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Stop Giving Awards To Alleged Sexual Harassers

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The government’s decision to award singer Ali Zafar who had been accused of sexual harassment by multiple women with Pride of Performance is being rightly criticised by activists on social media. Honouring an alleged sexual harasser is tantamount to insulting the survivors of sexual harassment. It also points to the utter tone deafness of those in power.

Contrary to what is being propagated by his supporters online, Ali Zafar has not been exonerated of the charges. Media coverage of the Ali Zafar-Meesha Shafi case has been twisted at best and most news reports of the court hearings would have you believe that Zafar was absolved of all allegations levelled against him. That is not the case.

Here are some facts about the case which have not been accurately reported by mainstream media.

1) Ali Zafar was never given a ‘clean chit’ by any court or authority. Meesha Shafi’s case before the Ombudsperson and then later before the Lahore High Court (LHC) was dismissed on technical grounds. Meaning that the scope of the Prevention From Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act is limited as it does not cover cases where the complainant and accused do not have an employer-employee relationship. Thus, the dismissal of Meesha’s complaint was not based on merits or demerits of the case, but on the inability of the court to hear the case until its logical conclusion due to legal anomalies.

This lacuna of the law, which many activists and commentators think should be addressed through necessary amendments and reforms in the Act, is being used by some to falsely suggest that Ali Zafar was declared innocent.

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2) Meesha Shafi’s appeal against the LHC decision is currently pending before the Supreme Court. Meesha had challenged the dismissal of her application by LHC in the SC, but the top court has not begun hearing the case. It was taken up by the SC in July, but the judge Justice Yahya Afridi rescued himself from the case citing personal reasons, which is why the hearing could not begin.

3) Meesha’s defamation case against Ali Zafar over his false accusations that she was using fake accounts on social media to ‘malign’ him was stayed by a trial court. Meesha’s lawyers filed an appeal against the stay in the LHC, which has admitted the appeal and issued notices to the parties concerned.

4) Many social media users who came forward in Meesha’s support were hounded by the accused. Zafar filed cases against them in Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) in a bid to silence them. Nothing has come out of the FIA cases which makes it clear that using FIA was a scare tactic.

5) It was falsely reported by a section of media that Meesha’s manager Syed Farhan Ali had testified against her. He was misquoted to give an impression that he negated Meesha’s allegations. However, he had only stated that he could not have seen the alleged incident during the jamming session because he was focused on playing his musical equipment.

In light of the above facts, it is clear that the accused has not been declared innocent despite his apparent attempts to manipulate the law and feed misinformation to his benefit. The court hearing the case should therefore take a nuanced approach in the future and make use of wider interpretation of the law where needed — keeping in view the limitations of the sexual harassment law. This is a test case for Pakistan’s judiciary and any injustice would harm the #MeToo movement in Pakistan, which has given a voice to the survivors of sexual violence who were previously silenced by the perpetrators.

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Pride of Performance award for an individual being probed for a criminal offence is deeply problematic for the following reasons. First, it may be used by the accused to influence the proceedings of the court. Ali Zafar has previously used his fame and accomplishments as grounds for his innocence before the court. The government should have therefore been considerate of the fact that the recipient of the award has yet to come clean on the grave allegations of sexual harassment.

Moreover, by glorifying an alleged sexual harasser, the government of Pakistan has given a message that much like the society at large, it does not consider sexual misconduct a serious offence.

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Naya Daur