KARACHI: You would think a women-only bank would be a safe space for women. Think again. You’re in Pakistan and the very institution that was designed to provide a safety net to working women obviously has men occupying several key positions. Exploitation is all but natural.
The First Women Bank Ltd, established by then prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 1989, was chartered to meet the special banking needs of women. Over the years, the bank’s hierarchy has been quietly encroached upon by male employees, who have on various occasions exploited their position.
As harassment allegations made the rounds, The Express Tribune set out to investigate what was really going on. Over the course of at least two months, dozens of women were found to have been made victims of sexual harassment. Few dared to speak out publicly.
One case was that of Zahra Shaikh, who has not only agreed to speak on the record, but has also filed a complaint with the Federal Ombudsman.
Shaikh is an operations officer at the First Women Bank’s Nazimabad branch. She has accused her boss, the head of operations at the First Women Bank of harassing her. “Saleem Shafi is our boss. He harassed and abused me when I refused to fulfill his demand,” Shaikh told The Express Tribune in a recent interview. When asked about his demand, she responded, “Everyone can understand what terrible things men expect from women”.
In her complaints lodged with the Ombudsman, the ministry of human rights and the National Commission on the Status of Women, Shaikh has said, “I have been victimised and discriminated against, which is why I am forced to lodge a complaint.”
An unending ordeal
According to Shaikh, she was initially served a poor performance letter, which reads, “It has been observed that you are not performing up to the mark which is directly resulting in the willful gross negligence of duties in your capacity as ‘operational officer’.” The bank sent her several such letters between June and November, last year.
“This all was done at the behest of Saleem Shafi. If I was dull, why was I promoted, given special increments and awarded certificates?” she questioned, producing a sheaf of promotion letters and recommendations.
In her complaint to the Ombudsman, Zahra further alleged that when she protested the biased performance letters, her boss became vindictive and started using derogatory language.
Shaikh’s case is still pending before the Ombudsman, where Shafi has refuted all the allegations leveled against him. “I have never harassed the complainant or anyone in my entire professional career. The complainant just wants to defame me,” he said. “The complainant had come to my room in our head office and after a few minutes of discussion, started shouting and using abusive language. I, along with other staff members, tried to calm her down, but she misbehaved. The staff asked her to sit in the adjacent conference room, where she continued her outburst and even used abusive language against me and the bank’s senior management.”
Not a one-off
Shaikh’s ordeal is oddly similar to Rubina Mukhtar, who was posted as the operations manager at the bank’s Quetta branch. According to documents available with The Express Tribune, Mukhtar registered a complaint with the senior management on November 16, 2018, regarding the behavior of her boss, the Area Operations Manager, who used to send her inappropriate messages and emails. When the management took notice of the matter, the accused in this case tendered an apology on December 14.
Another female employee, who is now working as the Assistant Vice-President in Lahore, shared how the regional business head harassed her at the workplace. “He used to smoke in the office, while staring at me,” she told The Express Tribune. When she had protested the behaviour in 2017, she was given a low rating in her evaluation report.
She also raised concern over the appointments of men in crucial positions, which was contrary to the recommendations of its founder, Benazir Bhutto. According to a letter penned by Benazir to the bank’s first president, she had directed the bank to hire only female staff, with the exception of security personnel. “The women bank may employ, other than for security purpose, only women. This will not only enable working women to have great job opportunities, but it will also encourage parda nashin ladies to avail the service of the bank for purpose of accounts and savings,” the letter reads.
Today, four of the 12 members of its core management team are men. Overall, the bank has 450 permanent employees in 42 branches located across the country. At least 100 of the employees are men.
When The Express Tribune questioned the bank’s incumbent president, Naushaba Shehzad, regarding the hiring policy, she said, “There is no bar to appoint only women in the bank.” She added that men are hired on technical positions that are difficult for women to service.
When asked about harassment cases and action taken against the perpetrators, she said, “The situation is totally the opposite. Since women are in majority here, it is they who harass men,” she quipped.
Talking about Shaikh’s case, she said, “We have conducted an internal inquiry and all allegations leveled by Zahra are baseless.” When her attention was drawn towards Mukhtar’s case in Quetta, where an officer had tendered an apology for his behaviour, she claimed ignorance about the matter. “I have taken over charge some time ago and have no idea about it.”
She insisted, however, that there was no harassment at the bank and it offered a peaceful working environment to all its employees.