Thursday, April 26, 2018

Post-Metoo: The ugly backlash after Meesha Shafi spoke out

Meesha Shafi - File photo 

If the “F word” – feminism or the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes – is more offensive than the “F word” and its violent imposition on women in the form of assault, sexual harassment, and everything in between, let’s look at Meesha Shafi’s allegation that Ali Zafar sexually harassed her from a sanitised, minus feminism-or-whatever-feminism-means-to-you, point of view.

Shafi alleged that Ali Zafar sexually harassed her in a tweet on April 19, writing, “I have been subjected, on more than one occasion, to sexual harassment of a physical nature at the hands of a colleague from my industry: Ali Zafar.” Since Shafi broke the internet with her tweet, and although Zafar responded and tweeted he will address Shafi’s allegation through the courts of law “rather than to lodge any allegations here [on Twitter],” social media and the media at large has become a battleground for Team Meesha and Team Ali.

In the ensuing fog of a media war between friends, foes, fans, and feminists, all of the lines and definitions of each of the above have been compromised, and a spiral downward to the depths of misogyny has been revealed as the overarching trend.

Many on social media have used the usual stereotypes against women. Shafi is wearing something in which a little bit of skin is showing so she’s ‘shameless’. Shafi is standing next to Zafar in an old photograph so ‘she must have asked for it [harassment]'. Shafi is unhappy with Zafar because she is a jilted ‘lover’. Many on social media may not be accustomed to what some in Shafi and Zafar’s elite are used to – a little bit more freedom of adornment, and a little less hesitation between women and men who are not ‘mehrams’ – one should not jump from Point A to Point “Standing next to you so you’re allowed to harass/rape/touch/assault me”.

Social media’s usual suspects are not the only ones baying for blood. Zafar is a bonafide celebrity beloved and ensconced snugly in the elite. He is not only a singer like Shafi, but has acted in Bollywood where he has made a name for himself, and his link to Mumbai has increased his social standing. Zafar has been defended by men and women from the elite, including actor Maya Ali who has said she has worked with and never been sexually harassed by Zafar. Half a dozen friends, including bandmates, have agreed, but a man does not have to harass all the women in the world for allegations to stick – a half-dozen women aside from Shafi have accused Zafar of sexual harassment, including his friend Leena Ghani, alleging in a tweet “In the many years I have known Ali, he has on several occasions crossed boundaries of what is appropriate behaviour between friends… Inappropriate contact, groping, sexual comments should not fall in the grey area between humour and indecency.”

Some of the most dangerous stereotypes of women, and the sexual harassment of women have not stemmed from social media’s trolls but from its elite. Shafi is made out to be a liar by Zafar’s supporters in the elite, and of lying because of professional jealousy over a company contract.

Sexual harassment allegations are incredibly serious in the US’s #MeToo, post-Harvey Weinstein era in which individuals from Hollywood and industries across the country have spoken about sexual assault by industry bigwigs.

The stereotyping of women like Shafi as ‘money-hungry’ punishes ambitious women for competing with men, for having a sense of self-worth and asking for as much pay as male peers and by women as much as men because a number of elite, privileged Pakistanis are sometimes unable to understand how Shafi (and others like her) would make an effort if she does not ‘have’ to work or she’s able to fall back upon the men in her life. This fits neatly into the ‘ambitious women are scruple-less liars and will destroy men’ trope of yore.

Sexual harassment is also defined by the United Nations as “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature” and further qualified as “Unwelcome Behaviour is the critical word… Therefore, sexual conduct is unwelcome whenever the person subjected to it considers it unwelcome” so what is “unwelcome” to Shafi does not have to have been “unwelcome” to you in your experience but it doesn’t lessen hers.

Shafi is said to be a ‘mature’ (read: adult) and ‘privileged’ female, and according to views across the divide between the self-avowed feminist elite and social media’s misogynist trolls, such a woman is never harassed. Any female who has walked Lahore’s streets and been manhandled in broad daylight knows otherwise. Such a statement is steeped in not only ‘male privilege’ – and ‘male privilege’ always trumps a woman even amongst equals like Shafi and Zafar – but a privilege of not suffering the indignation of harassment. And then being told you are incapable of having suffered it because of ‘privilege’. Such flawed logic would imply sexual harassment and sexual assault happens only to underage Zainabs of Pakistan – and if even a Mukhtaran Mai, let alone a Meesha, is made out to be a liar is there any hope for any of us?

And in less than a week, an allegation of sexual harassment has become a character assassination of the alleged victim. India Today has published a deeply biased article, including all anti-Shafi, pro-Zafar sources like his bandmates, her [fired] manager, his friends, and one of Zafar’s half a dozen accusers, who is insidiously made out to be a liar. And such character assassination of Shafi and not Zafar – Meesha as the ‘immoral woman’, Ali as the ‘harmless’ flirt; Meesha as ambitious, money-hungry, Ali as the self-made fellow vying to make an honest living; Meesha as the ‘liar’, Ali as the ‘man destroyed by woman’; Meesha the mother, the philanthropist, and the nuanced individual are painted by a black stroke as Ali is fleshed out in all his familial, philanthropy-loving, flawed but human colour.

Meesha Shafi may have as much to lose if not more than Zafar, whether it is endorsements or it is the indelible loss of privacy, respect, and trust as a public, beloved figure in a patriarchal society. M Sarosh Ebrahim posted on Twitter following Shafi’s allegations, “As part of Pakistan’s entertainment industry for more than a decade, I can assure you if other women in Pakistan’s entertainment industry start to come out with their stories there will be <10% men left to work with. #MeeshaShafi #AliZafar”.

The Punjab Commission on the Status of Women’s (PCSW) data on sexual harassment from Punjab’s inspector general of police includes sexual harassment cases registered under Section 509 (insulting modesty or causing sexual harassment) and Section 354 (assault/harassment or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty) of the Pakistan Penal Code. Under Section 354, 3,029 sexual harassment cases were registered where 322 cases had court proceedings, 86 individuals were convicted and 236 acquitted in 2017. The PCSW admits most women do not report sexual harassment because of a lack of evidence and the resultant lack of belief in their stories because of it.

“And in a case such as Shafi’s in which Zafar’s bandmates have said they did not witness harassment in a jam session between Shafi and Zafar where Shafi alleges she was harassed; evidence is in favour of Zafar (although his bandmates’ accounts will be looked at as leaning towards him). But if other women who have accused Zafar of sexual harassment will come forward it will make Shafi’s case stronger,” says Aliya Khan, a lawyer.

Feminism doesn’t mean we must defend a woman we believe is wrong. However, a woman alleging sexual harassment and backed by a half a dozen others alleging it by a single accused should not be dragged down by using damaging stereotypes and tropes that have wreaked havoc on justice for women for millennia. If one believes in Zafar it’s best to wait for Zafar’s ‘court of law’ defence and remain a dignified silence in the face of allegations (and allegations are often made through social media and/or unofficial channels) instead of resorting to lowest, hellish levels of misogyny and employing Pakistan’s patriarchy in saving Zafar.

Khan is a freelance journalist.

Note: The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Geo News, The News or the Jang Group