ISLAMABAD—Two years ago a Pakistani singer sent shock waves through the music industry and set off the country’s most high-profile #MeToo debate when she accused a fellow pop star of groping her. Now she is being prosecuted on a criminal defamation charge and is facing possible prison time.
Meesha Shafi has appealed the sexual harassment case she brought to the country’s Supreme Court, after losing a series of legal battles in which judicial authorities ruled that her case isn’t covered by a law meant to protect women in the workplace.
The criminal defamation charge was brought by the authorities after a complaint from the pop star she accused, Ali Zafar. If convicted, she could be sentenced to up to three years in prison.
Supporters of Ms. Shafi say her legal battles could affect the willingness of women to come forward with sexual misconduct allegations, and the result of the legal fight would define who is covered under a law designed to protect women from harassment in the workplace.
The harassment case “will decide on the scope of the law for keeping women safe in the workplace,” said Khwaja Ahmad Hosain, a lawyer who is representing Ms. Shafi at the Supreme Court. “The outcome will be important for all women in this country.”
Pakistan has a separate law that is designed to protect women from harassment outside of the workplace, but it requires women to report incidents to the police, which they are often reluctant to do.
Mr. Zafar, who denies he groped Ms. Shafi, hasn’t been charged with any crime. He says her 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.”
By many measures, Pakistan ranks as one of the toughest 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 published in 2019 by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent advocacy organization.
A 2020 index by the World Economic Forum, tracking gender disparities in areas including economic opportunity, educational attainment, health and political empowerment, ranked Pakistan 151st out of 153 nations. A 2014 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Pakistani campaigner for girls’ education Malala Yousafzai, but girls still make up the majority of the children in the country who don’t go to school.
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There have been very few #MeToo accusations in Pakistan, a deeply conservative society. A march in the capital, Islamabad, on March 8 for International Women’s Day was guarded by rings of police, after attendees were attacked last year by stone-throwing men who were incensed by their slogan, “My body, my choice.” The marchers were accused in an online campaign this year of blasphemy, based on a misinterpretation of a banner, a dangerous and often lethal charge to make in Pakistan.
Government officials say they are making progress on women’s rights, while acknowledging there remains much to do. In December, the government instituted a new rape law—which needs to be approved by Parliament to become permanent—aimed at speeding up convictions and toughening sentences. 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 top court for Punjab province 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 allegation if the woman was found to be a virgin or as evidence she likely consented if she was found to be sexually active. The provincial court judge said the tests had no scientific basis and unfairly cast suspicion on victims.
Ms. Shafi’s allegations rocked Pakistan’s small but vibrant pop music industry and elite social circles when they first emerged. In a tweet in April 2018, a day before she was due to work alongside Mr. Zafar as a judge in a music talent show, she alleged that Mr. 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 that concerns me gravely,” Ms. Shafi tweeted.
Ms. Shafi says Mr. Zafar groped her more than once, but her sexual harassment case centers on an encounter in December 2017 at a recording studio in his house, where they were rehearsing for a concert. She says he groped her during the session.
Mr. Zafar denies that he groped Ms. Shafi and noted the two went on to perform together at the concert.
After Ms. Shafi’s accusation, others came forward on social media with their own accounts of alleged sexual harassment by Mr. Zafar.
Mr. Zafar, who denies behaving inappropriately with any of the accusers, says he was dropped as a judge on the show after Ms. Shafi’s accusation and he has stopped getting sponsorships from multinational companies. He said that he made a criminal complaint to stop what he called a smear campaign online, which he said turned him into the poster boy for the #MeToo movement in Pakistan.
He has also brought a civil defamation case, seeking damages of more than $6 million, against Ms. Shafi.
Ms. Shafi first took her complaint to the provincial ombudsperson and then to the provincial governor, following the process laid out under the workplace harassment law. Both ruled that the law didn’t cover her case.
She then went to the top court in their home province of Punjab, which threw out Ms. Shafi’s case against Mr. Zafar without examining the allegations, saying the workplace harassment laws didn’t apply as Ms. Shafi was only working on a short-term contract and for an events management company, not for Mr. Zafar. The court said that if Ms. Shafi were deemed an employee in this case, then men might stop hiring women under such contracts.
“It would have such an unpalatable effect that perhaps no person (male) would be expected to enter into a contract to provide services for fear of prosecution under the law,” the court statement said, specifying men parenthetically.
Prosecutors brought a criminal defamation charge against Ms. Shafi under new laws that restrict speech on the internet, which have also been used by the authorities to prosecute journalists and human-rights activists. Authorities also charged eight others who made allegations against Mr. Zafar on social media. Ms. Shafi was the only one who filed a formal complaint under the workplace harassment law.
Since the charges have been brought, one of Mr. Zafar’s accusers has retracted her accusation and apologized. He subsequently asked prosecutors to drop her from the case, which they did. The woman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ms. Shafi’s lawyers say they plan to challenge the use of the criminal defamation law in the top provincial court in Punjab. They say using it to prosecute Ms. Shafi will discourage others from coming forward with sexual misconduct allegations.
“It’s a rigged system,” said Ms. Shafi. “Which woman has got justice in a case of this nature and at what cost?”
While Mr. Zafar says the accusations have affected his career, he has continued to receive plaudits from the country’s top politicians. This month he is scheduled to receive the Pride of Performance award from the president of Pakistan, the country’s highest accolade for achievement in the arts. Last year, Prime Minister Imran Khan named him as a brand ambassador for the university he founded in his political constituency before taking office.
“I only wish to emphasize that every society in the world holds art and artists in high esteem, and looks up to them to be good role models, so does the Pakistani society,” said Shibli Faraz, the government information minister. He declined to comment on the court cases.
Ms. Shafi, who is currently in Canada, will seek the court’s permission to give testimony via a video link. However, because she returns to Pakistan for her work, the criminal case does pose a risk of arrest, said Saqib Jillani, a lawyer for her.
“Who’s going to come forward in future, if powerful men can do this to those who speak up?” said Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, a Pakistani documentary filmmaker who has won two Oscars, for her films on women suffering acid attacks and honor killings in Pakistan.
Write to Saeed Shah at firstname.lastname@example.org
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