Causes and allies – Afiya S. Zia


MUKHTARAN Mai, Malala Yousafzai, and Meesha Shafi are all survivors but also subjects of the redoubts of the military, mullahs and men. Mukhtaran’s rape was discredited by Gen Musharraf as a case of women playing the victim card. Malala was resented for surviving an assassination attempt by the Taliban and for being celebrated in the West. Meesha is begrudged for shattering the myth that harassment by the ashraafia or celebrities is inconceivable.

The backlash directed at these women stems from fear of their defiance of male-prescribed nationalist and religious rules, and their struggles against sexual subjugation. These are landmark cases that flag a progressive timeline where women’s claims are gaining rightful credibility; survivors are determined to get justice and; victim-blaming is replaced by demands for ending legal and cultural impunity for crimes against women.

In Meesha’s case, her grievance is most relatable. If women’s experiences of sexual harassment were part of the census, the findings would lead to the declaration of a national emergency. Harassment cases are not about ‘he-said-she-said’; the connivance of sexual violations depends on the silence of the victim, so breaking the silence is half the evidence.

Activism against harassment is challenged by internal factors — the role of class, use of social media and male ‘allies’.

MeToo exposed the practice of sexual coercion by media moguls who controlled women’s careers or success and revealed how class and power of the perpetrator are drivers of sex crimes. Moreover, it is only possible to get justice for the offence of harassment in the formal workplace. The exclusion of students and contractual, informal, or domestic workers from protection against harassment is not a technicality, it’s a travesty.
Meesha’s harassment allegations are as much about recognising women’s labour, setting jurisdiction for its rights and protections, and strengthening women’s professional status and respecting it. To some extent, she may still be protected by her class but for the hundreds who are suffering silently out of fear or to save their careers, the case is critical.

Social media is important for information sharing and mobilising assistance for the voiceless. Online support may debunk unsubstantiated claims about cases by legal and PR teams but this is inadequate. Several cases being heard by ombudspersons require support and some survivors are on the verge of self-harm. It is not enough to debate the virtues of call-outs over the legal system in webinars; volunteers are needed to list, counsel, and financially assist working class women.

Secondly, celebrity activism is a misnomer in Pakistan. It has enabled stars to graduate from well-intentioned donors or scripted spokespersons for charitable causes, to uninitiated activists. This wins them social capital and even national awards but if celebrities go off-script, they risk being cancelled and discredit the sponsored cause.

Twitter in particular, enables any nondescript but politically aware individual to endorse any progressive cause and become a celebrated activist. These selfie-activists perform for their followers and detractors, but rarely have experience in collective consensus-forming and are unaccountable for any disinformation. Opinion-based activism is often selective, self-contradictory and offers little strategic worth. Online exchanges do not reduce biases. Rarely do controversies relate to the economy or the law, but are mostly over identity issues of political affiliation and gender.

Selective deplatforming of some authors/politicians, opposition to free speech rights for disagreeable leaders, and cancellation of only some alleged harassers has undermined principled standards of activism.

The same warriors remain mute on call-outs of progressive, left men, or when their online friends participate in all-male panels, or on offences or censorship committed in their own institutions. Free speech is alleged to be an ‘alt-right neoliberal weapon’ when this selectivity is criticised but considered righteous when indulging in online snide commentary about opponents.

Finally, the dubious role of opportunist male allies of feminist causes is not new. Many from the old boys’ legal community pledged moral but not legal support for Meesha’s case. Saqib Jillani and Khwaja Ahmed Hossein are exceptions to be respected.

Even though men are fortified with gender privilege and access, on many feminist issues, some women still feel compelled to either defend men as victims or rely on them as online accomplices. Looking for woke credentials, these male allies sneak into opposing feminists’ mentions. From behind this smokescreen, competitive personalised takedowns are fought across camps with no interest in substance, or building manifestos, or resolving contradictory strategies. The feminists who encourage this on both sides are simply indulging male political agendas and by extension, serving patriarchy’s causes.