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Meighan Stone, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations’ Women and Foreign Policy program, interviewed Nighat Dad, a leading women's activist, lawyer, and executive director of the Digital Rights Foundation, who is leveraging the momentum of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements in Pakistan. From representing the country’s highest profile #MeToo case to helping organize the recent "Aurat" or women's rights marches that triggered media and legal backlash nationally, Dad is changing laws, workplaces, and online spaces.
What made you decide to start working on women’s rights in the digital space?
I’m a lawyer, but I also run a nonprofit organization called Digital Rights Foundation, where we work on digital rights, digital security, freedom of expression in the online space, access to information, and the right to privacy through a gender lens. I got into digital rights because I faced sexual harassment myself from my employer. I decided that maybe I could do something in the online space to help women.
You’re representing Meesha Shafi, whose #MeToo case reflects the #TimesUp movement, with a notable woman in entertainment making sexual harassment allegations against another leading celebrity. What’s the status of that case?
Meesha decided enough is enough and she decided to speak out in public on Twitter and use the hashtags #MeToo and #TimesUp. Women in Pakistan had been struggling with how to use the hashtags and the backlash they would face and if people would believe them or not.
After the tweet, mainstream media, social media, and women’s rights groups picked it up, and several other women made allegations online against this man. The alleged harasser’s father-in-law belongs to a powerful family of lawyers and he filed a defamation suit against her, claiming millions of dollars in damages.
That’s when I said “all right, let’s fight this battle now.” We started defending Meesha in the defamation case and, at the same time, filed a workplace harassment case. We thought it was important not to leave it online, and use the laws that we have. During the process, we will identify gaps in existing laws and policies. Although we have a lot of support, we’ve had backlash as well, with bullying, death, and rape threats. Meesha is now under a gag order. Why are all these restrictions only for women?
What impact do you think Meesha’s case will have on the enforcement of the law and for everyday Pakistani women?
After Meesha’s case, a lot of women started reaching out to us; not only celebrities, but women working in different fields. They were inspired to speak up about the harassment they face at their workplaces. And they started looking to me, that “she’ll defend us.” And I knew I could do it, but I couldn’t do it alone. We needed a force and a movement.
So I started talking to lawyers across Pakistan and I told them that we were getting a lot of cases where women are speaking up and facing defamation suits. These women do not know the legal process for workplace sexual harassment. When they speak up online, they face a backlash.
We decided that we cannot be silenced anymore and started a portal called Ab Aur Nahin! which in Urdu means “Time’s Up, No More” and which connects survivors to lawyers available in their city. We now have fifty pro bono lawyers onboard, many of whom are women barristers, as well as twenty young men. We’ve already won one case for a woman from a very rural part of Pakistan; she won not only the harassment case, but also the defamation case.
It sounds like Pakistan is at a tipping point on women’s workplace safety and equity. What kind of support would help you accelerate your work and achieve measurable outcomes?
We’re getting a lot of requests from lawyers on our portal that they need training and templates for how to reach out to ombudspersons and to the high court. There are court expenses, even if lawyers are doing pro bono cases. Massive workplace intimidation also makes some women take a step back and think “Why am I getting into this mess? I’ll just stay quiet, instead of fighting this case.”
We also want to expand the platform to bring together provincial and federal ombudspersons, and talk about gaps in the law and recommendations. Although the law was enacted in 2010, there are many loopholes because nobody used the law before #MeToo. The law doesn’t even cover student and teacher relationships.
This is a great moment for us because there is a lot of criticism of #MeToo: “It’s a hashtag, so what’s next?” What’s next is using the law that we have and taking the cases to court. That’s where we need funding and support.
You were one of the organizers of Pakistan’s Aurat Marches across the country for International Women’s Day. Can you tell us about the impact and backlash to the marches?
The Aurat March was inspired by the women’s marches that started in the United States and started in Karachi and then came to Lahore. We wanted to do our own version, so we called it Aurat (“woman” in Urdu) March. In 2018, we reached out to grassroots movements, including women’s health workers and the teachers’ union. We didn’t want it to be just women from an elite background, but a march for every woman struggling in her own workplace or life.
This was the first time that thousands of women were out in the streets in our history. Men also joined them, as well as sexual and religious minorities. Women came out in public and started talking about #MeToo and sexual harassment. We faced a lot of backlash because men in our homes and around us were like “So now women are saying that household work should be equal and talking about their reproductive rights? This is not something that you can talk about in public. What if they will make it a norm and go out on the streets every year?”
Then mainstream TV channels attacked the march and labeled it as a part of a “Western agenda.” Religious clerics said on TV that it was un-Islamic and that these women should be arrested for spreading obscenity and immorality, violating our constitution, and attacking our family system.
The conversation on social media turned dangerous as people started tagging and threatening to rape us. Initially, we thought that we should challenge this narrative, but then we felt threatened. We were actually putting our lives at risk, so we stopped going on TV.
Then a group of lawyers went to the police in Karachi, Lahore, and Peshawar and said that these organizers should be arrested, including Meesha, because she performed at the march. But the police didn’t file a case, which is unusual. They said that the march was peaceful, and that if you want to arrest people, you should arrest the clerics who protest and destroy public property. We are not going to arrest these women.
I can see things changing but this process is slow. This is change that I might not see in my life, but maybe future generations will.