It is a sad truth that even those industries that look in the mirror and declare themselves the most liberally progressive of all, have proved themselves to be the least bovvered when it comes to tackling harassment.
We certainly have come a long way, baby.
Here at the dawn of the first decade of the 21st century, a mere 30 years since man first set foot on the moon, and Pakistan’s National Assembly has passed the country’s first-ever anti-sexual harassment bill.
For many, this represents an unexpectedly wonderful departure from yesteryear’s era of enlightened moderation. A period that saw, among other things, the who’s-who of Lahore’s professional activists bravely taking to the city’s streets to protest the proposed presidential ban on the Second Lahore (mixed gender) International Marathon.
At the time, many of us were, perhaps, superbly naÃ¯ve in our belief that these courageous women were selflessly upholding the right of Pakistani women everywhere to run alongside men in public. To exercise the freedom to ogle all the while as the darker sex became increasingly hot and sweaty and surrendered to the demands of their running shoes as they, well, just did it.
Apparently, though, this was just an added bonus for the voyeurs amongst us. For when the marathon ultimately went ahead, the activists lauded the move as a triumph for the reclamation of women’s rightful share of the public sphere.
Yet once the cameras stopped their rolling-and-flashing frenzy, this most public of orchestrated battles seemingly faded to grey. This was, perhaps, to be expected. For a few high-profile, stage-managed X Factor events, showing that Lahore really has got talent, could never hope to be adequate substitutes for legal frameworks and the mechanisms of enforcement.
And this, of course, is why the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Bill must be welcomed.
For it is a sad truth that even those industries that look in the mirror and declare themselves the most liberally progressive of all, have proved themselves to be the least bovvered when it comes to tackling harassment.
Take the media, for example. Outwardly, society’s fourth estate has rightly long prided itself on giving headline space and airtime to crimes against women. More recently, it has found itself actively jumping into the fray. Meaning that when women have been raped or had acid thrown on them and the police – for reasons best known to them – have refused to register First Information Reports (FIRs) against the alleged attackers, the media has relentlessly highlighted these cases to the point where the authorities have been publicly shamed into ensuring that the legal process be invoked at all levels. And for this, the media must be applauded.
Inwardly, however, it must be said that certain quarters of the media have been less than conscientious when it comes to safeguarding the honour, dignity and safety of their female employees.
Although the recent media explosion has seen a welcome increase in the number of young women joining the workforce, newsrooms still remain a predominantly male-dominated environment. This is especially true of the print media.
This may explain the countless and untold cases of harassment of female staff. Ranging from suggestive comments to inappropriate text messages to explicit e-mails. From marriage proposals to subsequent bullying tactics when the man in question is turned down.
Yet responses to such behaviour have often been determined according to the class and workforce ranking of the adventurist.
Meaning that when the offender is part of the so-called disposable labour force, such as a tea boy or security guard, there is usually no hesitation in showing him the door. But when he happens to be at the higher end of the chain of command – a man who wields actual power and authority, such as an editor-in-chief, resident editor or news editor – professional integrity all too often falls by the wayside.
Thus, more often than not, a woman who has the gumption to stand up and complain can find herself being told that such behaviour is simply part and parcel of working life. Or, incredibly, that she would not be complaining if she fancied the cad in question. Yes, really.
Unfortunately, this false nexus between class and sexual harassment has, in the past, been upheld by women themselves.
In 2008, South Asian Women in Media (SAWM) held a preliminary meeting of female journalists in Lahore to discuss harassment and to devise possible support mechanisms.
Interestingly, the emerging consensus identified cameramen and, at times, reporters, as the most likely to offend. Apparently, their lack of ‘education’ meant that they could hardly be expected to behave any better.
Naturally, such a skewered approach simply gives the powers of authority a free ride. It inadvertently downgrades their advances to that of mere harmless banter, thus allowing them to believe that the light is always green. Whereas, as one of the meeting’s participants succinctly put it: harassment is never a class issue but always a matter of what these opportunists think they can get away with. And as long as sexual overtures are not nipped immediately in the bud, it becomes a matter of what they know they can get away with.
And this is why legal implementation alone will never prove effective unless and until those at the helm of organisations prove their unwavering commitment to zero tolerance on this front. Whomsoever the offender may be. For the line between inaction and complicity is, indeed, very fine.
The writer is a Lahore-based freelance journalist and is currently working on her first novel. She can be reached at [email protected]
Source: Daily Times