The legal battle between two pop singers of Pakistan – Ali Zafar and Meesha Shafi – continues unabated with no end in sight, with some experts calling it a litmus test for our justice system.
It all started on April 18, 2018 when Meesha took to micro-blogging site Twitter to accuse singer and actor Ali Zafar of sexual harassment in a series of posts.
“It is not easy to speak openly like this, but it is even more difficult to remain silent. My conscience no longer allows me to do that. I have been sexually harassed more than once by a co-worker in my industry: Ali Zafar,” she wrote.
“It didn’t happen when I was younger or new to the industry. This happened despite me being a confident, successful, and quiet woman. It happened to me despite being a mother of two,” she added.
The tweets that came at the peak of global “MeToo” movement whipped up a storm with Ali Zafar vehemently denying the allegations at multiple forums.
Later, in June 2018, Ali decided to drag Meesha to court and filed a suit against her in a sessions court in Lahore under the Defamation Ordinance 2002. The suit alleged that Meesha had tarnished his image by making false allegations.
Zafar had claimed that the allegations had caused extreme agony to him and his family and asked the court to issue a decree against Meesha and to direct her to pay Rs1 billion as damages to him.
In November 2018, Ali also lodged a complaint against Meesha with the Federal Investigation Agency’s (FIA) Cyber Crime Wing and alleged that a number of social media accounts were posting “threatening and defamatory material” against him.
He also provided details of some Twitter and Facebook accounts as evidence. In the complaint, Ali claimed that in April 2018 – some weeks before Meesha’s tweets – several accounts had launched a campaign against him on social media. ۔
The FIA probed the allegations and declared Meesha and eight others “guilty” of running a vilification campaign against Ali. It asked a trial court to start proceedings against them.
A magisterial court issued arrest warrants for Meesha and Mahim Javed and others for deliberately avoiding appearance before the court. The court in a written order observed that Meesha Shafi had made a mockery of the law and justice as she was “playing hide and seek” with the court.
Meesha and some others also approached the LHC, seeking quashing of the FIR.
The petition said the FIR was an abuse of the process and a violation of the petitioners’ right to a fair trial under Article 10-A of the Constitution. However, Justice Tariq Saleem Sheikh dismissed the petition.
In 2019, Meesha Shafi also filed a defamation suit of Rs2 billion against Ali Zafar in a sessions court of Lahore. According to Nighat Dad, a member of Meesha’s legal team, Ali was sued for defaming Meesha in various interviews that he gave in the wake of Meesha’s April 2018 tweets.
“Among other things, Ali accused Meesha of doing all this because she wanted to be a Canadian citizen,” Dad said. “Such statements resulted in defamation of my client.”
In February 2020, Ali Zafar requested the court to stay the trial and the court allowed his plea, ruling that the charges against Ali are the same that he has leveled against Meesha and the claim of Ali is already pending in a court which has already started getting testimonies.
Meesha challenged this decision in the LHC, which granted her petition. Announcing a short order, Justice Asim Hafeez allowed the petition of Shafi and set aside the session court’s impugned decision. After this decision, the trial court is supposed to hear both defamation suits simultaneously.
Meesha Shafi also lodged a complaint against Ali Zafar with the provincial ombudsman regarding harassment. However, the ombudsman rejected her complaint. She also requested the Governor of Punjab to take action against Ali but the governor also turned down the request.
Meesha later moved the Lahore High Court (LHC), challenging the ombudsman’s and the governor’s decisions to dismiss her complaint and demanded action against Ali under the Punjab Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, 2012.
After a hearing, the LHC in October 2019 also dismissed her appeal on the grounds that an agreement had been reached between her and the company for the provision of services and the relationship between the parties as per a clause could not be considered a job.
The court also noted that the relationship between Meesha Shafi and Ali Zafar could not be qualified as the relationship between an employee and an employer and the law did not apply in the case. Meesha later challenged the LHC decision in the Supreme Court, which has not heard the case in over a year.
What is #MeToo
The #MeToo movement is a social movement against sexual abuse and sexual harassment where people publicize allegations of sex crimes. The phrase “Me Too” was initially used in this context on social media in 2006, on Myspace, by sexual assault survivor and activist Tarana Burke.
Harvard University published a case study on Burke, called “Leading with Empathy: Tarana Burke and the Making of the Me Too Movement”.
The purpose of “MeToo”, as initially voiced by Burke as well as those who later adopted the tactic, is to empower sexually assaulted people through empathy and solidarity through strength in numbers, especially young and vulnerable women, by visibly demonstrating how many have experienced sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace.
Following the exposure of numerous sexual-abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein in October 2017, the movement began to spread virally as a hashtag on social media. On October 15, 2017, American actress Alyssa Milano posted on Twitter, “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem,” saying that she got the idea from a friend.
A number of high-profile posts and responses from American celebrities Gwyneth Paltrow, Ashley Judd, Jennifer Lawrence, and Uma Thurman, among others, soon followed. Widespread media coverage and discussion of sexual harassment, particularly in Hollywood, led to high-profile terminations from positions held, as well as criticism and backlash.
After millions of people started using the phrase and hashtag in this manner in English, the expression began to spread to dozens of other languages. The scope has become somewhat broader with this expansion, however, and Burke has more recently referred to it as an international movement for justice for marginalized people.