On April 19, a Pakistani singer named Meesha Shafi took to Twitter to make an abuse allegation that would shake up Pakistan’s media and entertainment industry. Her target was superstar singer Ali Zafar, whose songs have dominated Pakistan’s music charts for over two decades. Zafar, Shafi wrote, had subjected her to “sexual harassment of a physical nature” on more than one occasion.
Almost immediately, Zafar’s supporters began to bash Shafi’s character and call her accusations into question. She must have a grudge against him, some people posted on social media. Maybe she’s a “psycho" ex-lover, others suggested. Zafar, a music icon and a liberal darling in Pakistan, is routinely surrounded by “hot” women, one tweet alleged. How come no one else had come forward?
But within days, other women did come forward: Leena Ghani, a London based make-up artist, wrote on Twitter that Zafar had — on many occasions — crossed the boundaries of “what is appropriate between friends.” Ghani accused Zafar of groping her and making inappropriate comments. Another woman, a blogger named Humna Raza, added that she had been groped by Zafar, who allegedly ran his hand under her shirt when she asked to take a selfie with him. Just two days ago, Noor Sehar, a marketing executive, said in an interview that Zafar had accosted her at a party, forcibly trying to hold her hand and get her to go with him to another singer’s house.
Meanwhile, Zafar, who has vehemently denied everything, threatened Shafi with a defamation notice, requiring her to hire an attorney. She had to temporarily delete all her social media accounts, citing bullying slander and even harassment of her two young children as reasons. Her lawyer, Nighat Dad, told me via direct message on Twitter that “there is a massive false news campaign against Meesha.”
Pakistani feminists’ silence is ironic, given that in February, many of them launched a high-profile campaign titled #MaiBhi, the Urdu translation of #MeToo. Announced at the Lux Style Awards — Pakistan’s equivalent of the Oscars, Emmys and Grammys wrapped into one — the initiative is aimed at breaking silences perpetuated by the taboos around sexual violence and abuse in Pakistan. The launch included heart-wrenching videos of women recounting their sexual trauma. Frieha Altaf, a former model who chaired the event, shared her own story of being sexually abused by her cook when she was 6. She received praise for her courage.
Nationwide, it seemed, women were speaking up. But they were rarely taking on media industry powerhouses like Zafar.
When faced with an actual #MaiBhi moment, the vast majority of Pakistan’s feminists, the most notable of whom tend to be among the country’s elites, are choosing inaction, ambivalence or silence. Maya Ali, Zafar’s co-star in an upcoming film, declared that while she wasn’t saying “who is wrong and who is right,” she respects Zafar and wants “the truth to come out.”
“Until then,” Ali wrote on Instagram, “we shouldn’t judge anyone’s character.”
Aqsa Ali, Zafar’s female bandmate, reacted similarly: “I don’t think these allegations make any sense, there are so many loopholes in them. I am all in for women empowerment but at least things should make some sense.”
Hamna Zubair, an editor at Dawn, Pakistan’s largest English newspaper, said that the “film and entertainment industry’s response to these harassment allegations reveals how, once again, issues of justice and equality in Pakistan take a back seat to the social and financial entanglements of the upper class.”
In Pakistan, where misogyny runs is entrenched in the culture, the general public sees women who use their voices as “morally loose or too outspoken,” Zubair noted. If some of the country’s big-name feminists, who range from CEOs and singers to prominent politicians, rebuke a well-liked man, they might lose the public.
“It’s not so much of a stretch to say that allying with a woman who alleges harassment will alienate a company or an entertainer from their consumers or fans,” Zubair concluded.
One of the greatest threats to #MeToo in Pakistan, and perhaps elsewhere, could be from other women, who pick and choose who is a victim based on how they fit into their personal narratives.
If Pakistani feminists won’t rise to the cause of supporting brave women, maybe the international community can lend a hand by being vocal on social media.
Public pressure has worked in the United States, where the corporate realm has been successfully threatened by boycotts from supporters of #MeToo, prompting companies to fire figures like former “Today” host Matt Lauer and celebrity chef Mario Batali. The public questions and punishes those who are accused of sexual misconduct, forcing them to apologize — however half-heartedly — for their actions before laying low. (Has anyone heard from “Master of None” star Aziz Ansari?) Most recently, we’ve seen Pulitzer-winning writer Junot Díaz fall from the public’s good graces after novelist Zinzi Clemmons confronted him at the Sydney Writers’ Festival about allegedly sexually harassing her while she was a graduate student.
Once Clemmons tweeted about her experience, a slew of other women came forward, too, alleging that Díaz verbally abused them. Clemmons, like Shafi, acted bravely. Why did the public react differently?