Tuesday, 29 November, 2022
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Even after #MeToo, powerful men like Ali Zafar will always win in Pakistan

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Stringent action against sexual harassment is a tall ask in Pakistan where even a woman stabbed 23 times doesn’t get justice.

Four months after Pakistan’s #MeToo movement was fuelled by singer Meesha Shafi’s accusation of sexual harassment against actor and singer Ali Zafar, there is now a real danger of women retreating into silence again.

Shafi’s complaint was dismissed on a mere technicality.

Zafar’s team said the complaint had been dismissed by the governor of Punjab because Shafi wasn’t an actual employee of JS Events, the company under which the two briefly worked together. Because there was no contract of employment, at the time of the alleged episodes, the Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act (2010) could not apply.

Also read: Singer Meesha Shafi’s sexual harassment complaint against Ali Zafar dismissed

Shafi’s legal team said that the provincial ombudsperson had earlier said she did not have jurisdiction, and now the governor had relied on “the same faulty reasoning”.

Pakistan is ruled by a dual system of shariah and civil laws, and the Constitution of Pakistan states that there shall be no discrimination on the basis of sex. However, Pakistan ranks as one of the most dangerous countries for women because women are often killed in the name of honour, face domestic violence and suffer systematic disenfranchisement.

In an interview earlier this year, Meesha’s lawyer spoke of how there was little or no precedent in Pakistan’s courts of women speaking up against sexual harassment at the hands of colleagues and getting justice.

It was only after the murder of social media star Qandeel Baloch by her brother in the name of honour that Pakistan introduced anti-honour killing laws under the previous government of Nawaz Sharif.

Punjab government also only recently passed the Protection of Women Against Violence Bill, which prevents forced marriages, marriage to the Holy Quran, acid attacks, rape, sexual abuse, and other associated crimes against women. This law has still not been passed in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province where Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has been in power for the last five years. In fact, it forwarded the bill to be checked by the Council of Islamic Ideology that actually allows husbands to ‘lightly beat’ their wives. The Bill was an attempt to change the draconian laws that had been inflicted on the people of Pakistan by General Zia-ul-Haq in 1977.

Apart from the lack of enough instances of women winning in court in cases of sexual harassment, Pakistani society also teaches women to be quiet about molestation or abuse. Breaking the silence means inviting shame upon themselves, women are told.

Meesha Shafi broke that silence. Ali Zafar not only denied any inappropriate behaviour, he sent a defamation notice of Rs 100 crore to her. Then he went on to promote his film, Teefa in Trouble.

A number of women felt emboldened to speak out in Pakistan’s #MeToo movement, and Zafar’s slick PR machinery went on an overdrive to vilify Shafi and paint Zafar in glowing light by mobilising showbiz celebrities.

Also read: Ali Zafar’s ‘Teefa In Trouble’ is a test case for Pakistan’s nascent #MeToo movement

In the past week, Zafar has been thanking God, both online and offline, quoting the film’s success as some kind of a vindication and proof of his innocence. Protests had rocked film screenings and premiere parties, and many feminists had chosen to boycott the film the as well. Shafi’s allegation was a breakthrough moment for women in Pakistan to speak up against sexual harassment, even though the technicalities and loopholes in the justice system make it a long, difficult, fearful path.

Shafi’s lawyers will continue to fight the case in higher courts. But most women do not even have the platform, social support, resources and lawyers to do the same.

Also read: Celebrities in Pakistan openly support school girls’ #MeToo. Bollywood can learn

On 3 May 2016, Khadija Siddiqui had gone to pick her younger sister from school when a knife-wielding man attacked her. He was wearing a helmet, he stabbed her 23 times and left her fighting for her life.

She survived the attack, but her ordeal didn’t end. In June this year, her alleged attacker, Shah Hussain, was acquitted by the Lahore High Court. The prosecution failed to prove that Shah Hussain was the attacker, and the governor of Punjab sent a message to Siddiqui through an ‘influential personality’ to forgive Shah Hussain and ‘settle’ the matter.

After all, the legal system couldn’t help a woman who was attacked 23 times in broad daylight, or a successful, high profile singer and model.

The author is a liberal, feminist journalist, YouTuber and Supermom in Pakistan. She wanted the above tweets to be embedded in this article. Her Twitter handle is @mahwashajaz_

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