The harassment tweet that outraged Pakistan

Why Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s tweet reporting harassment against her sister caused such a vicious online backlash.

Pakistani journalist and filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy an Oscar for her documentary, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness in 2016 [Reuters/Mike Blake]

Social media in Pakistan is in an uproar. A doctor who provided emergency care to a woman sent an unsolicited friend request to her on Facebook after the hospital visit. Her sister tweeted about it, calling it harassment.

The story wouldn’t have normally attracted so much attention if the woman tweeting had not been two-time Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. After she tweeted about the unsolicited Facebook request, the doctor who had treated her sister was suspended. The ensuing backlash against Obaid on social media networks has not subsided for days now.

Not that there was ever doubt about the misogynist nature of online trolling in Pakistan, but the attacks on the film-maker have marked a new high in online hate on women. Two things seem particularly unforgivable in Obaid’s case: one, that she dared cause a man who did “nothing wrong” to lose his job; two, that she made her fame by “smearing” Pakistan’s image. 

Reading the comments and tweets online, one could feel the exasperation with which men were trying to explain how this friend request could possibly be a consequence of an “informal conversation”, a “misunderstanding” or something initiated by the woman; how the man was not given a chance to even breathe and explain himself. I wonder, how many men hearing the story got scared that their own immoral behaviour could be punishable? That their “innocent” comments and actions towards women at work, in the streets, in public transport, in bazaars, etc could indeed be harassment? And in realising that, rushed to their phones and laptops to defend their “right” to do all this without any consequences?

Unsurprisingly, Facebook and Youtube got flooded with videos of men condescendingly explaining what exactly constitutes harassment to Obaid and through her, to Pakistani women. Others accused her of harassing the doctor by tweeting about the incident.

Obaid was also attacked for being famous; after all, she is viewed as a woman who became successful by “presenting a negative image” of Pakistan. Her Oscar-winning short documentaries tackle the topics of acid attacks and honour killings of women.

“The more the pantaloon of Pakistan is taken off, the more popular Sharmeen gets,” seems to be the favourite sentence of many social media users commenting on the issue; “taking off pantaloon” (pants) in Urdu means airing someone’s dirty laundry. One popular video with tens of thousands of views has a gentleman schooling Obaid on how not to abuse her influence as a celebrity while, of course, belittling her professional achievements: “making 2 to 4 documentaries is not a big deal at all … and it is the doctor who is being harassed.” The same man is also indignant about Obaid’s use of #Pakistan in her tweets about the incident.


The backlash, of course, encouraged trolling. A Facebook page posted a video called “Sharmeen triggered – how to trigger (harass) Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy”, showing visuals of searching for her profile on Facebook and then adding her as a friend. On Twitter one user vowed to keep attacking Obaid and her sister until the suspended doctor is allowed to go back to work and declared that he was going to send friend requests to as many women as he wanted to.

Obaid and the question of solidarity

Amid the male-dominated trolling spree, there were also some women who chose to join in; many agreed with and even adopted the chauvinistic commentary. “Sharmeen is a tout and a dirty fly. She is only trying to seek fame through these tweets,” one female commentator claimed.

But there have also been some women and men who have taken this opportunity to talk about what consent means and why the doctor, unethically using medical records to look up Obaid’s sister on Facebook, was in the wrong.

While there have been some thoughtful debates on sexual discrimination and feminism coming out of this incident, there has also been a degree of scepticism within the progressive circles.

Some commentators called Obaid an opportunist and attention-seeker, and recirculated a video in which one of the acid attack survivors from her documentary is accusing her of promising financial reward for her participation and not delivering on it. Some critics also pointed out that as upper-class women, Obaid and her sister are privileged and are easily able to obtain justice for perceived slights.

The fact that some people disagree with Obaid’s politics and question her work ethics should not mean that they cannot express solidarity with her and her sister. Harassment against women is harassment, whether the victims are rich or poor, ethical in their public work or not. Why should women, victims of gender-based violence or aggression, be questioned about their work ethics? Why should a protest against the violation of one’s body come with a “certificate of purity”?

Feminist solidarity should be a process and a choice. You should be able to stand with women you do not agree with politically or share a class background with.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.