#Metoo not to be witnessed in Pakistan

  • Lack of seriousness towards the movement is showing in acquittals


After creating some small and some large ripples in a society shamelessly carrying the culture of harassment, #Metoo in Pakistan has reached a point of prolonged lull. For the most high profile case, which also started the movement in the country, has become a sad story of routine hearings, while the accused remain undeterred due to lack of evidence or definition.

The social media lately was abuzz with a conversation revolving around Vlogger and Influencer Umar Khan aka Ukhano, where the media person has been accused by several females of sexting as well as of serious levels of harassment. Umar Khan has categorically denied all accusations and is being validated for his ‘good behaviour’ by other female celebrities. But the accusations persist, in-fact increase with more females sharing snapshots of their conversations with Ukhano on the condition of anonymity. The conversations reveal themes of a sexual nature. Yet with a mild drop in his fan following, so far the Vlogger continues his posts and until there is any wide condemnation, will do so amongst a sizeable audience.

In the most recent hearing of the Ali-Meesha case, which has dragged on for over a year, prominent Pakistani actor-singer Ali Zafar told a Lahore sessions court that fellow singer Meesha Shafi has targeted him for defaming in an organised manner. He accused her of sending him threatening messages and then resorting to vilifying him. She had proclaimed on the news and Twitter that he had sexually harassed her during music recordings on multiple occasions. Zafar denied the allegations.

Until cases of sexual harassment are treated with more seriousness than present, the #Metoo movement would remain on the backburner

Although some boycotted the prestigious Lux Style Awards over the inclusion of Ali Zafar, he not only participated but even won an award! Many female high profile celebrities supported him, vouching for his ‘gentlemanly’ behaviour, expressing disbelief that he could misbehave with any woman.

Obviously, those in support of Zafar and Ukhano may miss the point that a man may not need to be a habitual harasser or publicly lecherous; and inappropriate behaviour may happen in solitary cases.

As the court awaits Meesha’s statement in its next hearing, early this month the Islamabad High Court (IHC), explaining the anti-harassment law, quashed proceedings pending before the Ombudsperson for Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace, saying that “mere meanings in dictionaries cannot be used to explain sexual harassment”.

The court set aside complaints filed against three individuals — a grade 22 officer, the head of the Overseas Pakistanis Foundation (OPF) schools, and an official of a private online cab service. It ruled that “in all the cases in hand, the acts, attitudes, conduct or gestures were not of a sexual nature and, therefore, did not fall within the jurisdiction of the learned Ombudsman.”

While it is not known what was the exact nature of behaviour by the three accused, a complaint was indeed lodged against each one of them, and a case of harassment was pursued. But these complaints were put aside, not due to lack of evidence which is the point usually raised in such cases, but due to lack of definition, prompting a debate whether the scope of the definition should be expanded or whether it should be explained in detail.

The IHC also recently reinstated Athar Farooq Buttar, former director news of Pakistan Television, after he was removed from office after a complaint was registered against him under the Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2010.

Such reinstatements and lukewarm responses have dominated the history of #Metoo in Pakistan. In 2018, after a two-year long investigation, Professor Sahar Ansari, a famed literary figure, was found guilty of harassing his female colleagues in one of the top universities. But far from being shunned by society, he continues to garner accolades and reverence and attends events even in the university, from which he had been barred by the committee formed to probe the harassment charges.

Female journalist Urooj Zia, in a series of tweets, alleged Faisal Edhi, son and heir to Pakistan’s largest philanthropist, of harassment during her interactions with him regarding a welfare project. The allegations, hardly seconded, received deafening silence and no investigation. Comedian Junaid Akram, who unlike Faisal Edhi, faces multiple anonymous accusations, continues to provide comic relief to his undeterred audience.

Critics of #Metoo in Pakistan often complain that the powerful tool of alleging sexual harassment can be used by women for vengefulness against innocent men. It is very innocent of them to believe so, for a woman who alleges sexual harassment against her employer or colleague, runs the highest risk of being removed from her job.

In 2016, Pakistan Television’s (PTV) Islamabad-based female camera operator Nadia Aziz had accused PTV Sports Director Noman Niaz and Controller PTV Sports Osama Azhar of harassment, for which she was fired.

Aziz lodged her complaint in the office of Federal Ombudsperson of Women against Workplace Harassment, Justice (retd) Yasmin Abbasi. In late 2017, six PTV officers were indicted with two-year ban on their promotions while the judge slapped a fine of Rs100,000 and ordered immediate restoration of Nadia to her post.

The accused decided to move the women harassment cell at the Presidency, where the Ombudsperson set aside the earlier decision, suspending the penalties imposed. Nadia’s restoration orders were also suspended, and she then moved the IHC against the ombudsperson’s decision. In 2019, Nadia’s case is still pending, while she remains unemployed.

In March this year, the Sindh and Punjab ombudspersons submitted reports to the Supreme Court, detailing the number of harassment complaints received and what action was taken against them. Sindh’s report covered complaints from May 2012 to March 2019 while Punjab’s report covered 2013 to date. While the Punjab Ombudsperson shows that 107 cases of workplace harassment had been decided in the province since 2013, of the 350 cases that have been disposed of in Sindh, action has been taken in only 8 cases.

A rare silver lining in the dark cloud appeared, when this year in May, the Lahore High Court (LHC) upheld the decision of the Punjab ombudsperson and the Higher Education Commission (HEC) in the sexual harassment case against a professor of the Lahore University. The University of Lahore assistant professor was also a doctoral student in the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the same university.

We do not know whether in this case, sufficient evidence of harassment was available or the actions matched the definitions laid out for the crime.

Also, the UN Women Pakistan signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) this week with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Ombudsperson to provide protection to women against sexual harassment at workplace. Under the MoU, the trends of sexual harassment at workplace would be assessed through a database of reported cases and the capacity of inquiry committees to deal with these cases would be enhanced.

It would indeed be beneficial for Pakistan to learn from international standards and their implementation to widen the scope of tackling sexual harassment. But until cases of sexual harassment are treated with more seriousness than present, the #Metoo movement would remain on the backburner.