Women’s rights activists celebrated when Pakistan’s lawmakers passed the law against sexual harassment at workplace. This daunting journey started when women’s movement at least a decade ago if not more, took it upon itself to fight for the criminalisation of unwanted advances of bosses and co-workers. In 2010, we achieved a big milestone when The Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act 2010 was passed by the parliament of Pakistan. Seven years after achieving that milestone, it feels like a sparingly effective measure.
The existence of this law is one big consoling factor as it ensures the naming and shaming of the perpetrators. However, the way bosses have been able to manipulate the anti-sexual harassment measures provided by the law, and how the society views the victim or reported victim is a story one reads in horror. Though there are many cases where the victims were heard and safeguards ensured, there are more cases in which the legal provisions were manipulated and twisted in favour of the aggressor or alleged harasser
Two cases where the law and the inquiry process made a sham of themselves can be quoted here. The more recent case was of Zunaira Ishaq (this is a pseudonym to protect victim’s privacy) who was working with an NGO where the harassment started. This organization, for the record, worked for the rights of women and took hundreds of thousands of dollars for this job from different western donor organizations in the years when it was systematically protecting a harasser.
For whole one year Zunaira was subjected to a perpetual mental torture by a male co-worker who started it with unwanted gaze, occasionally through text messages and innuendo. He finally proposed Zunaira for marriage, which she refused. The matter, however, did not close here. The man kept hounding her for another year and half, at times directly, or through colleagues. His blatant audacity made it impossible for Zunaira to continue her job. She finally decided to take matters in her own hands and registered a complaint with the senior management of the organization.
To her utter shock, the management instead of initiating formal inquiry process, went on with defending the harasser and asked Zunaira to stop maligning a person who was ‘only trying to give her respect by proposing her for marriage’.
It was shocking for me to absorb this highly ironic case where the NGO working and feeding itself handsomely in the name of women’s rights showed not only utter disregard for the victim, but also demonstrated such poor understanding of an issue as important and sensitive as sexual harassment. Hard to believe that the people at the center of women’s rights work would be oblivious to what constitutes sexual harassment: unwanted gaze, touch, innuendo, pestering to have sexual relations even through proposed marriage. To put it simply, once a woman says stop, gentleman must stop. It would be harassment if you move forward from that point; rape if you continue the act after a woman’s no.
Zunaira took that case to ‘Ombudsman’ (for the purpose of this article, I’d prefer to use a better term, Ombudsperson) for sexual harassment cases, where she won. However, the entire process took several months of painstakingly following up, appearing in the hearings, being subject to co-workers’ and management’s allegations that she had an ulterior motive in highlighting the case against ‘the poor man who just wanted to marry’. The punishment to the harasser was laughable. His salary raise for that year was withheld. The case cost the victim, in addition to her reputation, the money that she was in dire need of after getting fired from the organization when she approached Ombudsperson.
Yes, you heard it right, the NGO, that is working for women’s rights, fired the victim of sexual harassment on made-up charges of ‘not accomplishing the assigned duties’, within a month of her launching the formal complaint with the Ombudsperson’s office. This is not all, the employees who had testified in support of the victim were also fired on similar pretexts as of Zunaira’s.
The second case where the reported victims very courageously fought the case despite all odds are Tanzeela Mazhar and Yashfeen Jamal’s reported harassment at state owned Pakistan Television. Why we are still writing it a ‘reported case’ is because the process of transparent inquiry was thwarted through management’s malpractice and undue influence of a sitting federal minister in collaboration with an influential head of the state’s broadcast media.
Ms. Tanzeela had been making verbal complaints since 2010 to two consecutive Managing Directors against the senior co-worker Arshad Khan. His obnoxious jokes, unwanted gaze and sexual innuendo, comments on the appearances of female colleagues and unwelcomed advances were being strongly resented by some women especially Ms. Tanzeela and Ms. Yashfeen. In 2013, they made another verbal complaint to Mr. Mohammad Malick, then MD of PTV. Tanzeela left PTV in 2014 but joined back in 2016 after assurances were made about dealing strictly with harassment issues.
The harassment unfortunately, did not end but had rather become far more serious. Some seniors had emboldened to ask sexual favors in lieu of promotions. After continuing verbal protests and complaints for almost ten months, they filed a written complaint in November 2016 that resulted in formation of an internal inquiry committee. The accused Director was sent on leave. After first meeting, head of the Committee Shazia Sikandar who is a fine lady with deeper understanding of gender issues was abruptly replaced with another staff member.
After around five meetings of the inquiry committee, it became clear to both the victims that not only that the committee had zero knowledge and awareness of harassment issues, the members demonstrated hostile attitude towards the victims by asking highly derogatory questions. More over when the sufferers made their case public through social media, they were punished by the management and were barred from entering PTV premises and even from continuing the program they were anchoring, all in the name of protecting organization’s public image.
While the victims’ use of social media to highlight their case offended PTV, it did not have any qualms about the supporters of the accused running a malicious character assassination campaign against the victims. The inquiry report was never made public; the process was opaque and questionable. Even after getting audio and video evidences of the harassment, committee gave the not guilty verdict and the accused Director was allowed to join back. At his return, the victims refused to work under him, and had no option but to resign.
This is just a glimpse of what the victims have to go through when they decide to go public and legal against sexual harassment. The society must salute them to have undergone this psychological torture and having faced worst character assassination attempts. You my ladies are not damaged goods. You are our heroes whose struggle would go a long way in realizing a safe working environment for women and putting an end to disgraceful masculine attitude towards the stronger sex, women that is.
The writer is an Islamabad based analyst and writes on issues related to human rights, democratic governance and counter-terrorism