HARVEY Weinstein’s decades of sexual harassment, coercion, and abuse have come to light in a scandal that has shaken Hollywood. The Hollywood mogul’s story was first broken by The New York Times, then followed up with an explosive exposé by Ronan Farrow for The New Yorker. Over 30 actresses, models and employees have spoken out about their ordeals at the hands of Weinstein, who used his position as a powerful movie producer to sexually exploit vulnerable young women trying to establish their careers in the entertainment industry.
Weinstein has since been fired from his own company and fled Hollywood, while the industry is left questioning itself about how this went on for so long while the victims kept their silence. Some of them are well-known actresses now, but when Weinstein propositioned them, they were young and unprepared for his aggression. Others were employees or unknown faces who had no Hollywood connections; they thought he was interested in their work when it was really only a pretext to gain access to their bodies.
People think this is the norm for the entertainment industry; the price young women have to pay if you want to ‘make it’ in Hollywood. The phrase ‘casting couch’ is a euphemism for the well-known proclivity of powerful Hollywood men — directors, producers, agents — to sample the goods in return for roles and jobs. But Weinstein took this to another level: not only did he attack the women, but then he also threatened them with legal repercussions to keep them quiet, or paid them off for their silence.
After similar scandals involving American comedian Bill Cosby, Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly and Fox executive Roger Ailes, as well as the well-documented words of Donald Trump, a few people are asking why the women kept quiet. Women are very unlikely to receive justice, and instead are likely to be attacked, if not by the abuser, then by others who support him and believe the women are lying so that they’ll get media attention and money out of the accusations.
Can we learn from Weinstein’s disgrace?
But women are tired of living with their painful experiences. They are telling the truth, and they are finding strength and courage among the numbers of women who share their experiences.
Hollywood is a long way away from Pakistan, but sexual harassment at work is common to every country in the world. According to UNISON, the world’s largest trade union based in the UK, 50pc of Pakistan’s working women face sexual harassment. It’s not just a problem that exists only in corporate offices. A field worker kidnapped or raped by landlords, a factory worker targeted by her overseer, a university instructor harassed by her supervisor, a flight attendant propositioned by a passenger — these women are all Pakistani, and they all face sexual harassment or worse at their workplaces.
We’re still stubborn enough to think that the answer is to keep women away from the workplace, or to restrict their activities to all-female environments. But this is a sheer impossibility. Even Saudi Arabia, the most restrictive and repressive country in the world, has finally declared that women will be allowed to drive next year.
The country’s (slightly) more progressive rulers have recognised that women in the workplace can boost the country’s economy. Unfortunately our sexist attitudes against working women still poison our working environments: women in offices are seen by predatory men as sexual objects, and like Harvey Weinstein and all the women he harassed, are told they can get ahead in the workplace if they comply with their bosses’ sexual demands.
In Pakistan, most women who work do so out of economic necessity; most hope for a healthy working environment where they will be respected and protected. But this is never guaranteed, and if a woman encounters sexual harassment at work, she’s the one forced to leave. Back in March, PTV anchor Tanzeela Mazhar resigned from her job after allegedly facing sexual harassment by a current affairs director, senior in position to her. She went public with her accusations — very rare for a Pakistani woman, but she too had tired of the psychological torture — but found herself and another colleague Yafsheen Jamal suspended and taken off air, while her harasser was reinstated to his position.
Despite the fact that sexual harassment is against the law and there are mechanisms to register complaints with the federal ombudsman, most women remain silent about what they face. Pakistani women must learn to support each other and speak out, taking a lesson from how Weinstein was finally brought down. Pakistani companies must enact a policy of zero tolerance for men who harass women at work. And Pakistani society must put the blame where it firmly belongs: on the harassers, not their victims.
The writer is an author.
Published in Dawn, October 15th, 2017