We interviewed Frieha Altaf in Dubai right after the Ali Zafar scandal hit the headlines. A close friend of the Dear Zindagi actor, Frieha – an entrepreneur and prominent media personality who holds considerable influence in the entertainment and glamour industry - seems at a loss of words to react to the controversy that has divided fans and polarized opinion. She almost has an expression that says, ‘So what’s changed?’
What’s changed of course is the fact that a woman has come out bravely to complain against a co-star, and the fact that the world at large is applauding her for it. And Frieha, directly or indirectly, has played a catalyst in it. She wouldn’t take sides in the Ali Zafar-Meesha Shafi case, but is sure of her stance – that it’s time for women to speak up and speak out loud, against any form of harassment.
When Frieha speaks passionately, the world listens. Her voice is an important one in Pakistan and her efforts in recent times have proved to be a major discussion point in every conversation regarding sexual harassment and abuse, especially of children. Of course, it started after the horrific Zainab Ansari case (where a seven year old had been assaulted and murdered triggering nationwide outrage) which shook the conscience of the subcontinent. Frieha spoke about the abuse she herself faced as a child and her massive social media followers noticed. And empathised.
“I did it after a lot of thought,” Frieha now reveals. “I told people close to me, about my decision and it was decided we would post almost at the same time.” Aside from Frieha, actress Nadia Jamil and designer Maheen Khan too shared their experiences.
Her voice didn’t stop there. Frieha’s Catwalk Production created Catwalk Cares and took the lead in initiating the #MeinBhi movement, a take-off on the famous #MeToo Campaign of Hollywood, primarily to encourage women to shed the shame and speak up. The aim as she says, “is to encourage those who have been through any social injustice to talk about their stories, create awareness and generate support.” “It basically means – I stand by you”, she says.
Much has happened in the last few months. Money was raised for an NGO, an anthem was launched by singer Shehzad Roy who lent his weight behind the campaign, more and more celebrities joined the chorus and the famous Lux Style Awards platform was used to talk about the issue. Will it make an actual difference to the ground realities? One doesn’t know. But the feisty Frieha says she will continue to speak up and motivate others to do so…
How would you sum up the response to the #MeinBhi Movement so far, after its launch? Where do you plan to take the movement next?
The #MeinBhi movement is about ‘coming together’. Coming together to take a stand against social injustice issues this country faces. The campaign was initiated at the Mad Block Decent Party concert in Islamabad where we managed to raise Rs. 1 million for Sahil, an NGO working against child abuse. This was followed by a Fundraiser in California in partnership with Calpak Education Services which supports women’s education. We are also working closely with the newly formed Ministry of Human Rights and did their PR for the First International Human Rights Conference. At the LUX Style Awards, we had the Ministry of Human Rights helpline (1099) everywhere to encourage people to speak up. And this doesn’t end here; we have a lot more to achieve.
We have a video to the #MeinBhi anthem which touches many hearts. We continuously urge celebrities to connect with NGOs and help in whatever way possible.
You have encouraged people to speak up against abuse and share their stories but does that guarantee justice? What steps are needed to ensure that the voices are heard by the right people?
The power of media including social media is incredible. Our celebrities have a huge following – through one post, we can reach millions of people. Through the #MeinBhi, movement we aim to let people know that they can voice their opinions and concerns without being afraid of being judged and know that they have the support of all of us. We have many activists and organisations taking initiatives towards increasing awareness and eliminating injustices.
In neighbouring India, which has seen an equally high crime rate against women and children, there is huge outrage with intense media pressure on cases. How would you compare the narrative in Pakistan?
When Zainab Ansari’s case came to light through the media, the people of Pakistan showed the world what solidarity can achieve. It made me realise how much we can achieve if we come together. It gave many people, like myself, the confidence to speak up and this led to pressure on the government. Celebrities, politicians and civil society took to social media to condemn the incident and demanded the arrest of the culprit.
What’s the biggest challenge you face while fighting patriarchy and misogyny in our society in general and in the entertainment industry in particular?
The fight for equality is long and hard. From inequality of salaries to sexual harassment to superiority complexes, it will take a few generations or more for things to change. The problem lies in the lack of education in our country whereby we still face underage marriages, little or no education for girls, and age old traditions that give girls/women no sense of empowerment. Socialisation still favours boy over girl, it’s so intrinsically bound into our culture. Most girls have no idea there is oppression or inequality; they accept it as fate, and endurance.
MAHEEN KHAN HAS HER SAY
Designer Maheen Khan has been a pillar, along with Frieha, in the #Meinbhi movement, even designing a range in support of the campaign. We had a short chat with her.
As one of the main initiators of the Mein Bhi movement, how has this campaign affected you personally?
It’s been difficult. Childhood traumas of this sort effect you deeply for the rest of your life .The scars never heal. The pain turns to anger.
How do you plan to keep the momentum going?
By creating awareness at every level. Most of us live in a selfish bubble of our own. It’s time to wake up.