This is the slowest time in blogville, holidays are getting everyone busy and stuff, so it seems like a good time for me to post something controversial. Only my old friends who will read carefully and thoughtfully are hanging around. You don’t have to agree with me, but I know the DCIB regulars will at least take me seriously and consider what I say.
I just finished the R. Kelly documentary, which was fascinating and very well done, and made me think about who we choose to believe as victims. Which has two sides to it, the women like those who survived R. Kelly who we do not listen to (because they are Black women in America), but also the ones that we believe so easily when we should not.
Vijay Raaz was just accused of sexual harassment, did you see that? And it is a completely ridiculous charge, clearly false. I am not even going to pretend to give credence to it. He grabbed a female crew member by her arm in the middle of shooting to have her move out of the way of something. She called the police and declared it was “harassment”. Everyone else (of the many people there because it was during a regular film shoot) said that he just grabbed her arm for a second. I guess I shouldn’t say “false”, I should say “wrongly defined”. In the middle of a crowded confused workplace, to grab a co-worker by the arm is not harassment. It is grabbing a co-worker by the arm. The fact that the woman filed a report for harassment because of this, and that the media is so quick to put up headlines and believe her, says far more about the status of someone working in the film industry like Vijay Raaz, and the perceived proper treatment of women in Indian society, than the incident itself. Vijay is an actor, someone with a semi-known name, but someone with no real political or economic power in India. So he is a target people like. And the idea of a woman being harassed in a co-ed workplace is a story people like. What happened to the story of Nawazuddin’s niece who was molested by her uncle, in her childhood home? Oh, that doesn’t play as well, that’s not as tidy, let’s report it and then shuffle it back under the rug. But a woman being grabbed by a stranger co-worker in the office! Oh, yeah, that’s a story we like, that’s a narrative about the danger women face should they dare to step out of the home, that’s something the police will investigate and we will all report. (citation: https://www.bollywoodhungama.com/news/bollywood/vijay-raaz-not-resume-work-sherni-molestation-case-eyewitness-recalls-incident/ )
Now, let’s look at Ali Zafar, again. This story first broke on social media back in the spring of 2018. It started with another artist, a singer Meesha Shafi, issuing a lengthy statement saying that Ali sexually harassed her during a “jam session”. This was followed by a long social media statement from a make-up artist generally talking about harassments without details. Another from a woman saying he had tried to kiss her cousin at a wedding. And a final one from a woman saying he had tried to kiss someone backstage at a concert and she witnessed it. Meesha herself just said “sexual harassment”, with no details as to what he actually did.
On the other hand, Ali’s current co-star issued a statement not saying she disbelieved the other women, but that she had experienced nothing even close to that herself or witnessed it. Ali provided witnesses to the “jam session” where Meesha Shafi said the harassment took place and even a video, everything consistent with his claim that he did nothing to her and was never even alone with her. And then, Ali sued her for libel, and not only did Meesha fail to show up to that court case, her LAWYER failed to show up. At the same time she was issuing vague accusations through social media and interviews, with no supporting witnesses or evidence or even specifics that could be checked, she was actively running from any legal situation in which she could be challenged, and possibly later brought to account for perjury.
I want to believe women, of course. I know that women accusers are usually disbelieved. And I am a woman myself, there is an instinctive desire to relate to them and think they are telling the truth. But there is also a prejudice towards believing certain people and following certain cases over other cases, and that is an important thing to challenge within ourselves as well.
I don’t want to believe that Om Puri, or Nawazuddin Siddiqui, are involved in familial abuse. But, they are. Om Puri was a wife beater. Nawazuddin Siddiqui chose his brother over his young niece who was being abused. Those are ugly things that I want to pretend don’t exist because I like Om Puri and Nawazuddin, I relate to their artistic films and sort of liberal educated sensibilities. I need to challenge myself, to read all the evidence in their cases, and force myself to respond with my head and not my heart.
And I need to do the same in the case of Ali Zafar. Yes, he has a very superficially macho image. Yes, he comes from pop culture, no classical training or anything fancy like that. Yes, he is a very very popular figure in Pakistan. But there is simply no evidence, no real evidence, that he ever sexually harassed anyone. The one woman who spoke up has avoided any legal situation at all. I’m not talking about police harassment or cross-examinations on the witness stand, I’m talking about simply sending her lawyer to sit in court and respond to libel charges. As soon as the courts became involved, she ran from any investigation or anything officially on paper.
We all paid a lot of attention to the initial flurry of accusations against him, it felt good to stand with this strong educated articulate woman against this scuzzy lower class macho guy. But let’s pay attention now too. Meesha Shafi has just been arrested. Ali did not run from the law, he spent two years painstakingly building a case. He also offered to pay all her expenses if she would just, FINALLY, show up to testify in court. And now he has presented his case. She threatened him that she would falsely accuse him and smear his name unless he helped her get a Pepsi contract. For two years, his team has tracked down “anonymous” social media accounts that Meesha helped set up to support her accusations. Meesha and 8 others have now been booked for creating a false campaign against Ali through social media. (citation: https://www.hindustantimes.com/bollywood/pak-singer-meesha-shafi-booked-for-smear-campaign-against-ali-zafar/story-oeFEsQ6Hfb7te83VT8F1cM.html)
Don’t look away from this! This is an important moment. This is a story that did not hold up to scrutiny from the start. I said back in July of 2018:
First, there is no specifics of behavior. General talk of misbehavior, of being worse than a lingering handshake, but nothing explicit like “his hand moved and cupped my breast”. This could be because the woman are carrying with them such an inborn sense of modesty that they cannot bring themselves to be specific in writing. Or it could be because they are trying to protect their own honor and social value in some way by not giving specifics. Or, and I am not saying this is the case but it is possible, it is because the specifics of the behavior are not terribly impressive, it was more a matter of how they reacted and felt in response than exactly what he did.
Second, there is a lot of hearsay here. One woman speaking on behalf of a cousin, another on behalf of an unnamed volunteer. And Leena Ghani’s is the one that I find most confusing, she references extreme physical behavior, but then ends by saying “the memories of times Ali thought he could get away by saying vulgar things to me still disgust me”, so perhaps she only has memories of words, not actions? It’s just the general blurring of evidence and reports that can happen on social media, when you are able to create your own narrative without the filter of a journalist, an editor, or a lawyer.https://dontcallitbollywood.com/2018/07/25/hindi-film-101-ali-zafar-sexual-harassment-post-before-i-review-his-new-movie/
But because Meesha used the right words, and because she (so easily! Only 8 people to help!) crafted a fake social media campaign, Ali’s name was dragged through the mud. More importantly, Meesha’s calculated campaign to please the public meant the the True stories were not given the attention they deserved. The truth is unpleasant and not perfect, the only way we will be willing to look at it is if there is no other option, if there is no perfectly crafted false story we can look at instead.
Yes, of course, you can still choose to believe Meesha. But believe her knowing that she has failed to ever testify in court in any situation, that the Pakistani police found the accusations against her valid enough to arrest her, and that Ali has witnesses (and video) to support every claim he has made. And believe her while considering if, perhaps, there is another story out there that you is less comfortable for you, and that maybe deserves more attention.
On the other hand, you are also allowed to change your mind. If you supported Meesha and hated Ali two years ago, it’s okay to read all this new stuff I am reporting and say “okay, now I see things differently”. That’s another trap, the story that seems so credible anyone would believe it, it is hard to come back and accept new information 2 years later and change your mind. But that’s allowed, we can always change our minds.