Dear Nadia Jamil, you cannot support Meesha Shafi and stand by Ali Zafar at the same time

Published: April 25, 2018
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It is when women make confusing statements and engage in victim-blaming that it hits where it hurts, especially when those women are otherwise feminist in their thoughts and actions.

Every Pakistani is familiar with Nadia Jamil. Her Twitter bio describes her as an activist, amongst many other roles, and thus far her activism on social issues, particularly child sexual abuse, has garnered her many admirers. She can also be described as a feminist, by her own admission of what she understands feminism to be.

Why is this relevant, you wonder? Because it always hurts more when the ‘feminists’ get it wrong.

For the past week, the entire country has been engrossed in the debate over allegations of whether or not Ali Zafar harassed Meesha Shafi. For a country which clearly does not understand what harassment entails, it was obvious from the start that we were all in for a rough few weeks.

You expect men to ask, why now? Why didn’t she speak up earlier? He seems like such a good, decent guy! Why did she take a picture with him? Why was she with him in the first place? Why was she wearing that outfit? What about the lines between harassment and flirting? (On a side note, if you do not know the line between harassment and flirting, you’re probably a harasser).

You expect a lack of understanding and victim-blaming from men. But it is when women make confusing statements and engage in victim-blaming that it hits where it hurts, especially when those women are otherwise feminist in their thoughts and actions.

This brings us to Jamil, whose response to Shafi’s allegations was to support her in her own way, showing an understanding of harassment and responding accordingly.

What is problematic, however, is the contradictory nature of her tweets.

Bravo! Zafar is so charitable; he has been secretly helping girls and women. Does that give him a free pass to harass other women? Does it absolve him from what he has allegedly done to Shafi?

We wish this is where it ended, but there’s more.

We’re glad Zafar never harassed Jamil, but what does that have to do with Shafi’s case? We call this problematic, because what Jamil’s tweets have been doing is covertly campaigning for Zafar’s character, even though he is the accused in this case.

Once again, given that false accusations constitute a very small percentage in the overall issue, Jamil stating it just seems like an attempt to undermine Shafi’s accusations.

Off-Twitter, Jamil went on to state on Mubasher Lucman’s show that she chooses not to go to industry parties, which is why she doesn’t get harassed. Being a part of this industry and knowing what men are capable of, she feels the onus of responsibility is on her. The solution for her is simple: Don’t want to get harassed? Stay at home.

Jamil has created a strange sort of antithesis, where she supports Shafi, but also supports Zafar. Where all women should be believed, but some women are known to be liars who make false accusations. Where she believes Shafi, but Zafar has always been good to her personally, and has also supported a school for little girls. Where it doesn’t matter what a woman was wearing or doing, but at the same time, why was Shafi at an industry party, where such harassment is common?

Which one is it?

On one hand, Jamil accepts men in the industry harass openly, and if you go to such parties, you are more likely to get harassed. This is an implicit acknowledgement that Zafar could have harassed Shafi easily. On the other, Jamil can’t stop herself from recollecting what a good guy Zafar is.

More importantly perhaps, what is the point of these observations? Harvey Weinstein was a charitable man and a philanthropist, but he is also a harasser. Bill Cosby was a charming ‘family man’, but he is also a rapist. Aziz Ansari too was a great guy, a self-proclaimed feminist, until we found out that perhaps in the most private moments, when the cameras were off, he was not so much.

After all, men are known to be harassers, which is why women should be careful, and avoid all places where they could potentially get harassed. This is what Jamil would advise young girls entering the industry as well. Is this not problematic? That young girls starting their careers have to step in with palpable fear, and the recommendation to avoid going to parties in an industry that survives on a strong social circle, because apparently it is the only way to avoid getting harassed?

The implication here doesn’t seem to tell women to speak up more, or to band together to try and change the culture of the industry. No, the implication of her statement seems to be that if you stay at home, you’re safe. Step out in this terrible world, and what happened to Shafi could easily happen to you.

How is this not victim-blaming? Jamil prefers to call herself a survivor, not a victim. But how are women to survive, if we are meant to avoid all obstacles? What exactly are we surviving by simply staying at home, while men are free to harass women like Shafi, who dare to go out and bear the consequences? Is this not the same “men will be men” mindset that puts the burden of responsibility entirely on the woman?

What makes this more painful is, of course, to see a woman who understands abuse, who has been abused herself, to yet go about showing the same lack of understanding when it comes to talking about harassment. Jamil’s position right now is so confusing that one would prefer she come right out and support Zafar openly. It would be clearer if she declared she doesn’t believe Shafi, rather than releasing contradictory statements where she believes Shafi but also suggests she could have prevented her harassment by not hanging out with Zafar, while remembering what a good person the latter is.

This is not even the first time Jamil has come under fire for supporting a ‘friend’, despite the controversy they are embroiled in.

Earlier this year, Fasih Ahmed, one of the founders of the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF), went on to tweet quite problematic things about child sexual abuse after Zainab’s murder shook the nation. Given the sensitivity of the matter and the insensitive way Ahmed handled the situation, Twitter was in a frenzy, and rightly so. When it comes to matters of child sexual abuse, there is a very thin line between satire and rape jokes. Sadly, Ahmed was too far off from that line.

 

One would think Jamil would call Ahmed out on how his ‘humour’ was in bad taste. However, despite Jamil’s constant activism when it comes to children’s issues, friendship took precedence. At first, she found it hard to believe it was actually Ahmed who tweeted the insensitive jokes.

However, after Ahmed himself clarified his account had not been hacked, Jamil went on to support him. Which brings us to the question: If Jamil didn’t think the statement was problematic, why did she initially believe his phone was hacked? Later on, as she sided with her friend, it became clear that despite the industry being full of harassers, everyone still protects their own.

It is deeply saddening when people who call themselves activists renege on the values they supposedly hold dear. Similarly, it is distressing when feminists like Jamil, who talk about abuse and the importance of believing those who come forward, also make backhanded comments about women who lie and make false allegations. We have come to expect such disappointing responses from people like Hamza Ali Abbasi, who never fails to surprise, but the same was not expected from someone like Jamil.

Your activism and feminism cannot end when you are confronted with difficult situations impacting your personal life.

You cannot be an activist until your friends are called out for their actions, and then choose to support them.

You cannot offer complete support to the accuser, but also stand by the accused.

It is either one or the other; being both just makes you a hypocrite.

All photos: Screenshots

Blogs Desk

Blogs Desk

The Express Tribune Blogs desk.

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