Ali Zafar is famed across South Asia for his pop music, romantic comedies and even the occasional toothpaste advert. But last weekend he gave a particularly emotional performance on Pakistani television, tears welling in his eyes as he spoke of the effect sexual harassment allegations has had on his life. For the past year, the actor and musician has been embroiled in the country’s most high-profile #MeToo case: his initial accuser was the actress and singer Meesha Shafi.
Last April she issued a statement claiming that Zafar had sexually harassed her “on more than one occasion”. He responded by “categorically denying” the allegations and promising to sue.
The stars have since been locked in a legal battle – including a defamation suit for 1bn rupees (£5.4m) in damages, which led to the courts ordering Shafi to abstain from making any further “negative remarks” against Zafar. Last weekend, after Zafar’s television appearance, Shafi’s lawyer, Nighat Dad, tweeted her verdict: “If anyone has earned the right to cry today, it’s thousands of survivors around us who were forced to watch a privileged man accused of sexual harassment and whine.”
Since the #MeToo movement gathered pace in October 2017, attitudes to sexual harassment and abuse have shifted in many parts of the world. Across South Asia, in countries where local feminists decry conservative and patriarchal attitudes, campaigners have noted a marked increase in the number of women speaking out.
And, as the Observer found on a recent visit to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, a newly emboldened cohort of female lawyers are rallying to offer their support to survivors. One of the most prominent is Dad.
Co-written and co-reported with SOPHIE HEMERY