ISLAMABAD – Two years ago, a Pakistani singer sent shockwaves through the music industry and sparked the country’s most prominent #MeToo debate when she accused a fellow pop star of touching her. She is now on trial on a criminal defamation charge and faces a possible prison sentence.
Meesha Shafi appealed the sexual harassment case she presented to the country’s Supreme Court, after losing a series of legal battles in which judicial authorities ruled that her case is not covered by a law designed to protect women there. of work.
The criminal defamation charge was brought by authorities after a complaint from the pop star he accused, Ali Zafar. If convicted, she could face up to three years in prison.
Shafi’s supporters say their legal battles could affect women’s willingness to bring sexual misconduct allegations, and the outcome of the legal fight would define who is covered by a law designed to protect women from harassment in the workplace. job.
The harassment case “will decide the scope of the law to keep women safe in the workplace,” said Khwaja Ahmad Hosain, a lawyer representing Ms. Shafi on the Supreme Court. “The result will be important to all women in this country.”
Pakistan has a separate law that is designed to protect women from harassment outside the workplace, but requires women to report incidents to the police, which they are often reluctant to do.
Zafar, who denies groping Ms. Shafi, has not been charged with any crime. He says his accusations have damaged his career. “By the time I prove my case, the damage will be irreparable,” he said. “It already is, in many ways.”
In many ways, Pakistan ranks as one of the most difficult places in the world to be a woman. Women face high rates of domestic and sexual violence, economic inequality and forced marriage, according to a report released in 2019 by the Pakistan Human Rights Commission, an independent advocacy organization.
A 2020 index from the World Economic Forum, which tracks gender disparities in areas including economic opportunity, educational attainment, health and political empowerment, ranked Pakistan 151st out of 153 nations. The 2014 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Pakistani activist for girls’ education Malala Yousafzai, but girls still make up the majority of the country’s children out of school.
There have been very few accusations of #MeToo in Pakistan, a deeply conservative society. A march in the capital Islamabad on March 8 on International Women’s Day was guarded by groups of police officers, after attendees were attacked last year by stone-throwing men and outraged by its slogan, “My body, my choice. ” The protesters were accused in an online campaign this year of blasphemy, based on a misinterpretation of a banner, a dangerous and often deadly cargo in Pakistan.
Government officials say they are making progress on women’s rights, although they acknowledge that much remains to be done. In December, the government instituted a new rape law, which must be passed by Parliament to become permanent, with the aim of speeding up sentences and tougher penalties. A law passed last year strengthened women’s property rights. The government says a program to give a monthly income supplement to the poorest families helps women.
In January, the Punjab province high court banned the use of virginity tests in rape cases there. The results of those tests were often used by the defense against the accuser, either as evidence against the rape charge if the woman was found to be a virgin or as evidence that she likely consented if she was found to be sexually active. The provincial court judge said the evidence had no scientific basis and cast unfair suspicions on the victims.
Ms. Shafi’s allegations shook Pakistan’s small but vibrant pop music industry and elite social circles when they first emerged. In an April 2018 tweet, the day before she worked alongside Zafar as a judge on a musical talent show, she alleged that Zafar had touched her inappropriately.
“If this can happen to someone like me, an established artist, then it can happen to any young woman and it seriously worries me,” Ms Shafi tweeted.
Ms Shafi says Zafar groped her more than once, but her sexual harassment case centers on an encounter in December 2017 in a recording studio at her home, where they were rehearsing for a concert. She says he touched her during the session.
Mr. Zafar denies having groped Ms. Shafi and pointed out that the two performed together at the concert.
Following Ms. Shafi’s indictment, others came forward on social media with their own accounts of alleged sexual harassment by Mr. Zafar.
Zafar, who denies behaving inappropriately with any of the accusers, says he was removed as a judge from the show after Shafi’s indictment and stopped receiving sponsorships from multinational companies. He said he filed a criminal complaint to stop what he called an online smear campaign, which he said made him the model for the #MeToo movement in Pakistan.
He has also filed a civil defamation case, seeking damages of more than $ 6 million, against Ms. Shafi.
Ms. Shafi first took her complaint to the provincial ombudsman and then to the provincial governor, following the process established in the workplace harassment law. They both ruled that the law did not cover their case.
She then went to the high court in her native Punjab province, which dismissed Ms. Shafi’s case against Mr. Zafar without examining the allegations, saying that workplace harassment laws did not apply as Ms. Shafi was only working on a short term. Forward contract and for an event management company, not for Mr. Zafar. The court said that if Ms. Shafi were considered an employee in this case, then men could stop hiring women on such contracts.
“It would have such an unpleasant effect that perhaps no person (man) would be expected to enter into a contract to provide services for fear of prosecution under the law,” the court statement said, specifying the men in parentheses.
Prosecutors brought a criminal defamation charge against Ms. Shafi under new laws restricting Internet speech, which have also been used by authorities to prosecute journalists and human rights activists. Authorities also charged eight other people who made accusations against Zafar on social media. Ms. Shafi was the only one who filed a formal complaint under the workplace harassment law.
Since the charges were filed, one of Mr. Zafar’s accusers retracted his accusation and apologized. Subsequently, she asked prosecutors to remove her from the case, which they did. The woman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ms Shafi’s lawyers say they plan to challenge the use of criminal defamation law in Punjab’s higher provincial court. They say using it to prosecute Ms Shafi will deter others from making allegations of sexual misconduct.
“It is a rigged system,” Ms. Shafi said. “What woman has achieved justice in a case of this nature and at what cost?”
While Zafar says the allegations have affected his career, he has continued to receive applause from the country’s top politicians. This month he is scheduled to receive the President of Pakistan’s Pride of Performance Award, the country’s highest accolade for achievement in the arts. Last year, Prime Minister Imran Khan appointed him as a brand ambassador for the university he founded in his political constituency before taking office.
“I just want to emphasize that all societies in the world hold art and artists in high esteem, and look up to them as good role models, as does Pakistani society,” said Shibli Faraz, the government’s information minister. He declined to comment on the court cases.
Ms. Shafi, who is currently in Canada, will request the court’s permission to testify via a video link. However, because she is returning to Pakistan for her work, the criminal case poses a risk of arrest, said Saqib Jillani, a lawyer for her.
“Who will show up in the future, if powerful men can do this they talk to?” said Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, a Pakistani documentary filmmaker who won two Oscars, for her films about women suffering from acid attacks and honor killings in Pakistan.
Write to Saeed Shah at [email protected]
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