out of the four popular men who have been named after Ali Zafar - Faisal Edhi, Taimur Rahman, Junaid Akram and Feica - only Feica's case has been followed up. But nothing has come of it, and, meanwhile, the rest move unhindered. The entire leftist brigade has descended in the defence of Faisal Edhi, Taimur Rahman has ignored the complaints and Junaid Akram has tweeted that he will take his accusers to court. The women who named these men are facing intense cyberbullying while the men are weaponising silence itself: to quote Ali Zafar, "Silence is not an option."

But, unlike Ali Zafar, those of us who have actually experienced silencing, know that it works like a pressure cooker - at some point it erupts. We only have to look around: #MeToo has made it impossible to sit in a gathering of women and not have the discussion veer towards sexual abuse; all our conversations are about the latest person named, wherever in the world, about our personal stories of survival, about how we feel, what we fear. We do not always agree about the politics of #MeToo and its strategies, but we are collectively labouring under its weight.

This labour takes many forms; there is the labour of women like Meesha who venture forth on behalf of everyone, who then have to contend with vicious negativity while keeping up appearances and handling lawsuits; there is the labour of women who surround the abusers, the wives and sisters and mothers, who pick up after the damage caused by the men in their lives, who have to reassure their fathers, husbands and brothers and stroke their egos even as they deal with the women these men have hurt; and there is the labour of women all around us whose trauma surfaces each time another woman names hers, whose everyday life is exploding with questions of consent, justice and assault.

We have always laboured, of course, but now this labour is turning into a combined force. The more the conversation on #MeToo is stifled publicly, the more it is spilling into our privately shared spaces. And it is in these spaces of labour that we witness the impact of #MeToo. Here, unfiltered and unchecked, women are having conversations that affirm each other while slowly pushing towards new possibilities. Our imaginations are shifting; we are agreeing and disagreeing, yes, but we are making room for a more nuanced discussion on abuse and consent: do they exist on a spectrum of severity and intensity or should all transgressions be considered equally vehement?

We are challenging old ideas of accountability, thinking about justice as more than a matter of public trial, as a matter of individual catharsis. Recognising that for some, the act of naming their hurt is enough, that everyone processes trauma differently. We are linking trauma to healing and asking: what does the survivor want? How have we failed her all these years? We are questioning our roles as bystanders, seeing ourselves as enablers whose neutrality can cause harm. We are coming to understand that justice and repair involves active processes like boycotting someone socially or publicly saying #BelieveHer or privately offering care. And when we speak of care, we are also talking about toxic masculinity and beginning to identify that abusive men are equally the victims of patriarchal structures.

Initiating and building these conversations has been difficult and their reach is admittedly confined to a certain highly educated segment of the society. These conversations, however, host the undercurrents of #MeToo and possess the power to undo norms. These are the spaces where women are gaining confidence and finding a common language, where we are learning to extend our humanity - to survivors and abusers alike. I think of the feminist writer Noor Zaheer who said at a talk in Karachi recently: for the next three years, just believe women. I think of the women who care for broken men. I think of so many conversations where we have asked: what would our world look like tomorrow if Ali Zafar or one of the accused stepped up and said, yes, I did this, I am sorry, I am ashamed, how can I do better? How would it restore agency to the survivors, how would it open up greater compassion for the abusers?

If we get there one day, it will have been through the collective labour of women who are knitting these spaces into existence with pain and solidarity. It will happen because we are choosing, with #MeToo, to transform our decades of silence into a different kind of labour: one where we comfort each other even as we describe and carry our own trauma. One that will slowly seep in and unmake the patriarchy. One that has been set into motion by others among us who are speaking up - women like Meesha whose conscience is no longer allowing them to keep silent.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi with a degree in journalism from Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts.

This article was published in the Herald's January 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.