To probe a rocking act

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Is harassment in showbiz more difficult to prove?

The recent #Metoo scandal involving artists Meesha Shafi and Ali Zafar has rocked the nation. Opinion is split and both celebrities are being supported by their respective camps. A legal battle between the two is expected to start, with each side claiming their own versions of evidence. But whatever the outcome, the case has brought into spotlight the vulnerability of both men and women in the entertainment industry.

Like anywhere else in the world, showbiz in Pakistan is more than just glitz and glamour. Artistic expression, whether in the form of singing or acting, are often not solo performances. The acts get together in pairs or teams. Late working hours is an accepted culture in this field; with close physical proximity between persons often more than just the demand of a role, it is sometimes essential for colleagues to establish a harmonious relation with each other to bring out the best articulation. And yet, these performers do not work under the umbrella of an organisation: they are mostly individual, independent professionals, managing their own terms of work and deals. This ‘independent’ nature of work is what makes a person vulnerable to harassment or allegation likewise. There may be nobody to question an accusatory act except for the person accused. Actors, singers, performers work together and socialise as well. A public act of misbehaviour can be witnessed by many, but who can judge an act of harassment done during a performance or while cosying in a social atmosphere except for the victim himself or herself?

Of course a woman can draw boundaries for protecting herself and at least in Pakistan, demand an acting role which does not necessarily involve physical contact between her and a male colleague. It is certainly not a requirement for singers. And she can also take the risk of being shunned from the social scene or labelled a prude, as long as it helps her maintain more than a safe distance. But what about women who do not mind shaking hands or sharing a slight hug with a man? What about the one who like to dress differently or rather daringly? Does that justify the usual response from our society to an indecent act committed with her that she asked for it? Does that allow a man to use social gestures to touch her in a way that gives her the shivers – an experience that only she can feel but not prove?

A battle between the sexes may take too long for one to emerge victorious, having more chances of becoming a case which suffers from a loss of interest

Similarly, if a man is known for his affable nature and responds warmly to social gestures – men and women alike – can it make him vulnerable to false allegations for reasons known to the accuser? On the other hand, is the same friendly nature enough evidence that he is also respectful towards women?

Consider a similar situation in a corporate environment. Two colleagues, a male and a female strike a good rapport. They often engage in conversations beyond official nature. They may even agree to spend time together at social occasions. Somewhere during an atmosphere of trust and comfort, the man crosses the line and the woman files a complaint of harassment. Many corporate setups in Pakistan now have policies regarding sexual harassment, under which an incident reported can come under investigation. Each organisation has its own methodology and it is applied on both the accused and the victim, since they are both employees. They are both answerable or they both risk losing their jobs. They both have a chance to credibly prove themselves right. To what extent does an organisation go to probe the allegation and punish the culprit is another issue, but it cannot afford to overlook. This blanket of security, no matter how thin it is, is not available in the entertainment industry – whether in Pakistan or abroad. That is why despite more awareness and legal protections available in the West, the #Metoo movement emerged much later than it should have.

But then the movement is just a start. It has given the courage to many women like Meesha to open up a Pandora’s Box of questions, accusations, anger and slut-shaming with a sprinkle of support. It, however, is yet to provide answers and solutions. A battle between the sexes may take too long for one to emerge victorious, having more chances of becoming a case which suffers from a loss of interest.

Professor Sahar Ansari, who was found guilty of harassing a fellow faculty member at the University of Karachi, has yet to face action even though nearly 90 days have passed since the inquiry committee wrapped up.

On January 29 this year, a three-member committee set up by the university found Professor Ansari, a visiting faculty member and renowned literary figure, guilty of sexually harassing another faculty member at the Pakistan Study Centre. The harassment had occurred roughly two years ago and has been investigated by three committees since then. The last committee had recommended that Professor Ansari be kept away from campus activities, but he is still being invited to various programs. This is an example of a case, which came under legal scrutiny, which has been decided upon and yet the accused, now proven to be guilty, is still free to act on his whim. Despite the organisational umbrella, the victim gets a message that being a man, the culprit, his repute and his actions are untouchable. So what security does the victim have in a case, which is to be fought independently, with no common or central authority to represent both parties?

At the same time, there is no evidence to claim that Shafi has made a false allegation stemming from misunderstanding, bad intention or jealousy

So what proof does Meesha Shafi have that she has been harassed by her colleague except for the bitter truth that it takes immense courage for a woman, especially in a conservative society, to step out and speak of injustices done of a sexual nature? And what proof does Ali Zafar have in defence of himself except for the argument that it would be extremely callous of him to put at stake an otherwise popular and clean image, which some are ready to vouch for? At the same time, there is no evidence to claim that Shafi has made a false allegation stemming from misunderstanding, bad intention or jealousy. And while some have jumped in defence of the chivalrous nature of Zafar towards women, many others have spoken to verify incidents similar to the ones quoted by Meesha Shafi. The probe indeed demands impartial justice. My feminist heart jumps out in support of Meesha, but Ali does have a right to defend himself and the case needs to be looked at objectively.

As I pen this article, news have come that US comedian Bill Cosby has been found guilty of three counts of sexual assault. The actor had been on trial for drugging and sexually assaulting ex-basketball player Andrea Constand in 2004. Although around 60 women over 50 years have publicly accused the Emmy award-winning actor of being a sexual predator, statute of limitation laws mean that only one charge has been brought to trial. Justice prevailed, only after a persistent fight and painful probe, spanning more than a decade. Is Pakistan ready to witness a lengthy battle to bring out right from wrong?