Activists and lawyers hailed a recent decision by Pakistan’s highest court to hear on merit a high-profile sexual harassment case that launched the country’s #MeToo movement, caused a stir on social media and polarized public opinion .
Earlier this week, the Supreme Court ruled to consider whether prominent singer and actress Meesha Shafi’s claims against fellow singer and actor, Ali Zafar, fell under the 2010 Protection from Harassment of Women Act. At work.
In April 2018, at the height of the global #MeToo movement, Shafi had accused Zafar on social networks of sexual harassment of a physical nature on several occasions.
Share this because I believe that by speaking about my own experience of sexual harassment, I will be breaking the culture of silence that permeates our society. It is not easy to express yourself … but it is more difficult to be silent. My conscience won’t allow it anymore #Me too pic.twitter.com/iwex7e1NLZ
– MEESHA SHAFI (@itsmeeshashafi) April 19, 2018
The next day, Zafar responded to the allegations via his social media accounts, dismissing Shafi’s allegations and promising to take the case “to court”.
Shafi’s appeal was earlier dismissed by the Lahore High Court over technical allegations that his allegations fell outside the workplace harassment law.
However, Monday’s Supreme Court ruling means the case will now move forward.
“The Supreme Court will now hear the case in detail and decide which categories of people are protected by the law,” a member of Shafi’s legal team at the Supreme Court told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.
Last September, Shafi and eight other women were indicted by police with criminal libel after Zafar filed a lawsuit against them.
Leena Ghani, makeup artist and women’s rights activist, was one of nine people who received legal notification. On Wednesday, she filed a libel complaint against Zafar in the Provincial High Court of Sindh.
After years of personal and legal attacks by Mr. Zafar, I decided to stand up for myself and fight back.
– Leena (@Leena_Ghani) January 13, 2021
Ghani’s case also details several instances where she alleges that Zafar has sexually harassed her since 2014. She is seeking 50 million rupees ($ 311,720) in damages.
“After living in fear and facing threats for over two years, I decided to come forward and fight,” Ghani told Al Jazeera.
She said that due to the lack of laws protecting women from sexual harassment, she had “no choice but to get into a libel case”.
“I have exposed the details in the light of the day so that people cannot tell that the women are not coming forward and not speaking,” she added.
Ghani also praised the Supreme Court’s ruling, calling it “a great achievement for women victims of sexual harassment in Pakistan”.
At the same time, Zafar’s lawyer, Muhammad Omar Tariq, claimed in local media that when Ghani appeared in court for libel hearings last year, she insisted that she “didn’t ‘had never alleged that Zafar sexually harassed her and was simply expressing his opinion on social media.
In response, Ghani said that she “[appeared] in court as a character witness in the Meesha case and therefore chose not to disclose details of my own harassment experience ”.
She added that she had received rape and death threats on social media from online trolls.
“If someone as famous as Meesha can be ridiculed and tortured for two years, what are the odds for less influential women?” she asked.
“When our business is heard, it is mostly men sitting on the bench [in the court]. When we go to court, they are full of men. Men are not conditioned to understand verbal or physical harassment unless it is a crime as heinous as rape. “
Last August, Zafar received the Pride of Performance, the highest civilian honor, by the Pakistani government. He said he was deeply honored and “forever indebted to my fans and supporters” for receiving the award.
However, women’s rights activists in Pakistan have criticized the government’s decision to honor a person accused of sexual harassment.
A joint statement from several rights organizations called on the government to postpone the decision in view of the pending cases against Zafar.
“The government must do more to support women so that all victims of sexual harassment can talk about their experiences and fight their cases,” said Ghani.