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The face of women’s strength in Pakistan

By Aisha Sarwari

“I can’t fade,” says Tanzeela Mazhar, the woman who took a man down on charges of harassment in the workplace. When she walked in to meet me, this is the last thing I thought she would say. Mazhar has so much of what young people today call swag.

Her words are both triumphant and also telling of the vulnerability women face when they come out of their shell and expose a man for bad behaviour. She wore printed pants, a baby pink printed scarf over a button down white shirt and matching pink lipstick. She looked like she had dressed for TV in a role of an anchor.

She played this role in PTV for about a decade. “You have to be on air. That is how you make it as an anchor.” Which meant that all the time her boss, the man she accused, pulled her out of the limelight for turning his advances down, she was in career oblivion. Her boss would not just be a sleaze, he would come on to her physically, touching her, making her feel unsafe. “What matters is how small someone made you feel.”

Yet in Pakistan what matters is what physical harm was actually done, what the backstory is and why a woman brought this on herself. In a gross culture of misogyny, victim blaming and sanction over the violation of consent, Mazhar has become the voice of women, who emerged on the other side of an anti-sexual harassment campaign, with both her dignity and sanity intact. The latter was a real struggle. There were propped charges of blasphemy on her to frighten her off. When all else failed the right wing, which was squarely in the accused pocket, said that she enjoyed favours from her boss and is crying foul when they stopped.

“Somehow if a man uses his privilege and doles out favours to women he preys on, the fault is the woman’s and no one would point a finger at him for overstepping his authority.” In this culture of vile neglect of a woman’s narrative, Mazhar dared to ask questions. Very uncomfortable ones and that too publicly. She asked them on the very medium that she commands: the media.

She recorded a series of vlogs where she asks why women are not believed when they complain against lewd behaviour, unwanted sexual attention and violation of physical boundaries. “This is a place where minors are raped. Yet we are more secure believing the best about men.” She recorded this and put it on social media. It received over 400 retweets and likes on Twitter.

There has been overwhelming support from women and even among young men for her bold work. It points to the fact that the new Pakistan is bone tired of the old order. Since her expose, many women have come to her and told her horrific stories about how they were harassed, and then silenced.

Mazhar took her complaint to the ombudsman for harassment. Unfortunately, despite a recorded conversation between her and the accused, clearly proving his culpability, the committee ruling was that there wasn’t enough evidence. “I didn’t want to knock on the court doors only to get another turn down of my voice.” Instead, she beat him at the age-old game of credibility. She spoke out so vehemently and so loud with so much data that the truth was out there, no matter what some committee felt.

For ages, men have set the tone. They have laid out the verdicts. They have charred the course and decided who gets to speak and whose voice doesn’t count. Mazhar refused to give that power to anyone else. “People tried to tell me what I feel, where I was at fault and what I must do.” When women break the shell the go-to process is to think on their behalf.

Mazhar’s biggest disappointment: women. “I’ve propped up so many women, yet only a handful publicly supported me.” Even those women who were harassed by the same man hung her out to dry. There was support, sure, privately, in the dark.

Dark is how best the struggle is described. First, the battle for your story being heard. Then, afterwards, the battle of getting the story to be believable. Mazhar’s family supported her but not without peril. “As a girl who fetched water from the river in her childhood, the conservatism was a river I almost drowned crossing.”

She wouldn’t swap the journey for anything though. When I asked her if there was a class issue in her fight for justice: without a doubt. “It was so much easier to dismiss me.”

Women like Mazhar would have been avoided like the plague, but she didn’t let that happen. She takes selfies and posts them to tell that silent constituency that is watching her: “There is no way in hell I am fading.”

I have been harassed several times. I have never had the courage to speak up like Mazhar. When we met I felt my voice was handed back to me. I first heard her speak at a conference where I tweeted her immortal words. “We must shame men who think women who work are fair game.” This is me, helping her staying alive in our consciousness as the darkness of silence engulfs us, and helping her do what comes naturally to her — become the relatable face of women’s strength in Pakistan.

The Express Tribune