When singer-songwriter and actor Meesha Shafi talks to her two children, a boy and a girl, she always tells them to speak up if at any time someone, anyone, touches them or their private parts or even makes them uncomfortable in any way. It is a rule in her household that the children will never be left alone and will always have a responsible trusted adult, a parent or a family member with them (and which also includes vetted domestic staff, grandparents and so on). It is a subject on which she and her husband (Mehmood Rahman) are completely agreed on.
The kids are never left alone in the car, for instance and with due diligence she tells them: “It’s important to speak up; it is not your fault under any circumstances. It is never, ever your fault. Don’t ever think it is you who needs to hide this.”
So, when caught in the same situation as an adult and a powerful one at that, staying quiet about her own story began to gnaw at her. It has ultimately resulted in Shafi taking to Twitter and sharing her own story with a statement that alleges that popular singer/actor Ali Zafar has, on more than one occasion, subjected her to sexual harassment. Since the statement has gone public, Instep spoke with Shafi at length on, well, what happened. This is her story.
“The first time it happened, I didn’t react and just left,” Meesha recalls in an interview with Instep. “I told my husband but also asked him to not react; I’m a public figure and so is he (Ali Zafar). My thought process was who I am and who he is and what that’s going to lead to. Being ready to talk was far off because it had just happened. I buried it.”
It happened for the second time, Meesha tells Instep, late last year or last quarter of last year. And in both instances, they were not alone. The second time it happened in a jam room.
“I got booked for a concert,” she says. She and Ali Zafar were billed to perform on the same concert. Why did she say yes to the gig in the first place, I ask her, playing devil’s advocate? “It is my bread and butter, it was work coming my way,” she notes.
It eventually resulted in them preparing a song that they could perform together. “I was jamming with my band in Lahore and the organisers insisted that he was trying to get in touch. It started turning into a thing, and I was being seen as difficult or a diva, I got such feelers. I was avoiding him. I was asked to jam, figure out songs, scale and it happened while we were jamming.”
There are images of you and Ali together, I ask her. “I have run into him, our pictures have been taken, at social gatherings etc because it’s easier to to tell yourself to move on in whatever way you can, you try.”
What pushed you to say something and to speak now?
“The first and foremost reason is that I’m ready. I have started talking to people and divulging my experience. I’m finding it hard on my conscious to stay silent any longer than this because I’m seeing such brave girls and women speaking up – not just around the world – but here as well.
I have to say, by the way, I salute these girls,” she adds, referring to the girls who spoke about former Patari CEO Khalid Bajwa. “It’s not easy. They are not public figures and I think it can be harder for me, in a way, but it’s hard for everyone. The more I think about it, the more I realise that if I don’t go public, nothing will change. It was eating away at me.”
“I am telling my children how important it is to speak up, so it was getting difficult for me to stay silent knowing that it was not accidental or subtle.”
As she recalls it, this was not about a hug that went on for too long, a greeting that went on for a little too long or a lingering handshake. “Women who feel that that’s inappropriate and speak-up and feel harassed, that is absolutely their right and not to take away anything from them in any way but it was more than that and that people need to know.”
For Meesha, since going public with her story, a burden has been lifted. “It is liberating, it’s empowering and it’s not the end of the world. I only felt hesitant as long as I hadn’t told anyone. The more people I tell, the more power I feel. I do. That has been my direct experience in the case. I’ve done the thing I feared and I’ve taken the leap of faith. And you know what, it’s okay.”
Ali Zafar denies allegations of sexual harassment
Ali Zafar has denied all allegations made by Meesha Shafi and has decided to take the legal route. His statement in entirely below...
“I am deeply aware and in support of the global #MeToo movement and what it stands for. I am the father of a young girl and a young boy, a husband to a wife and a son to a mother. I am a man that has stood up for myself, my family, my colleagues and friends countless times in the face of slander, defamation and general unkindness. I will do the same today. I have nothing to hide. Silence is absolutely not an option.
I categorically deny any and all claims of harassment lodged against me by Ms Shafi. I intend to take this through the courts of law and to address this professionally and seriously rather than to lodge any allegations here, contesting personal vendettas on social media and in turn disrespecting the movement, my family, the industry and my fans. Ultimately I am a strong believer that the truth, always prevails.”