Ali Zafar’s response to Meesha Shafi’s allegations has proven a textbook example of DARVO: deny, attack and reverse victim and offender
Published in Volume 29, Issue Number 8 of the Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment and Trauma, Sarah Harsey and Jennifer J. Freyd’s research paper, “Deny, Attack and Reverse Victim and Offender (DARVO): What is the Influence on Perceived Perpetrator and Victim Credibility?,” begins by defining DARVO as the manner in which “perpetrators of interpersonal violence deflect blame and responsibility when confronted for their abusive behavior.” This is likely a familiar refrain for many victims of harassment and sexual violence.
DARVO, as explained by Harsey and Freyd, is commonly used by abusers globally to discredit their targets. A recent high-profile example was found in February 2020, when The Guardian reported on enablers of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein that had helped him silence his many accusers. Explaining how he was able to avoid accountability for so long, the U.K. broadsheet noted: “Much of the answer appears to lie in the army of helpers he deployed to deflect and silence accusers.” The role women played in this regard also merits mention as predators have a tendency to co-opt female faces to lend credibility to their deflection tactics. This, too, was reported on: “Another helper who raised eyebrows was Lisa Bloom, a Los Angeles-based lawyer who made her name representing the victims of sexual abuse, including several of the women trafficked by Jeffrey Epstein. Her reputation as a champion for survivors imploded when it emerged that she had been retained by Weinstein in 2016 to help him beat back his detractors.”
In their paper, Harsey and Freyd also explain the term “outrage management,” which “represents a set of techniques employed by perpetrators that mitigate observers’ negative evaluations of both perpetrators and their objectionable behaviors.” In Pakistan, we have seen these “outrage management” techniques employed by singer Ali Zafar in the ongoing sexual harassment case filed against him by Meesha Shafi. For example, Zafar has stated outside court premises that Shafi levelled these allegations against him to obtain Canadian citizenship, despite her already holding Canadian residency prior to levelling the allegations. Such deflection tactics are commonly used by sexual predators to undermine the credibility of survivors.
Citing the work of McDonald et al. (2010), the paper states “that such outrage management techniques include casting doubt onto the credibility of the victim and denying the victims’ versions of events or reframing them so that they appear more innocuous.” We see the same tactics being adopted in the cases filed against Zafar by Leena Ghani. In fact, his legal team even issued a press statement noting that Ghani and Shafi are “friends.” Even though this is entirely immaterial to whether any harassment took place or not, the technique has been employed to cast doubt on the credibility of survivors and their supporters.
In January 2020, The Guardian had likewise reported on how Harvey Weinstein engaged Black Cube, a private Israeli investigation firm, to suppress the allegations against him: “The Black Cube contract was first reported by Ronan Farrow of The New Yorker, who revealed that the Israeli firm, on Weinstein’s dollar, deployed a number of investigators using false identities to befriend women accusing the movie titan of sexual misconduct and extract information from them.” In a similar manner, Zafar seems to have under his control an army of spies and trolls, on and off social media, who are dedicated to intimidating and monitoring those who speak up.
What we have seen in this high-profile case is how an influential man has cashed in on the patriarchal structure of our society to discredit victims. In Pakistan, like in many other parts of the world, women are only viewed as victims if they conform to our warped criteria of what a “perfect victim” is. Women like Shafi and Ghani are not “perfect victims” for two simple reasons: One, they represent the modern empowered female; and two, they have chosen to speak and fight instead of crying.
Melanie Randall, in “Sexual Assault Law, Credibility and ‘Ideal Victims’: Consent, Resistance and Victim Blaming” (2010), discusses how the myth of the “ideal victim” is utilized to tarnish the credibility of survivors of sexual assault. In this paper, Randall explains, inter alia, how “disqualification” as victims/survivors is ensured “through stereotypes surrounding what constitutes authentic victimization.” We have seen this tactic used ad nauseam by Zafar’s legal team, where they have repeatedly distinguished between “real” and “fake” victims.
In her paper, Randall writes: “Bad victims—those women whose lives, backgrounds and characteristics depart from the narrow confines of ‘ideal victims’ in sexual assault cases—are the women whose accounts are subject to the most scrutiny, whose credibility is most attacked, and who are seen to be less deserving of the law’s protection. This, in turn, is inextricably tied with the pervasiveness of victim-blaming, the idea that women are, and should be, responsible for navigating their own safety, for managing men’s sexual attention and aggression, and also for accurately assessing and avoiding risk.”
While relying on research carried out with survivors of sexual assault, Randall notes that it indicates “that their experiences within the criminal justice system, including with the police, have made them feel as if they are disbelieved and blamed.” This is relevant to many ongoing cases in Pakistan, particularly the criminal defamation cases filed by Zafar against Shafi and others. The fact that the FIA has already submitted a chalaan and its initial findings on an alleged “defamation/smear campaign” (when no determination has been made on the harassment allegations) indicates how law enforcement agencies are abused by those with influence and power to target survivors and those who speak up.
Ultimately, there is one truth that will eventually surface in this case: No amount of deflection, attacks and intimidation can dismiss that the only objective of these tactics is to delay the inevitable by attempting to silence those who dare to speak out. In a country where the right to expression is subject to unlawful restrictions regularly, sexual predators are emboldened to adopt similar tactics, often involving law enforcement agencies to pressurize survivors into retracting their allegations.
Mazari-Hazir is a lawyer