#IBelieveHer, and so should you

Published: April 26, 2019
Email

Based on the principles of our art, my band, The Sketches, also unanimously decided that it is time to pick a side.

Throughout her advocacy for sexual assault survivors, Tarana Burke, the founder of the Me Too movement, has mentioned how action being taken in any particular case does not bring her personal joy. She repeatedly reminds us how this is not what the movement is about – it is about healing for the survivors.

Burke is not delusional with the idea that sexual harassment will disappear from the world over the next decade, but she believes a shift in narratives – how we talk about it – is possible by then.

Globally, ‘believe women’ is a political slogan arising out of the  Me Too movement. It refers to the necessity of accepting women’s allegations of sexual harassment or assault at face value. Writing for Elle, Sady Doyle argued the phrase means,

“Don’t assume women as a gender are especially deceptive or vindictive, and recognise that false allegations are less common than real ones.”

Now let’s bring the ‘believe women’ slogan in the current context of Pakistani society. When the #MeToo movement started in our country, we failed survivors through our silence. We also failed them through the defamation case easily working in favour of the alleged harasser, through the toxic cyber bullying and reporting turning such a grave issue into a mere professional fight between two celebrities, and through personally targeting all women who spoke up against the same alleged harasser to such an extent it forced them to take their tweets down to protect their lives.

This took a more twisted turn when an uncontested ‘Music Icon of the Generation’ award was given to the same alleged harasser whose case is still ongoing in the Lahore High Court, all while the woman who accused him is asked to zip up.

Clearly, we as a society have not only accepted but also encouraged this predatory behaviour to continue. Many alleged harassers and rapists in the industry are continuing their work without being questioned in the same manner as we effortlessly question the survivors who speak up. For instance, in another ongoing case, even though those who promoted a story to give one survivor a voice did not mention any names, a particular music video director still filed a defamation case against his fellow film director for merely reading an anonymous letter at the Lahooti Melo 2019.

This is what i read at Lahooti melo. ““History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with…

Posted by Jami Moor on Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Following this, another renowned award show nominated the same alleged harasser for his film, justifying their actions by stating that the decision was taken without consideration of any “other extraneous issues related to the personal characters or actions of people”.

With all due respect, organisations that actually appreciate the sensitivity of sexual harassment and recognise the intensity of public sentiment take immediate action in support of survivors, no matter what it costs them. Just take the example of how responsibly Netflix acted when Kevin Spacey was accused of sexual misconduct.

People who understood the significance of the issue withdrew their nominations in support of survivors. What other way was there to convey how serious this matter is? Based on the principles of our art, my band, The Sketches, also unanimously decided that it is time to pick a side. There’s no neutral ground here.

Yes, a huge part of initiating proper dialogue on sexual harassment, specifically in this industry, is the responsibility of our celebrities. However, holding the allies of those accused accountable for their inaction and demanding them to stop working with the accused is still the work of the society as a whole.

There are so many people who are still silent on this matter, showing no morals or conscience as they continue to work with these accused men and acknowledge (and even reward) their work but not their actions.

Does this mean we have accepted harassment and rape as a common practice in our industry? If not, then have we even appropriately schooled our respected media professionals on their irresponsible opinions on the Me Too movement? After all, no one should be allowed to hide where they stand on such an important subject, and the burden of proof must be shifted from the victims to the accused.

As far as coming clean is concerned, it could be done by alleged accused harassers in a lot of ways other than using lengthy procedures of court to buy time, hiring PR agencies to do their work (because in most cases the victims are already too powerless to answer them this way), or pretending to have stepped down from their position in their own organisation while they are secretly still benefiting from it.

The accused and their allies often get away with saying they have full faith in the justice system. Let’s remind ourselves that this is the same justice system in which a brutal gang rape survivor Mukhtaran Mai has still not obtained any justice after almost 17 years.

We need to recognise that this is a social fight. These women are already an easy target for us to blame and rid ourselves of the responsibility to do right by them.

It has been months of raising awareness against sexual predators and listening to and sharing stories of victims and survivors, feeling their courage and witnessing their process of healing. Their stories haunt me and my friends.

It was during this process that I realised how these predators ironically hide behind women, suggesting that them having a wife and kids makes it impossible for them to be guilty of what they are accused. People will defend the accused by claiming they ‘know him’ and that he is a ‘family man’ so he cannot be guilty.

Then the victim-blaming begins, where they suggest the woman must be lying because this powerful individual refused to give her work. Quotes like ‘innocent until proven guilty’ are also thrown around. As a last resort, such people will threaten you (a man) and ask,

“A story written can be written against you as well, does it mean you are predator too?”

This is where men have to be wise enough to realise their responsibility to build a safe and inclusive society for women. But I am learning that the battle isn’t simple, because such predatory men have so much to hide behind; from their work and their connections, to religion and their families, to other women themselves. This trick has worked for men in the past, making it reasonable for them to assume it will continue to work for them in the future.

In Pakistan, we are too far from listening to survivors, let alone believing them. We don’t even have social consciousness of the fact that women are subjected to harassment and abuse here. In fact, we are in denial!

We deny it when it is protested in the Aurat March and close our eyes when it happens in our homes. Every day we read news of domestic violence and sexual assault and hear stories of workplace harassment; we know how common sexual violence is, and we know most victims are women. Yet the first thing we do when they speak up is argue and question their credibility and defame their character.

When we don’t know the names of the people involved in a particular case, instead of focusing on the survivor’s message, we tend to gossip about their identity. But the next time you read an anonymous account and want to know the identity of the victim instead of the alleged accused, ask the women in your home. Ask them and see if you have personally built a space for them to talk about their trauma, and then think about the kind of society we have created with our own hands for our women.

It is about time we as a society feel some shame and try to find out how we can create an environment where survivors can speak up without endangering their lives.

But what fear holds us back from creating this environment? The fear that women will lie and will destroy men’s reputations, careers and status. This fear is being prioritised over actual damage to women’s reputations, security, careers, status, health, bodies and lives. Does that sound fair?

The account of sexual harassment read at the Lahooti Melo has become a ray of hope for survivors to heal and even come forward so they can protect others.

Sexual predators live, breathe and work like leeches in every industry, but I believe we are taking steps towards a reckoning. A new industry is taking birth and it has to – a clean industry where young and true talent will rise and the wave will wash away all parasites, sexual predators as well as their supporters.

However, we can no longer allow powerful people to abuse their power and take advantage of those less powerful. We have to prioritise the lives of these young survivors over the careers of those accused. Only when we succeed in doing this can we gain the capacity to concern ourselves with the right treatment for habitual predators.

Let’s start by believing women, so at the very least we do not let down those who trust us enough to speak up.

#IBelieveHer

Saif Samejo

Saif Samejo

The author is a lead vocalist for The Sketches (Sufi band) and founder of 'Lahooti Melo,' promoting art and music, especially indigenous artists. He tweets as @saifsamejo (twitter.com/SaifSamejo)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.