KARACHI: Visit any mainstream Western media website and you will find at least one story on sexual harassment on a daily basis. The same is not true of Pakistani or Indian mainstream media websites. Why is that so? Is harassment not happening in our countries? Or some other factor(s) are at play?
Last year, we saw #MeToo transforming into a global movement from a mere hashtag. Numerous women spoke out. They broke their years’ long silence and spoke about the horrific ordeals they went through at the hands of powerful men. Learning about what these women went through makes one shudder. What’s worse is the silence that remained on these issues. With no one to believe or support you against powerful men, it’s horrifying to even think about the dirty acts that these women have been bearing with for so long. But once that silence was broken, we witnessed an unprecedented acknowledgement of the crimes committed by a “superior” gender towards an “inferior” one. It was always about power. But there comes a day when the all-powerful must be taken down and that can happen only with collective efforts. The #MeToo campaign was one such effort – women endorsed each other by believing and sharing similar ordeals and, for a change, our hope for a better future was restored.
Men who harass do not have to come from a particular background, country, race, ethnicity, religion, sect, class or political leaning. You will find them in all countries and across all brackets. If there is one thing that is common in all cases of harassment, it is an imbalance of power. Patriarchy is, without a shadow of doubt, deeply entrenched in the social fabric of South Asian countries such as Pakistan and India. It is patriarchy that assigns a greater amount of power to men over women, which enables the domination of one gender over the other. All in all, the one and only reason for harassment being prevalent in society remains the power imbalance along gender lines. While patriarchy exists across the world, in countries like Pakistan and India, it is validated by self-styled interpretations of religion and culture.
Now, why have Pakistani and Indian women not named and shamed their perpetrators? Priyanka Chopra has not taken any names. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy did not name him. Why? The answer lies in the treatment that society metes out to the likes of Ayesha Gulalai.
Thank God that now Pakistanis and Indians have begun to refer to harassment as it is. I remember growing up hearing cases of “Eve-teasing”. The use of the term speaks of our problematic, sexist semantics and downplays the gravity of the crime that harassment is. It places the onus on the Eve – the “temptress”. Meanwhile, the connotations of “Eve-teasing” are that of playful, innocent fun. For many men in India and Pakistan, harassment is actually fun. For evidence, you can take a look at social media. All one needs to do is be “smooth” at casually harassing women because the menace has been normalized in our society.
The way men enjoy “funny” incidents of harassment reminds me of how these heartless beings hurl stones at dogs on the street and have a laugh about it. They have the power to do that. They will exert that power and it will be a funny guy thing to do. No remorse whatsoever.
Meanwhile, casual sexism and misogyny are not exclusive to men. Most women raised in our sexist Pakistani and Indian societies are conditioned into internalizing stereotypical gender-based expectations. Some of them will giggle upon being “Eve-teased”. Women in these countries will not name and shame their perpetrators until this normalization of harassment culture continues.
I know a woman who was abused in her childhood. She was seven years old when her father’s friend touched her inappropriately. She told her parents about it and her mother told her to never tell anyone about it. The father is still friends with the abuser.