Activists of the Aurat (Woman) March at a rally to mark International Women's Day in Lahore on March 8, 2020. Photo courtesy of AFP
On the evening of June 27, Tehreem was absentmindedly clicking through Instagram stories at her home in Lahore, Pakistan, when she came across a post that made her pause. A former Lahore Grammar School (LGS) student had shared an anonymous account of sexual harassment by a teacher, who had also sent her explicit messages when she was his student.“I searched my phone and found screenshots of messages he had sent me four years ago and decided to post them. My friends warned me against it, but I decided I had stayed silent for too long,” Tehreem, 21—who doesn’t use a surname—told VICE News.
She did not expect what happened next. Everyone, from activists to celebrities, began talking about the issue. Alumni began posting other accounts of sexual harassment and abuse by male teachers and staff at LGS, an elite, private, all-girls school.The women, now in their twenties, alleged the men made sexual advances towards them when they were students and sent them explicit and flirtatious text messages. Two teachers were also accused of having had sexual relations with students who were minors at the time. The former students claimed they made several complaints to the school administration, but were silenced, slut-shamed and blamed for their experiences.The names of four men were repeated over and over again and screenshots of explicit messages were shared on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, until those in power finally noticed. The school responded with a statement and fired the four men, and suspended three women administrators who were accused of ignoring complaints. The Chief Minister of Punjab province—of which Lahore is the capital—and Pakistan’s Human Rights Minister took notice.Former LGS student Sara*, who requested anonymity because she fears backlash from her family, told VICE News that certain members of staff at LGS were notorious for behaving inappropriately. “The sexual harassment was common knowledge. Every other day there was an incident. Girls stood around in circles talking about it. Often there were tears. But every time someone complained, the principal and the coordinator blamed the girl for wearing revealing clothes and attracting attention,” she said.
Tehreem described the psychological trauma of being slut-shamed and being labelled a “habitual liar”. “I fell into deep depression and left the school before finishing my A-Levels. When you’re a woman, you don’t experience something like this once. I had been molested as a child and on some level blamed myself. The slut-shaming brought it back,” she said.In the days after Tehreem first posted the screenshots, social media was flooded with accounts of sexual harassment and abuse at various schools and universities, but also bullying and slut-shaming. Around the same time in late-June, Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) saw its own #MeToo when students began sharing accounts of sexual harassment and even assault, on a private Facebook group open to students and alumni.In 2017, when the Me Too movement first began making waves across the world, Pakistan did not see the same flood of stories on social media witnessed elsewhere. Instead, the movement has been unravelling slowly over the last three years.In early 2018, Pakistan saw its first real #MeToo moment when several women accused the CEO of popular music website Patari of sexual harassment. In the same week, singer Meesha Shafi alleged singer Ali Zafar had subjected her to sexual harassment drawing widespread attention on mainstream and social media. A handful of isolated allegations followed, none of which snowballed into a larger movement or captured wider public attention.
Gender researcher Tooba Syed argued Pakistan’s #MeToo has looked different because of the country’s strict codes of gender segregation. “When there can be no public acknowledgement of a relationship between a man and a woman, whether professional or personal, any abuse that takes place within that relationship cannot be talked about publicly,” she said.Digital-rights researcher Shmyla Khan said Pakistan’s #MeToo has been ‘restrained’ and each moment has been followed by long silences. The reasons are both legal and social. “The use of defamation laws to silence victims have made women fearful. Every #MeToo accusation in Pakistan has been followed by a defamation case or an attempt at one."Farieha Aziz, who works on digital rights in Pakistan, noted that the use of defamation laws in response to #MeToo accusations have been widespread. There have been instances when the country’s Federal Investigative Agency (FIA) summoned those who made accusations but also those who spoke out in support. In August 2019, the FIA summoned model Iffat Omar and singer Ali Gul Pir, along with 15 others, for tweeting in support of Meesha Shafi in her accusation against Ali Zafar.Although the 2020 Me Too movement is gaining momentum online, Aziz worries it remains largely disengaged with the law, which means legal reforms required to create a more favourable legal environment are missing. “The legal route is arduous. Cases can go on for months, even years and online support rarely translates into offline moral or financial support,” she said. Shmyla Khan added that Pakistani courts lack a nuanced understanding of consent, which deters victims.
Pakistani mainstream media’s insensitive and sensationalized coverage of sexual harassment and assault has also contributed to an environment where women are hesitant in coming forward.When Meesha Shafi first came forward with her story, she was vilified and slut-shamed on both social and mainstream media. “In the US, the first wave of #MeToo accusations was supported by quality investigative journalism. In Pakistan, this ecosystem is missing and coverage in mainstream media attempted to discredit Shafi’s claim and a very strong narrative against her emerged” Khan said.“This is what a patriarchal society tells a woman: that anything that happens to her is her fault,” Rights-activist and lawyer Nighat Daad, who represented singer Meesha Shafi in Pakistan’s most prominent #MeToo case, told VICE News.Daad said the times are changing. “It started with Me Too [movement in 2017]. Now, in small spaces everywhere, women feel like if they speak out, someone will listen,” she said.The widespread support for the young women, in the LGS case, has not been witnessed in Pakistan in the past. “Only if a woman looks or dresses a certain way, is she worthy of empathy. As an independent woman, Meesha Shafi, for instance, does not fit the idea of a ‘good’ woman,” said Tooba Syed.“Little girls fit the media’s idea of a victim. Any woman who doesn’t fit the stereotypical image of a victim is not believed,” Khan said.Despite problems, Farieha Aziz argues these #MeToo moments are “necessary because they disrupt and push the narrative”.The young women leading the LGS’ Me Too movement say they are not planning to stop. Students and alumni put forth a set of demands pushing for long term policy change at the school, which have largely been accepted by the school’s administration.Sara is proud. “Everywhere, harassers are afraid. They are feeling like how they made us feel.”Follow Shiza Malik on Twitter.