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They Accused a Pakistani Megastar of Sexual Harassment. Then They Were Sued for Defamation

9 minute read

When Meesha Shafi ignited Pakistan’s #MeToo movement in 2018, she said she wanted to end the culture of silence around sexual harassment. Now, the singer and actor is under a court-imposed gag order while fighting a libel lawsuit.

The 38-year-old star of Mira Nair’s film The Reluctant Fundamentalist accused pop singer Ali Zafar of sexual harassment in 2018. He denied the allegation, and filed a defamation suit against her and eight others who also made or amplified claims against him online. All nine were charged with criminal defamation at the end of September. If convicted, they face a maximum sentence of up to three years in prison and a 1 million rupee ($6,144) fine.

At stake in the case is more than just their liberty. A ruling against those who decided to name names could derail the nascent #MeToo movement in the world’s fifth most-populous country, women’s rights campaigners say. Mainly, they fear victims will be pushed back into the shadows.

“You cannot expect survivors to come forward [if] the next thing the accused does is weaponize defamation laws to silence them,” says Nighat Dad, a prominent rights activist and Shafi’s lawyer.

Such litigation has proliferated worldwide in the wake of #MeToo with women and men on both sides of the movement seeking to enlist the courts on disputed events. Ashely Judd, Justin Bieber and President Donald Trump have all sued or been sued for defamation over sexual misconduct allegations. Yet even as libel cases offer an avenue for legal recourse, they can also dissuade victims from calling out perpetrators and muzzle public discussion.

Like in the U.S., Pakistan’s #MeToo movement took off on the back of celebrity star power, sweeping halls of power, film sets and newsrooms. But it also sparked a wider awareness campaign, propelling the taboo-stricken issue into the limelight in the Islamic republic.

Read More: How #MeToo Is Taking on a Life of Its Own in Asia

Shafi, a model and fashion icon turned singer, was one of the first Pakistani stars to attach her name to the cause. In a lengthy statement posted to Twitter in April 2018, she accused Zafar of “sexual harassment of a physical nature.” While she refrained from detailing what she called multiple incidents, she appealed for ordinary women to share their stories too. “If this can happen to someone like me, an established artist, then it can happen to any young woman,” she wrote.

At least four other women soon stepped forward with more allegations against Zafar. The Pakistani musician, who has also enjoyed commercial success next door as a Bollywood actor, has been sending teenage hearts aflutter with his good looks and star power since the 1990s. He denies any misconduct, and his legal team has dismissed the online allegations as a smear campaign.

One of Zafar’s lawyers, Ambreen Qureshi, says they are surprised but “vindicated” that the government decided to pursue the defamation charges two years after the complaint was filed. “In all honesty, we weren’t even expecting them to act on it,” she tells TIME.

Qureshi denies that the defamation complaint is an attempt to intimidate witnesses as Shafi takes her harassment case to the Supreme Court (after an ombudsperson said workplace harassment laws do not cover the two musicians) The accusers, Qureshi says, had their opportunity to give statements to investigators and substantiate their claims.

Yet one of the nine people named in the suit told TIME of feeling “terrified” since coming forward.

“The state is against me, the men are against me, the media is against me. There is no support. I would be a fool to speak out again,” the individual says, commenting anonymously for fear of further legal retribution.

The fierce backlash to Pakistan’s #MeToo movement

In Pakistan, #MeToo has faced an uphill battle from the outset. Even as rights groups say sexual and domestic violence against women is endemic, victims who report incidents are often treated like criminals and blamed for their assaults. Justice can be hard to come by in a country where an estimated 1,000 women are killed each year by their families over damaged honor, including violations like clapping and singing with boys. Feminism meanwhile is widely dismissed as a “Western concept,” including by Prime Minister Imran Khan.

In 2017, a year before assuming office, Khan denied accusations of sexual misconduct from a member of his political party, Ayesha Gulalai Wazir. She was publicly derided as a political opportunist and received a barrage of abusive messages from people threatening to attack her with acid or whip her.

Despite the challenges, in the last few years Pakistan’s embryonic #MeToo movement has slowly come into its own. There have been a series of reckonings: last year, the Lahore High Court upheld the dismissal of a university teacher found guilty of using his position to exploit a female student, and this spring, a radio broadcaster won a workplace sexual harassment case after a two-year battle.

But there has also been a fierce backlash. At this year’s annual Women’s March in Islamabad, demonstrators carrying signs saying “Believe Her” were pelted with stones and assailed by the leader of religious right-wing political party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, who said, “God willing, we will also come out into the streets, and we will destroy you.”

Online, the battle has been particularly acrimonious.

Initially, Pakistan’s #MeToo backers took to Twitter and Facebook as an effective organizational tool for mobilizing and building solidarity across different groups. Posts bearing witness displayed the pervasiveness of the problem, and inspired an outpouring of empathy.

Then came the trolls. Many launched obscene outbursts denigrating women for asserting a space of their own. Doctored, expletive-laden images of #MeToo backers have mushroomed on Twitter and Facebook, mocking women for protesting and demanding an existence free from sexual violence and harassment.

Read More: TIME’s Person of the Year 2017: The Silence Breakers

Last year, Pakistan was ranked 151 out of 153 countries by the by the World Economic Forum on the Global Gender Index Report, scoring poorly on workplace participation, political representation and prevalence of gender-based violence.

In a society where women struggle to have their word taken over a man’s, defamation laws have only compounded the already immense challenges of speaking out. Simply amplifying accounts of misconduct can result in getting sued.

Pakistani journalist Tanzeela Mazhar, 38, tells TIME that after she filed a complaint against a director at the state-owned PTV news channel, she was slapped with a criminal defamation lawsuit. “Defamation cases are used as a tool to punish all those who speak against harassment,” Mazhar says. “It is tiring and exhausting… but I will never give up on this.”

The high risks victims face coming forward

Those who dare to say #MeToo in Pakistan have also found themselves confronting a draconian cybercrimes law that was ostensibly enacted to protect women from online harassment.

The 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act—the law under which Shafi and the eight others were charged—allows the government to censor online content, access user data and criminalize some forms of communication. In response to an early draft of the bill, Human Rights Watch labeled it “a clear and present danger to human rights.”

Sadaf Khan, co-founder of the Islamabad-based NGO Media Matters for Democracy was among the activists who unsuccessfully lobbied to remove the criminal defamation clause from the act. “We were told that the clause was being placed there for the protection of women,” Khan says.

Instead, she says the case against Shafi and the others indicates that the government has little intention of actually helping those it said it wanted to safeguard. “These complaints are simply going to further discourage women from taking a legal route, allowing sexual predators to continue targeting other women, without consequence,” she says.

An official at the Federal Investigation Agency however, tells TIME that women are encouraged to come forward with any complaints. “If someone is telling the truth, we will assist her and help her find justice, but if someone is accusing without evidence, what should the agency do?” says Abdur Rab Chaudhary, Director of Operations for the FIA’s Cybercrime wing.

But the anonymous individual currently being sued by Zafar for defamation blames the government for creating a system that penalizes those who come forward. “Ali Zafar is literally just a man who is using the tools that the state has made available to him,” the individual says. “But it’s the state that is allowing him to use these tools. It’s the state that’s the real perpetrator here. Why have these laws?”

Still speaking out—anonymously

#MeToo supporters are still speaking out in Pakistan, but accusers now tend to opt for pseudonyms online. By choosing to remain anonymous and staying vague about their allegations, survivors are likely responding to the venom—and lawsuits—that might otherwise await them after posting on social media.

The shift has disenchanted some supporters. “There was only one medium left for us and that is not available anymore,” says Shireen Rizvi, a 23-year-old #MeToo supporter and activist in Lahore. After a childhood spent listening to the soundtrack of crooners like Ali Zafar, she counted herself a fan—at least until the harassment allegations made her see the musician differently.

Despite all the hurdles, some disclosures have continued to rock Pakistan and force real change. In June, a sexual harassment scandal engulfed an elite all-girls school after a former student took to Instagram stories to anonymously share inappropriate text messages allegedly sent by a teacher. The revelation sparked an outpouring of similar anecdotes of teenagers being preyed upon and resulted in the firing of four male staff members.

Shafi and her lawyer remain optimistic about the advances made by Pakistan’s #MeToo movement, including the fact that women have not stopped filing cases. “People are still speaking out,” says Dad, the lawyer. “It seems they’re not scared anymore. They know the justice system’s flaws and that it is inherently rigged against women in Pakistan. Even still, they’re speaking up.”

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