Harassment scandal at girls’ school spurs Pakistan #MeToo movement

Four men have been fired after details of alleged abuses were widely shared on social media, prompting more girls to come forward an elite girls’ school in Lahore

A Pakistani family chooses a school bag at a shop in Rawalpindi.  AFP
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Several weeks ago an elite all-girls private school in Lahore, Pakistan – the Lahore Grammar School’s Ghalib Market branch – was rocked by a harassment scandal.

As horrific accounts of teenage girls preyed upon by older men, one of them a chemistry teacher in his fifties who had been teaching at the institution for over a decade, began pouring in on social media, Adeen Chaudhrie felt sick to her stomach.

The posts were a reminder of her days as a student at the Lahore Grammar School back in 2014, when an English teacher in his mid-forties encouraged her to sign up for a dating website in order to “contact him regarding class issues”. Ms Chaudhrie was only 17 at the time.

“He was a well-known poet, popular among Lahore’s literary circles, and that’s probably why the school hired him,” she recalls.

Ms Chaudhrie’s experiences with the English teacher weren’t in isolation; in fact, several classmates echoed her sentiments, and when they approached the administration as a collective to complain about his conduct, they were shown the door.

During her two years at the institution, she estimates close to 80 girls complained about being harassed by members of staff.

“Everyone was shut down, slut-shamed, and sent back,” Ms Chaudhrie said. “The administration could not care less about us.”

For four years afterwards, she felt her experience was a rite of passage, something all women must encounter at some point in their lives. The first adult she confided in about the incident was a college professor back in 2018; she later informed her family.

But the latest revelations sparked an outpouring on social media after a former pupil at the school shared an anonymous account on Instagram’s stories feature detailing the explicit messages sent to her by a teacher there. It began an avalanche of stories online. Two students spoke up anonymously on Twitter, and several more followed on the same platform and Facebook.

Many posts have since been deleted, seemingly in fear of reprisals.

The school was forced to respond and, two weeks later on July 11, four men whose names kept resurfacing in the accounts were fired. Staffers who allowed the harassment to fester – including the school’s principal – were suspended.

Now, activists are hoping the movement will spread to other institutions across the country and challenge what they say is a culture of silence that surrounds harassment in schools.

Law enforcement authorities have not intervened in this case. On July 4, the School Education Minister for the province of Punjab said that the education department "could not take action over a social media post" and that parents of students should come forward with "written complaints".

Activist and Lahore Grammar School alumni, Maria* believes that the global MeToo movement has significantly influenced conversations taking place across the country’s institutions. “While there was always the implicit knowledge of harassment taking place on campus, the sensitisation happened after the movement became powerful post-2018,” she said.

“Schools need to start taking MeToo seriously.”

Pakistan’s iteration of MeToo has – until now – largely been confined to spaces occupied by public figures and celebrities. It began in April 2018, when popular singer Meesha Shafi accused another celebrity, Ali Zafar, of sexual harassment. Two months later, in June 2018, Mr Zafar filed a defamation suit against Shafi, valued at 1 million Pakistani rupees.

Like other postcolonial states, Pakistan criminalises defamation: Sections 499 and 500 of the Pakistan Penal Code include a two-year jail sentence for defamation, and under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (2016), an individual who makes an online statement that is likely to “harm the reputation” of a person is subject to up to three years’ imprisonment.

Digital-rights researcher Shmyla Khan says the laws have been weaponised by perpetrators of harassment, who use them to intimidate victims into silence.

“Lawyers will tell you that defamation notices seldom result in damages or conviction, but women who don’t have mobility or access to lawyers experience the impact of these laws quite differently,” she said.

In Pakistan’s patriarchal society, the legal environment remains unsympathetic to victims of harassment, with limited avenues for recourse.

"Social obstacles aside, victims served with defamation notices are expected to produce videos or evidence of harassment in court, in person. And unfortunately, online support rarely translates to on ground support," digital rights advocate Farieha Aziz told The National.

Despite picking up speed this year Pakistan’s MeToo movement remains largely urban and elite – those speaking up against their harassers usually attend private schools and universities, which are generally outside state control.

But in October 2019, reports of the alleged harassment of students at a public institution – the University of Balochistan – emerged, prompting protests on campus.

Islamabad-based activist Tooba Syed argues that even the country’s feminist movement – which she is part of – was hesitant to “take the incident seriously”.

“A reason for this is that one would have to call out a very powerful institution: the state,” she says.

Nonetheless, Ms Khan believes that there is strength in numbers: “What makes the LGS case unique is the sheer number of women who spoke up against members of staff, and there, might lie this movement’s redemption.”

Two years ago, Ms Chaudhrie was pursuing an undergraduate degree at a women’s college in Lahore when she came across a pamphlet advertising an event – her harasser’s name and picture were splashed across the front page.

“I have never felt more afraid,” she said.

“My brush with harassment did not involve any physical altercations, and yet, just reading my harasser's name made my world spin out of control – I can’t imagine how much trauma other women have kept bottled up inside, and that is why I must keep fighting, for myself, for other women. This is my calling.”

*name has been changed to protect privacy