19th April 2021
By Asra Haque
On April 17, Accountability Court Justice Azhar Iqbal Ranjha adjourned till April 24 the remainder of the cross examination of social activist and makeup artist Leena Ghani after recording her statements in the Ali Zafar defamation lawsuit.
Ghani appeared before the court despite being the target of threats after she was associated with the Aurat March in Lahore – the movement is currently the center of religious and conservative hate after a series of misunderstood posters and doctored videos, in which participants of the March 8 rally can be allegedly heard uttering blasphemous remarks, went viral on social media.
In an exclusive conversation with Voicepk.net, she expressed her contentment with the partial cross examination held on April 17, stating that she was very clear with her narrative and therefore it was easy for her to respond to any questions posed by Zafar’s counsel, Advocate Hasham Ahmad.
“I came out happy [from the courtroom] because I was able to say exactly what I wanted to say. I was able to get my narrative across, and I was able to clear a lot of the misinformation and false news that has been spread about this for the last few years because we hadn’t gotten the chance to speak up about it,” she said, making mention of the gag order placed on Meesha Shafi, the nexus of the Me Too movement in Pakistan after the artist took to Twitter to accuse Zafar of sexually harassing her on April 19, 2018.
Ghani provided to the court that she is a human rights activist who stands up for people who are oppressed and who do not have recourses, avenues and access to justice and truth. She stated that she holds dear the rights of women folk and marginalized communities, minorities, transgender and non-binary people. Her sentiments toward the Me Too movement are the same, but particularly so as it is the first case of its kind that has come into the public sphere in Pakistan.
The activist had asserted that it is also the first time so many women have spoken up against one man, and that FIRs were lodged against all of these women for speaking up. She acknowledged that the outcome of this case would have a direct bearing on the Me Too movement in Pakistan, and that should Zafar win this case, it would cement the fact that Pakistan does not care about its women and survivors of sexual harassment.
During the cross examination, she contended that she did not personally know any of Zafar’s victims who spoke up against him, and lamented that it unfortunate that Hamna Raza was forced to retract her allegations against Zafar and issue a public apology, as the she was pregnant and did not want to bear with the stress of the FIR the actor had lodged against her among others.
Ghani also volunteered that she had responded to all notices issued to her by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) with a writ petition to the Lahore High Court, and that despite feeling harassed by inappropriate questions asked by FIA officials she continued to appear before the agency. Ghani also clarified to Zafar’s counsel that she did not reach out to Shafi as, contrary to what is being falsely reported in the media, she did not know her that well and only worked with her once in a professional capacity for a makeup shoot in 2012.
Ghani provided to Voicepk.net that she was initially uneasy about being cross examined (a first for her) however she was appreciative of Hon’ble Judge for allowing her the space and the time needed to volunteer information. Referring to the threats made by right-wing conservative elements such as the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) against Aurat March organizers, with whom Ghani is associated, she stated that the unfortunate development was the primary reason why she could not appear in person for a number of pending court hearings.
“This time, on the April 17 hearing, I was able to go. There was no excuse for why I couldn’t appear before the court, because for the longest time we’ve been hearing that Ali Zafar is facing threats to his life despite the fact he has twelve guards with him!” she pointed out the absurdity. “Who is he even being threatened by, I wonder? We on the other hand are facing actual threats to our lives, but it was more important to get our narrative through.”
She posited that at this point trolling and threats to women activists are now part and parcel of their work, and that women should grind in their heels and refuse to be intimidated. She recalled that when the Me Too movement in Pakistan was born, Shafi was unable to relay her experiences and trauma and was put under a gag order, something which no one could have expected. But the past three years have been valuable for Ghani to learn how to approach the law and ensure that her voice was heard.
“My narrative went straight to the court. I did not speak about it on Twitter, nor anywhere else because Meesha was assailed for doing just that. All I did was give Meesha support on Twitter as I wasn’t a witness to what happened to her, but I know what Ali Zafar did to me,” she said, referring to the Rs. 500 million suit she had filed against Zafar in January 2021 over alleged sexual harassment and defamation.
“When we think about it, we know that there aren’t many laws that help women but we have to keep trying. We are told that women don’t go to court, but I don’t agree with that. I urge women to go to the courts and talk about their experiences in front of judges and lawyers, and that’s how we can expect change.”