On the 19th of April, model and singer Meesha Shafi accused singer Ali Zafar of sexually harassing her. Ali Zafar responded by denying these claims. We received equal information from both sides, and it came from both individuals in the same form: a personal testimony communicated through twitter. And yet the public chooses to blindly side with one, and shame the other. On what grounds does one get to blame and shame Meesha Shafi? Below are some of the arguments people have been coming up with, and I would like to respond to them. 1) She is an attention seeker and wants fame through controversy. Meesha Shafi started her career in this industry at the age of 17. Two decades on, she has become one of the most prominent figures in Pakistan’s music, modelling and film industry. By any standard, she is talented, successful and has done extremely well for herself. So she already has fame. A survivor of sexual harassment or assault does not owe anyone their story. They have every right to choose how they share, when they share, and how much they share 2) Why now? If it happened so many times, why didn’t she speak up sooner? Maybe because she feared exactly what is happening now – backlash, character shaming, being called a liar, and all of this controversy bleeding into her personal life and possibly affecting her children. In a country like Pakistan where a woman’s sexuality is so deeply tied to how society views her and then determines whether or not they deem her worthy of respect, it is not difficult to imagine why she might have been hesitant to speak out. The reasons women mostly choose not to speak up about such incidents are many: they don’t want to be defined by it, they are afraid of the backlash, they think they will not be believed, they don’t want to risk humiliation, they don’t have enough societal support, they think that will be blamed, or it is simply too traumatic to talk about. Whatever a victim’s reason may be – for not sharing at all, sharing it the same day, or sharing decades later – it is their reason. It is valid and it is enough. 3) Why is she not sharing details of what happened? A survivor of sexual harassment or assault does not owe anyone their story. They have every right to choose how they share, when they share, and how much they share. Just because she is a public figure does not mean she owes the public anything more than what she chooses to share. Furthermore, every individual has the right to define their own morals and values. Regardless of how a woman chooses to live her life, there is nothing she can ever do to deserve or invite sexual harassment. In the world of sexual harassment, victim blaming is common practice. We need to recognise how dangerous and traumatic this is. An act of violence or harassment is never, ever the victim’s fault. 4) Why is she doing this to a married man? She is a homewrecker. The responsibility lies on the harasser as a married man to not commit such an act. The burden of protecting a man’s reputation and marriage does not lie on his victim. 5) All women have suddenly started capitalising on the #MeToo movement. There is a difference between capitalising on something for your own gain, and feeling like there is finally enough dialogue and support in the world to be able to talk about an experience. For the first time in history, women have started being vocal about sexual harassment. This is not because of any changes in the legal or structural support they receive, but because the #MeToo movement has provided them with an online support system, and the ability to partially hold their perpetrators accountable through the power of social media. 6) Don’t blindly trust women when they make such claims. Why shouldn’t we believe women? Why is it that with women, they are guilty until proven innocent, and with men they are innocent until proven guilty? If one is not a survivor of sexual harassment or assault, they do not have the right to trivialise the pain of someone who is a survivor. Often the loudest voices in such a dialogue belong to those who are not women, and who are not survivors of sexual harassment. As a result, the dialogue is overwhelmingly delivered by those who have no real insight into what inhabiting either or both of those roles is like. This conversation goes much deeper than just the two individuals in question. Too often, when a woman comes forward about experiencing abuse, instead of getting the emotional and mental support she needs, insensitive and accusatory arguments like those mentioned above are hurled her way. What happened in this case was that a man and a woman came forward, each with a personal statement. What happened next is that society overwhelmingly believed and sided with the man, and labeled the woman a liar. Why? It boils down to misogyny – the “dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women”. What we have seen today boils down to just that: the idea that a woman making such a claim itself makes the claim doubtful. Research shows that sexual harassment is one of the lowest reported crimes in the world. This is largely because the practice of victim blaming often permeates larger systems in a country where a victim may go for support: the police, healthcare and the legal system. When the social support and the systemic support are both lacking, it serves as a huge deterrent, thus preventing women from reporting such crimes. In Pakistan, due process and receiving fair treatment through the judicial system with regards to sexual violence is uncommon. A positive effect of someone with celebrity status like Meesha Shafi reporting this issue is that it makes people pay attention. People have been following closely, sharing opinions, taking part in debates and discussions. All of this to say that it has made people talk about an issue that is otherwise considered to be taboo by some, and a non-issue by others. When Ali Zafar filed a Rs. 100 million defamation suit against her, in response, Meesha Shafi hired renowned activist and lawyer Nighat Dad. One can hope that this case will force people to acknowledge that there is a culture of gender-based violence in this country, and along the way, encourage our lawmakers to build a stronger legal structure for victims of sexual harassment and violence. While the overwhelming response to this issue has been deeply problematic, there has been a small but strong presence of women and men, who are standing in solidarity with a victim and a survivor. They are recognising the courage it must have taken for her to speak up about something as traumatic as sexual abuse, not just for herself, but in order to pave the way for other victims to come forward, seek justice and hold their perpetrators accountable. To this small population, I say: thank you! There is a culture of violence against women in this country, and it is through the minds and voices of such people that there remains hope for change. It is through the courage of survivors who speak up, and members of society who support them, lift them up, and help them in their fight for justice that we can make this country a safer place for women. The writer has a background in Economics and a Master’s degree in Community Development from Vanderbilt University Published in Daily Times, May 5th 2018.