Three Pakistani celebrities have become the first women in the conservative nation’s history to publicly reveal that they were sexually abused as children, amid a national furore over the rape and murder of a seven-year-old girl.
The actor Nadia Jamil, designer Maheen Khan, and PR guru Frieha Altaf shared their stories on social media.
Jamil told her 100,000 Twitter followers on Saturday that “I was 4 the first time I was abused sexually”.
“People tell me not to talk to respect my family’s honour,” she added. “But is my family’s honour packed in my body? I am a proud strong, loving, survivor.No shame on me or my kids.”
Khan, who embroidered the costumes in Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), said that the mullah who came to teach her the Qur’an “abused me sexually. I froze in fear day after day.”
On Sunday, Altaf posted: “I was sexually abused by our cook at age six … the only shame is keeping SILENT.”
The revelations come as police in the city of Kasur hunt for the killer of seven-year-old Zainab Ansari. DNA analysis suggests the suspect may be responsible for the murder up to 11 other children within the same two-mile radius in the past year, a spate of killings that has prompted large protests and allegations of police neglect.
On Twitter, the celebrities used the hashtag #justiceforZainab. They also appended #MeToo, linking their stories with the international fightback against abusers sparked by the Harvey Weinstein scandal.
“It’s a first and a wonderful point that has been made,” said Manizeh Bano, the executive director of Sahil, an anti-child abuse charity. She hoped other survivors would be encouraged to come forward by powerful women breaking the national taboo against open discussion of sexual matters.
Pakistan ranks as the world’s fourth least hospitable country for women and has a legal age of consent of 12.
All the women have received supportive messages on social media.
“Since yesterday I have had 20 people call me and talk to me about their own instances,” Altaf told the Guardian.
“This topic has been festering for a long time,” added Khan, saying that she hopes the state will bring in capital punishment for abusers, since “if the child has not died, she is still not alive anymore for the rest of her life”.
Sexual education is absent from Pakistan’s national curriculum, and even broaching the subject is liable to provoke the country’s religious right wing.
Responding to the Zainab case, Hafiz Hamdullah, a senator for the Islamist party Jamiat Ulema-e Islam, said if “the western version of sex education [is] allowed in schools … it will aggravate the situation even more”.
Verses in the Qur’an that detail the process of conception are typically ignored by mullahs and left out of translations from Arabic, notes Sahil’s Bano.
Yet activists and government officials believe that the soul-searching over the Zainab case could at least pave the way for classes informing children on how to protect themselves from abusers. The information minister, Marriyum Aurangzeb, spoke in favour of such lessons in parliament.
Nevertheless, the options available to those who have been abused leave much to be desired. Pakistan lacks child-friendly or women-friendly courts, meaning few dare to come forward. Meanwhile a law that requires the state to pay for abused children’s legal aid has still not been implemented.