Let Ayesha Gulalai's case be a lesson in how NOT to talk about harassment in Pakistan

Let Ayesha Gulalai's case be a lesson in how NOT to talk about harassment in Pakistan

The country has descended into an ugly and inappropriate debate on Ayesha Gulalai. Here's how you can do better
Updated 04 Aug, 2017

Pakistan's political landscape experienced a new jolt after the Friday disqualification of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, when PTI lawmaker Ayesha Gulalai levelled allegations of harassment against PTI Chairman Imran Khan and other members of his party.

Responses to Gulalai's allegations highlight several troubling aspects of the way we talk about harassment in Pakistan.

The facts of Gulalai's case remain murky at present, but this is a harassment case that will play out in the public eye, and thus, it is likely to shape the way future complaints are addressed and also the way people think about harassment and victims who report its occurrence.

Against this background, it becomes doubly important for everyone involved to issue their statements on the matter in a responsible manner.

However, this has not been the case. It is well known that many in Pakistan are not sympathetic to women who seek to take a stand against gender discrimination or harassment. But reactions to Ayesha Gulalai's claims from everyone to celebrities to the average citizen have been overwhelmingly negative, with some questioning her character and others even called for her to be attacked with acid.

So where do we go from here, and what's the right way to talk about claims of harassment? Read on to find out.

1) DON'T: Slander an entire gender if you suspect one woman to be untrue

Who's guilty of this one? Hamza Ali Abbasi.

It's one thing to have resolute faith in your party leader and quite another thing to undermine a possibly legitimate complaint against him as an act of "playing the woman card".

Hamza Ali Abbasi's allegation that Gulalai is "playing the woman card" splits the issue of harassment along gender lines, creating something of a gender war. This is dangerous and irresponsible.

The courts and police system are already replete with challenges for women who wish to seek justice against perpetrators of crimes committed against them — let's not add to those challenges by irresponsibly propagating the notion that women exploit their gender for personal gain.

This is a problematic line of thinking because it can be used to repeatedly discredit other women who come forward to report harassment.

To Hamza, we'd like to say this: don't create divisions where there are none. Don't create an atmosphere where women are distrusted from the outset. Don't belittle an entire gender if you disagree with one woman.

Hamza, who has followers to the tune of 4 million on Facebook, should have known better.

2) DON'T: Expect victims of harassment to align with a timeline that satisfies you

A lot of people have questioned why Gulalai remained silent for all these years when she revealed that she first began receiving inappropriate texts from IK and the party members in 2013. Case in point, Anoushey Ashraf.

People have failed to consider that it takes a considerable amount of courage to come forward with a harassment complaint given the consequences of speaking up. The suggestion that harassment complaints can become outdated or have an expiry date is very problematic given that it is, in fact, common for harassment victims to come forward after years.

In fact, regardless of the outcome of these allegations, victims of harassment have often revealed their experiences to the public long after they happened, and have received recompense nonetheless.

For example, former Uber employee Susan Fowler suffered discrimination for a whole year before she made her grievances public. As her case was examined further, a culture of discrimination at Uber was exposed and Uber's CEO eventually resigned.

3) DON'T: Shame the accuser's family

After Ayesha Gulalai came forward with her accusations, people began posting pictures of her sister, squash player Maria Toorpakai, shaming the athlete for wearing shorts.

Even PTI spokesperson Fawad Chaudhry jumped on the bandwagon, making it a point to mention Maria Toorpakai's attire in a TV interview, saying: "Ayesha's own sister, Maria Toorpakai, who I respect a lot, plays squash, she wears knickers and plays squash. What's wrong with it?"

Thankfully, Imran Khan has since stepped in and asked his supporters to stop targeting Ayesha Gulalai's sister Maria Toorpakai.

4) DON'T: Engage in character assassination

This should be pretty simple, but judging by our reactions, it isn't. After Gulalai came forward with her accusations, people began attacking her intentions and making assumptions about the nature of her relationship with Imran Khan.

Rather than doing this, we should take a page out of Mahira Khan's book. She urged people to wait for the truth to come out rather than jumping to wild conclusions.

5) DON'T: Encourage violence

Some people took to social media to say Ayesha Gulalai should be attacked with acid.

As Armeena Khan knows, this is not something to even joke about.

6) DON'T: Frame harassment as an east vs west problem

In her own press conference, Ayesha Gulalai framed her accusations against Imran Khan in troubling terms, saying: "Imran Khan appears to be heavily influenced by the west. Perhaps, he has mistaken Pakistan for England. He wants to introduce a western culture here, elements of which our eastern society, Pakistani society, the Pakhtoon society, the Islamic society will not tolerate... Do you think such a man is qualified to the run the country, under whom the honour of our mothers and sisters is in danger? We don't know what kind of culture he will introduce [when he becomes PM]."

This is problematic because, as evidence tells us, harassment is just as much a problem in Pakistan as it is in the west. Instead of creating false narratives about cultures, we should stick to talking about harassment in terms of what it actually is — a universal issue.