Shiffa Yousafzai of Pakistan: Seeking justice

The most noticeable thing about the stunning Shiffa Yousafzai is her 500-watt smile. It lights up the screen and every platform on which she is the MC. Co-hosting a two-hour morning show–Hum News Subah Say Agay–five days a week since May 2018, the viewers and the guests see Shiffa’s endless cheerfulness and positivity as she talks about myriad subjects without ever making anyone feel uncomfortable.

Since the show’s inception, Shiffa and her co-host Ovais Mangalwala (joined in December 2018) have covered in their hundreds of shows a wide array of issues, including education, health, girl education, human rights, animal rights, child labour, inheritance laws, anti-rape laws, old age homes, child abuse. They have conducted on their show many interviews with Pakistan’s ambassadors posted in the important capitals of the world on Kashmir and other significant topics such as the US elections. They have covered Pakistan’s Elections 2018. They have interviewed ministers, former prime ministers, bureaucrats, policy makers, experts, and renowned and uncelebrated achievers from almost every field of life.

Shiffa also co-hosted Prime Minister Imran Khan’s 2020 telethon for covid relief funds. Her work also includes coverage of Gwadar, breast cancer awareness shows with First lady Mrs Samina Alvi, shows on the Azerbaijan elections, and an Azerbaijan travelogue.

In March 2021, during one of her daily shows, Shiffa shared the news of Kasim Khan, Prime Minister Khan’s son, majoring in Islamic History from a UK university. The news was widely shared by numerous news sites, and on WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter in Pakistan and among the Pakistani diasporas. The repudiation from the University of Bristol was prompt: the university doesn’t offer a degree in Islamic History. That should have been the end of the story, only it wasn’t.

Despite being false, the report was not harmful, it didn’t attack anyone, it didn’t threaten anyone. It was shared as something uplifting, something good. That is what Shiffa Yousafzai did too. Nothing more, nothing less.

On March 25, a former news show producer-turned-freelance commentator-turned-YouTuber-turned-social activist posted a video on his YouTube channel about Shiffa’s “mistake.” It would have been just another negative commentary made exclusively for a few clicks and snickering among likeminded people if it wasn’t as toxic as it was.

When I saw the video, what struck me was how a person, a self-avowed women and human rights activist, turned a trivial tidbit into a matter of astronomical importance, a harmless morsel of news that turned out to be false into a national crime of grave consequences when every night on our TV many of our primetime news show hosts utter one factually incorrect statement or the other, or/and allow the same from their guests to go unquestioned. Many of them do the same on Twitter. But their “mistakes” are not chronicled in a series of videos that Shiffa and countless others found unquestionably reprehensible.

I found the content shocking as filled with bitterness and rancour–I can’t comment on the rationale behind so much negativity–it did not in any constructive manner criticise a show host’s professional faux pas. Disparaging and cancelling her almost three years of work, it blatantly targeted a female TV host’s personal character. Although vehemently denied by the YouTuber in two more videos, both direct attacks on Shiffa, and in his tweets–his stance being he “criticised” her work and not her gender or her personal integrity–the content of his videos speak for themselves.

A tad lost in translation, here are some of his comments:

a) If a monkey dances well, would you allow monkeys on [tv] screens?

b) [Shiffa] works for a political party [PTI]

c) You [addressing the channel’s owner] have given her a show because she roams around in ministers’ cars?

d) Don’t bring [to TV] para-shooters [persons brought from outside and usually considered unfit for a position] and infiltrators who have nothing to do with journalism and are promoting ignorance and misinformation, misleading the nation on the power of their PR [skills] and [good] looks

e) ISPR should also think why they let the ignorant Shiffa fly with them in their helicopters

f) I wish to ask the ministers who promote Shiffa that do they promote an ignorant [woman] and retweet her tweets just because she sits in their cars?

g) Being paid in millions [of rupees], she should read newspapers for knowledge to understand her auqaat [level]

h) She has a track record [unsubstantiated] of sharing fake news

[Interviewer’s note: the word constantly used is “jahil”, someone with absolute ignorance]

These are just a few of the comments made on Shiffa in those three videos.

I asked Shiffa Yousafzai a few questions:

Mehr Tarar: What was your initial reaction to the videos?

Shiffa Yousafzai: I was horrified but not surprised given the kind of tweets and videos he had been making about other people. I don’t know him, have never met him, never even spoken to him. I’ve never come across him anywhere although as a journalist I attend many events. It was shocking why he’d attack me like that. For a person like me who has never used a personal attack as a viewpoint or a rebuttal, his direct attack on me was incomprehensible.

The first video was terrible. Respond or not, I was uncertain initially. The support was spontaneous. All I did was share the video with a few close friends, and that was just for them to see what that man was saying about me. The video started circulating, and people spoke up. Tweets in my support, and to condemn his behaviour. But instead of stopping he made a second video, and then a third one. It was a terrible, ugly series of attacks on my character, my dignity.

Had you ever been targeted in a manner identical to the ones in those videos?

I’ve never been targeted the way that person attacked me. And for what? Because I unintentionally shared a positive story on my show that was later declared false? I think he attacked me because he doesn’t like my opinions and my responses to mainstream political and other issues. My stances differ with his on almost every issue of national importance; did that annoy him? Only those who claim to be liberal but are not liberal can have an issue with a contrarian view, a viewpoint different from theirs.

A whole campaign started against me. It wasn’t just him. It was also his Twitter followers and those who endorse/support his stances. They were cursing me on Twitter. They were cursing me on YouTube in the comment section under his videos. Some of his friends, expat Pakistanis who can’t stand people with a positive outlook on Pakistan, joined in throwing filth on me.

It was not just trolling and abuse, it was cyberbullying. I wouldn’t just stay call it harassment or defamation, it was much worse. Ugly is a small word.

What was the reaction on Twitter? Did you receive messages of solidarity from your media community?

It was a very strange time. The more people spoke up for me, the more filth was thrown on me from the other side. Derogatory terms that I wouldn’t even think of using for my worst enemy. To be abused like that as a woman, words that can’t even be used for a man, for anyone. But they were used for me under his videos and on his Twitter timeline in response to his tweets. Filth begets filth, I suppose.

But then there were many people who supported me. The support was across parties–PML-N, PPP, PTI. Many people from my [journalistic] fraternity supported me. I thank everyone, including you.

I wouldn’t say it was just women like PPP’s Sharmila Faruqui who spoke up for me, it was also men. Leaders like PML-N’s Mohammad Zubair and Attaullah Tarar. Many PTI folks also tweeted in my support, and of course that was attacked.

The magnitude of positivity was much larger than the toxicity of his videos and tweets. Messages on Twitter, from people who reached out to me personally, and from complete strangers, it was overwhelming.

The right prevails. I see life as grey, but you have to choose either white or black in some things. You cannot remain in the middle. Grey is not always the option; some things are just black and white. You must be on the right side.

Was the response of female journalists to the videos what it should have been: a categorical condemnation?

I wouldn’t say women didn’t come forward or men didn’t speak up. I acknowledge everyone’s support, and I’ll always be indebted. But there are some people in every field whose voice has a special impact. Because of their professional stature, their opinion is valuable. I’m relatively new in this field, I wish to learn a great deal from my seniors. Irrespective of my disagreement with their viewpoints or any ideological difference, I respect all of them. It is just that when my work and I were being constantly degraded, not many of my seniors said anything in my support. Not even some of my former colleagues. Their silence was noticeable.

Even most of the women journalists and commentators who had presented a resolution [which highlighted among other issues certain PTI office holders’ responses to their work] earlier this year to form a united front against online and other trolling or harassment did not speak in my support. Not when his videos were released, not later when my case hearing was highlighted.

Veteran journalists like Meher Bokhari, Fereeha Idrees and Tanzila Mazhar supported me. They are among those few women who stand by everyone, irrespective of their disagreements or ideological differences.

In the last couple of months, I’ve seen such a blatant display of selective feminism and selective activism for human and women rights: if your views and ideology match ours, we are with you. If not, we won’t speak up in your support.

What prompted you to seek a legal recourse?

When I saw the first video, I thought of ignoring it. I was advised to not pursue it legally. That not many people get justice in Pakistan. I was also told that if I were to sue him, he would become a “hero.” Then the second video appeared, followed by the third one. This person insinuated, rather declared, that I had “connections” in the intelligence agency. And that “people” were calling journalists, and even women parliamentarians, to “advise” them to tweet in my favour.

When he made that video, I said to myself: no more, I will take legal action. If as a woman, as a journalist and as an anchor I ignore vicious cyberbullying and don’t file a report, what message am I conveying? Women who watch my show in their homes, or are working somewhere, what my silence would have conveyed to them is that courts are useless, and you shouldn’t take any action. If someone bothers you or harasses you, don’t go out, don’t seek justice, don’t work hard to get justice. If you don’t follow your own advice, what good are your lectures on TV? I’d have negated everything I believed in if I had not acted against him. That is the reason why I filed a complaint in the Federal Investigation Agency. InshaAllah, I’ll get justice from our courts.

The other reason for filing the complaint is that there are so many others like him. In Pakistan and living in self-imposed exiles, so many others who attack me. I wish to give a message to all of them: I am not an easy target, I will take you to court, I will not spare any of you if you attack my character, my reputation. This legal notice will serve as deterrence for all those despicable people who attack women from behind the safety of cyber-invincibility. No more.

The Islamabad High Court has given the ruling for the FIA to continue the investigation into your complaint. Your comment.

The Islamabad High Court Chief Justice Athar Minallah categorically stated in his June 2 court order that an investigation must be conducted in the context of section 20 of Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act 2016. It “criminalises the act of publicly exhibiting, displaying or transmitting information one knows ‘to be false, and intimidates or harms the reputation or privacy of a natural person’.” The honourable CJ has ordered the FIA to complete the inquiry by June 30 and submit the report.

In the court order, Chief Justice Minallah has also added a very important point that my complaint is not about curbing free speech. The Chief Justice has categorically stated that since the case is about a natural person whose dignity is at stake, it is not a matter of curtailing a journalist’s freedom of speech.

Instead of focusing on their professional credentials and performance, criticism on female journalists, and females in any leadership position is quite frequently sexist, misogynistic, personal. Unfortunately, even some women abet that culture. How will that mindset change?

In our patriarchal society, that mindset will change when women and men unite.

Men who understand and respect the concept and importance of women’s dignity must start to speak up and act against toxic behaviours against women. Workplace protocols are changing for the better, but much still needs work. Clear lines of conduct are required. Criticism must be healthy and commentary on women must be constructive. Women’s looks or clothing must never be the reason to undermine their work. Not many men are attacked in terms of their appearance when they mess up an assignment, make a mistake, or even completely fail in making headway in their organisations.

Women become an accessory to awful treatment of women if they don’t speak up, if they don’t take a clear stance against outright attacks on a colleague’s character, if they become selective about what “awfulness” they would condemn, and which ones don’t suit their woke-ism.

Hiring in media channels should be of folks with a positive outlook. Psychological analyses should be conducted to check a man’s mentality–how they see women, how they even look at men working with them. Do they believe in a peaceful professional coexistence of all genders? Or do they believe men and women should be pitted against one another?

Mindsets will change slowly. Our society is full of decent people. In my case, I see that hope still exists. So many people supported me. One person’s ugly attacks don’t make me disillusioned. Pakistan is full of wonderful men who respect women.

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