India’s 83-year-old protesting grandmother and the warrior queen who inspires her.
On the day she appeared in court for the first time in her life, Leena Ghani found it difficult not to squirm in front of the judge. She realised within five minutes that the cushioned seat she was on was infested with bedbugs. You could sit right on the edge of your seat and hope to be spared, or, as she shows me on the day I accompany her to Karachi’s city court in February, you give it a good thump. That was her second lesson. The first: she was dressed entirely inappropriately at that appearance, in a comfortable Stranger Things sweatshirt and jeans, her nails painted black. On the day we meet, she wears clothes borrowed from her mother – a white cotton kurta with sleeves long enough to cover the delicate stars inked on her wrist, loose white cotton trousers that almost hide the kite tattooed in flight on one ankle, and a grey scarf to cover her head out of respect for the female judge she will appear before. She finds a way to represent herself though – her white khussas are hand-painted with a map on one shoe and the line ‘Oh, the places you’ll go!’ on the other.
Over the past year, Ghani, an artist and activist, has come to relish these court dates, but at first, she was intimidated. Now she does not stare at the convicts with chains hanging from their wrists waiting for their turn in the dock, and she walks without pause through a scrum of lawyers gleefully watching a man and woman shout at and abuse each other outside the court room. She cuts an unusual figure. The women we see around us have worried faces, they are here to request a judge grant a divorce, convince their husbands to return their dowries, plead for custody of their children. Unlike them, since 2018, Ghani is both accused and accuser.
On April 19, 2018, the singer and actress Meesha Shafi tweeted a note accusing a fellow singer and actor Ali Zafar of “sexual harassment of a physical nature…” It was the first big allegation of this kind in Pakistan after the #MeToo movement had kicked off the previous year. Both artists are stars in Pakistan, and while Shafi had made her Hollywood debut in Mira Nair’s ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ opposite Riz Ahmed, Zafar was forging a career in Bollywood. Shafi and Zafar had been friends and performed together for many years, with Shafi even doing a small cameo in a music video for a song off Zafar’s first album in 2003. “I know I am not alone,” she wrote in her tweet. Zafar responded with a denial and said he would “take this through the courts… to address this professionally and seriously rather than to lodge any allegations here, contesting personal vendettas on social media and in turn disrespecting the (#MeToo) movement…”
A few hours later, there was a second accusation, also from a friend of Zafar’s. “In the many years I have known Ali,” wrote Leena Ghani on Twitter, “he has on several occasions crossed boundaries of what is appropriate behaviour between friends.” She called out “inappropriate contact, groping, sexual comments…” and added, “The memories of the times where Ali thought he could get away by saying vulgar things to me still disgusts me.” Zafar has denied the “false and malicious statements”, and in a note tweeted by his legal team, stated that Ghani’s allegations came “as no surprise” as she had worked with Shafi in the past, and knew one of Shafi’s lawyers, Nighat Dad, through her activism. Her allegations were part of a “malicious agenda” to support Shafi and target Zafar, his team implied.
It is a stance that Zafar and his lawyers have continued to assert since. Recently, one of Zafar’s lawyers, Hasham Ahmad, explained why they feel Ghani’s statements “don’t make sense”. His comments offer a revealing look at common rebuttals to allegations of harassment or abuse. “If you’re an activist, as Ghani says she is, you want to raise women’s voices. Why would you stay quiet if something happened to you? Why wouldn’t you speak up?” he said. “Why would you keep meeting the person who allegedly harassed you or be present on social occasions where you would meet them? And then you wake up one fine morning and say, ‘This happened to me many years ago’?” He refers to the decades of abuse by Harvey Weinstein, and says, “I understand why you would stay quiet if the person you’re accusing is your boss or can spoil your career, or if, as in the case of Weinstein’s victims, you are a newcomer in an industry and your alleged harasser can impact your career. But these women are privileged… they are all established in their respective fields. They claim that when the alleged harassment took place, they were shocked and knew something was wrong. So why didn’t they speak up at the time?”
Ghani has stated in court that in June 2014, the first time that Zafar allegedly behaved inappropriately with her was at a fashion show where his wife, friends, and Ghani’s sister was present, and she was “horrified, felt objectified and completely shocked” and told her sister and friends about the incident. She said that after the third alleged incident of inappropriate behaviour within the span of a week, she refused an offer to work with Zafar in July 2014. She remained friends with Zafar’s wife, Ayesha, but cut all ties with him by December 2016. However, Ahmad points to this friendship and argues, “If you don’t react to something, how would someone know if you’re allowing it or not? You have to show from your conduct that you dislike a certain gesture. If you move on, or remain friends, then you’re showing that you’re fine with it.” By virtue of their friendship, Zafar’s lawyer asserts, Ghani should have corrected any alleged inappropriate behaviour immediately. “Sometimes friends go overboard,” he says. “Now, we aren’t kids. There’s a way to tell someone, ‘You better behave’. If something did happen, why not go to your friend and just say, ‘Maybe you aren’t realising it, but what you did or said went overboard. Please be careful.’”
In June 2018, Zafar sued Shafi for defamation, asking for Rs 1 billion (roughly $6.3 million) in damages. Her tweet, his lawsuit stated was a “well thought out conspiracy” against him and had caused him financial damage and emotional suffering. In November, Zafar filed a complaint with the Federal Investigation Agency’s (FIA) cybercrime wing against social media accounts posting “threats and defamatory material”. Some of the accounts had expressed support for Shafi, while others alleged they had been harassed or witnessed harassment by Zafar – journalist Maham Javaid claimed he had “tried to kiss my cousin and pull my cousin into a restroom” and blogger Hamna Raza said Zafar had allegedly groped her when she took a photograph with him at an event. Zafar said many of the social media accounts were fake, linked to or followed by Shafi. “The plan was for one woman to come forward, then another, as they are trying to make me out to be Pakistan’s Harvey Weinstein,” he said in a television interview. “I want to prove in court how (Shafi) has lied, so that tomorrow no woman can ruin the life of any man, any family, any woman, or a child, and no one should be able to exploit men and women who are actual victims of sexual harassment or those who fight for them. That is my mission.” By January 2019, Shafi was placed under a gag order. In January, the Supreme Court admitted Shafi’s appeal against the dismissal of her harassment case, after the Lahore High Court ruled that it did not fall within the ambit of existing laws against workplace harassment.
In August 2020, Zafar was honoured with the Pride of Performance award by the government. The award was criticised by many activists, who cited the allegations against Zafar. In September 2020, the FIA booked Shafi and eight others, including Ghani, Raza and Javaid under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (PECA). If found guilty of sharing information that is “false… intimidates or harms the reputation or privacy” of a person, they face three years in jail and/or up to Rs 1 million in fines. PECA was passed in 2016 even as some activists and some political leaders warned that it was flawed.
Digital rights activist and lawyer Nighat Dad campaigned against PECA, arguing that the law can be “weaponised” against victims, and she says the case against Ghani and others is a demonstration. “The use of the law in this way is chilling,” she says. “It’s not just about the witnesses in this case. This sets a precedent for other women – a warning that if they speak up, they can be punished in this way by their alleged harassers.” Days after the FIA’s criminal report, Raza, the blogger, retracted her allegations and apologised to Zafar. Her name was dropped from the case.
Ghani was shocked by this use of cybercrime laws. When she accused Zafar, she recalls that she may have had only a few hundred followers on Twitter. Unlike Shafi, she was relatively unknown outside of the fashion and entertainment industry where she briefly worked as a make-up artist. Some responded to her tweet to ask, “But who are you?” She didn’t remain unknown for long. Her photograph was shared in private Facebook groups and used for memes claiming she “enjoyed rape” and men uploaded videos describing how they would rape and beat her to teach her a lesson. She blocked the accounts, but others popped up with a stream of videos of abuse and threats, some set to peppy music, that are difficult to watch. She says she complained to the FIA but did not hear back from them and no action was taken against the accounts or Facebook groups. Al Jazeera reached out to the FIA for comment on this but received no response.
Last year, Ghani says she visited the FIA’s branch in Lahore to respond to claims of defaming Zafar. The office was in an old house in Lahore that had been repurposed for the agency. She entered through the kitchen and found a room with stacks of files and a man sitting behind a desk in his slippers. She played a video of threats she had received on Twitter for the official, turning the volume on her phone up. The names she had been called echoed through the room: prostitute, bitch, liar, whore.
“Turn this off,” Ghani says he snapped at her, uncomfortable and embarrassed.
“No,” she replied. “I have had to listen to this, and now so should you.”
“That was very difficult to come to terms with,” she recalls. “It hit me then that even this man in his messy office has so much power, he has other men standing behind him and a state institution to back him up. And who do I have to back me up?”
Ghani has had to contend with criticism that the harassment she allegedly suffered wasn’t “that bad”. “Our society is used to victims who are helpless women, those with scars on their body, those barely able to fend for themselves,” she feels. “But a woman like me? Who only had to deal with inappropriate words or an unwanted touch? They say, ‘That’s it? That’s such a small thing.’ People want gruesome violence as that is seen as the only reason to come forward and say you are a victim.” When Iffat Omar, an actress also accused of maligning Zafar through her support for Meesha Shafi, appeared in court, she was trailed by a crowd of young men and women chanting, “We support Ali Zafar” and “Stop lying”.
In January this year, Ghani decided to act. “Is it fair that we can be harassed, maligned and labelled as liars when we speak up?” she tweeted. “I have moved the court to stop Mr Zafar and his army of trolls from harassing me further.” She was suing Zafar for Rs 500 million (more than $3.1 million) in damages. In her lawsuit, she detailed instances when Zafar spoke about her in television interviews or ‘liked’ or shared tweets implying she is a liar or opportunist.
It was an entirely unexpected turn in a messy legal drama that had been playing out in headlines for two years. “This is a very unique case,” Dad explained. “To challenge a powerful person who has been using different means to silence those who have spoken against them is bold. Usually the victim is so overwhelmed that they would not want to start a fight on another front. It is courageous of a woman who is already facing an attempt to silence her to fight back in this way.” Meanwhile, Zafar’s legal team sees the case as an example of ulterior motives. “Do me a favour,” Ahmad said to me. “Type ‘Leena Ghani’ in Google. See what comes up. What is her reason for fame? The only reason people know her name is because she is one of the people accusing Ali Zafar.”
One of Ghani’s lawyers explains to me that they don’t usually see women using laws against defamation, as compared with men. “These kinds of cases can drag on for years and it helps to have support from family, to know your legal rights, and to diligently provide the kind of evidence needed,” says Bahzad Haider. He quotes an old Urdu saying to explain why few women may take the route Ghani has chosen: “To go to court, you need shoes made of iron and hands made of gold.” You must be prepared for a long, expensive slog.
What feels strikingly immediate is the way in which these cases have forced a conversation about our bodies and the right to determine how they are treated. When Ghani shared on Twitter that Zafar allegedly asked her if she was a virgin or touched her her parents were supportive but nervous. “My father asked me why I chose to use the word ‘groping’, because he felt people would find the word hard to swallow and imagine the worst,” she recalls. “But if that word makes them uncomfortable, imagine how women feel every time they have to contend with it. I chose to use that word, to show how the danger women face isn’t just from strangers, and often harassment starts with the kind of gaze that makes you uncomfortable, then it is verbal, and finally physical.”
In Pakistan, any attempt to begin such a dialogue has been met with resistance: last year, when the slogan “mera jism, meri marzi” (“my body, my choice”) was called out ahead of the annual march on International Women’s Day, it was met with fury – what kind of woman would call attention to her body or assert her right to choose what she does with it in public? Petitions were filed in court against the “vulgar”, “un-Islamic” marchers, Amnesty International denounced the “threats of violence, intimidation and harassment” to the organisers, women marching in the capital, Islamabad, were pelted with stones and shoes, and a well known television writer was so upset during an interview on a talk show when he heard an activist utter the slogan that he called her a “bitch” who no man would even “spit on”.
Ghani knows this anger is not new – it has only been freshly kindled. At Lahore’s National College of Arts (NCA), she studied under the woman she calls her first feminist icon, the artist Lala Rukh, one of the founders of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) in 1981, an organisation formed to protest against and counter the vehemently anti-women legislation passed under the military dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq. Lala Rukh witnessed the slow creep of control over women’s bodies through the microcosm of the campuses where she studied and later taught. When she was at the Punjab University in the 1960s, nude painting with live models (segregated for male and female students) was offered to MA students, but some years later, students from the Department of Islamic Studies would storm into the Department of Fine Arts and smash sculptures of the human form.
By the mid-1970s, General Zia had issued orders to the state television that all female anchors should have their heads covered with a dupatta.
When the women accusing Zafar were merely children, laws were passed that gave the legal testimony of a Pakistani woman half the weight of the testimony of a man – one member of the clergy reasoned that women had “inferior faculties of reason and memory” and their word should be treated the same as that of “the blind, handicapped, lunatics and children”. In an iconic photograph from a WAF-organised demonstration against the law in 1983, Lala Rukh stands in a small clutch of women setting their dupattas on fire in protest. They were beaten, teargassed, and arrested. In video interviews for the Asia Art Archive in 2009, Lala Rukh recalled with glee that the protest was discussed in Parliament with increasingly imaginative accusations against the women. The glass bangles on her wrists clink with each effusive gesture, the smoke from her cigarette curls toward her smiling face. “They said… these women were tearing up the pavement and using their dupattas as slings. I wish we’d thought of it!”
When WAF was unable to find local printers willing to print their protest signs or newsletters, Lala Rukh began designing and screen printing them herself – one poster, titled Crimes Against Women, a compilation of news reports of violence against women, is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection, along with some of Lala Rukh’s other works. “She was the only person I knew who wasn’t married, hadn’t had children, and she lived a life that was about her art, activism, teaching, and friendships,” Ghani recalls. “She lived the kind of life I didn’t even know I wanted.”
In March 2018, Ghani was one of many women who came together to organise the first march on International Women’s Day in Lahore, in solidarity with marches in other cities and around the world. The marches have grown every year, as has the criticism of them. Last year, posters and murals for the march were vandalised in Islamabad and Lahore, the faces of the women painted on them blackened and called obscene. Every year, the marchers have persisted, and this year, they spray-painted their slogans, including “my body, my choice” and “the pandemic of patriarchy”, onto train bogies in Lahore in glow-in-the-dark paint. The march’s posters jostle for space on city walls plastered with ads for concoctions promising male virility, a stark contrast to the only images of women in such public spaces – in advertisements for laundry detergent or milk. Her legal battles, Ghani hopes, are an extension of such activism. “If you occupy the streets, what is the next step? To occupy the institutions, the court rooms, the state’s spaces.”
Ghani wants this case to force a reckoning of what constitutes harm. But when a journalist asked her recently if it felt potently symbolic, she shook her head. “It feels very lonely at times,” she says. She has had to force herself out of her comfort zone – she describes herself as a “homebody” who preferred Twitter and Facebook to share her thoughts and her art to express herself. She laughs as she tells me that in college, she was a gifted mime. She loved using her body to perform, but was terrified of having to use her voice. She takes the sting out of descriptions of traumatic incidents with jokes, and in court, when she scribbles a note to me about feeling worried, she draws a smiley face at the end. She has had to force herself to be clear, concise and direct because of this case, learning with each court appearance or media interview. However, when she talks about her childhood, it becomes clear that she may have always had an inclination to speak up. As her father was a government employee, Ghani and her sisters spent some years in Peshawar, where he had been posted. In the sixth grade, students were talking about a swimming pool in the city that you needed special permission to visit. Ghani was annoyed. The pool should have been open and equally accessible for all, she argued. The following year, a nun at the convent school she studied at asked the students to write down what they wanted to be when they grew up. She paused at thirteen-year-old Ghani’s answer. Scribbled on the paper: “I want to grow up to be a path to goodness.”