A famous actor has been accused of abuse. Now those who have spoken against him will be prosecuted under the law to protect women.
It takes a lot to make Leena Ghani angry.
She has also faced bullying, intimidation and harassment as an artist turned activist helping to lift Pakistani women’s voices.
But Ghani says she was shaken when she heard one morning in late September that police had accused her of criminal defamation, connected to Pakistan’s most sensational #MeToo case. “In terms of silencing and demonizing people who speak out against sexual assault, it was a new low even for Pakistan,” she says.
Ghani hasn’t been alone. Eight other persons, facing three years in jail for criminal defamation, were also convicted in the case.
Some only heard from a newspaper report about their involvement.
Lawyers say the case has revealed how cyber defamation legislation passed under the guise of defending women from online abuse is instead used to silence the victims of sexual assault in Pakistan.
On Dec. 16, authorities said that ample evidence existed to bring Ghani and others to justice – and the future of the #MeToo campaign in Pakistan is now at stake.
After Meesha Shafi, a singer and actress who starred in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, sent off a tweet alleging sexual assault, the campaign began in April 2018.
Shafi reported that one of Pakistan’s most famous celebrities, Ali Zafar, had subjected her to “sexual harassment of a physical nature on more than one occasion”
Shafi wrote that she hoped her declaration would “break the culture of silence that pervades our society.”
Zafar denies “all the harassment allegations brought against me by Ms. Shafi” and has so far successfully fended off the allegations of sexual harassment she brought against him in court.
The accusations reverberate through Pakistan’s profoundly conservative Islamic culture, where it is unusual and taboo for women to speak out against attack.
Disbelief prevailed because of the success of Zafar, but on social media, hundreds of women and men supported Shafi, including those who accused Zafar of attack.
Among them was Ghani, who said that after they became friends in 2014, her reservations about Zafar’s treatment of women emerged. Ghani accused Zafar, writing on Twitter, of conduct towards her that “shows a clear lack of respect for women,” including “inappropriate contact, groping, sexual comments.”
“You hide from him,” reads Ghani’s message, “hoping his greasy eyes and hands don’t find you again. His hands don’t wander up and down your waist or hold you too tightly as you desperately try to squirm and run away.”
It followed similar allegations.
On Twitter, journalist Maham Javaid posted an alleged incident in which Zafar “tried to kiss my cousin and drag her into the toilet with him,” Blogger Humna Raza said Zafar groped her at an event.
Fortunately, friends of my cousin’s were there to drive him away.
Zafar has accused Shafi of organizing a campaign against him on social media.
He said he could not believe, according to newspaper reports, that “anyone can come forward and accuse someone who is innocent and decent and has worked hard for over two decades – just through social media.”
Zafar brought a civil defamation suit against Shafi, seeking damages of one billion rupees. The court admitted the complaint and put on Shafi a gag order, which prohibits her from addressing the claims in public to this day.
Zafar appeared on a dozen television shows to defend his reputation during the next two and a half years, often breaking down in tears and sometimes being accompanied by his wife. He alleged that the accusations were a campaign of smear orchestrated by a group of women who created fake accounts and were financed by foreign money.
Pakistan’s president awarded the Pride of Pakistan to Zafar last month, one of the highest honors in the region.
Shafi also initiated legal proceedings in July 2018, trying to have Zafar prosecuted in the workplace for sexual assault. Her case was dismissed on the grounds that the statute did not protect freelancers.
An appeal before the High Court of Lahore