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Female Pakistani journalists share stories of harassment at the workplace

Last Sunday, American actress Alyssa Milano tweeted ‘Me Too.’ The reason: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” Within 24 hours, the hashtag was tweeted half a million times.

While the hashtag comes in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, sexism isn’t limited to Hollywood. Every industry, in every country, has its own Weinsteins, including Pakistan.

Being a media group, we asked women journalists in Pakistan to share their ‘Me too’ stories in order to show the magnitude of the problem in the country’s media industry and the sexism women journalists face in the line of work.

All the women have asked to keep their identity secret.

1) Sexual abuse in the field

“I was at a shrine a few years ago, reporting on a festival. It was late at night and there was a huge crowd. I was with a large group of people and the men had made a circle around the women in our group.

Yet, this still didn’t stop a guy from jamming his fingers up my butt again and again and again, until I turned around with the intent to smash a rock in his face. But he managed to snake through the crowd and that was that.”

2) Abuse of power

“When I first started, being a TV journalist did not seem any different than other industries where sexism and misogyny prevails. I learned early on, for example, that men working in technical roles often have difficulty accepting a woman producer.

Later, I joined a pioneer of television journalism in the country. I found that it was also a place where women were constantly harassed, subjected to sexual assaults, and slandered when they refused the advances of their seniors.

One of the most disturbing experiences I personally had was being asked to come to a senior’s office to discuss the agenda of the day’s show, only to find him jerking off to porn, even after having knocked and entering the office upon permission.

It turned out it was common knowledge that he indulged in such acts at the workplace. If that wasn’t enough, he would offer his hand for women to shake, while they knew where it had just been.”

3) Unwanted advances

“I invited a much-loved, viral, less-journalist-than-sensationalist television reporter to cover a campaign my organisation had been working on.

When I first called him, he told me to message him the brief (that’s reporter-speak for “I’m never filing this story”).

Nevertheless, I Whatsapp-ed the details to him. He immediately called me back. Thrilled that my written pitch had worked, I began spilling all my ideas for coverage – when he cut me short.

Aap pehle tau yeh bataaein aap ki Whatsapp tasveer mein kaun hai?” (First tell me who is in your Whatsapp display picture?)

Taken aback, I muttered that it was me and immediately resumed talk of the campaign when he man-terrupted me again.

Agar aap he hain, tau mein tau zaroor milne aaunga aap ko.” (If it really is you, then I’ll definitely come see you.)

I nervously laughed. I really didn’t want him to come anymore – but he offered my campaign unparalleled visibility so I sent him the where’s and when’s anyway.

He did show up at the launch. He placed his hand on my shoulder, told me he had never seen such an “intelligent voice come out of so pretty a mouth.” He never even looked at the campaign material once.

He called me again the next day, asking me when I was returning to the city. I told him I’d be sure to let him know when I did.

I’ve been back for days. He still doesn’t know.”

4) A full-fledged culture of misogyny

“I’m at an office, waiting for the editor to come. It’s a magazine office, one of the very prestigious and old ones. I have arrived at the time I was asked to come, but incidentally no one is at work.

It’s my first day on the job training, so I have little idea that journalists always swing by late. As I’m waiting, a young guy walks up. He’s geeky looking, thin, glasses, button down shirt, greasy hair parted in the middle.

From the looks of it, harmless but certainly not someone I’d take to. He is looking for someone. “Is S in?” he asks me about the editor. I tell him no. So he stays, telling me he better wait as he has to talk to her about something important.

I’m polite and also smile decently, but do not encourage him. It’s my first time at a proper workplace. He is asking me questions, innocuous enough but it shocks me immensely and I’m not prepared for it when he suddenly lunges at me, trying to kiss me, all the while groping me with his disgusting hands.

I can’t get out of shock but I do what is required: Push him back and slap his face. I tell him to get lost and that I will complain about him. And I do.

My editor is furious and lodges a complaint with his boss (it’s the marketing section in the other building), and she tells him she never wants to see him again. He never does come. But I could not shake off that dirty feeling.

I have now become a full-fledged journalist, and coincidentally work in the same organisation where this happened.

I work with men now, although there are students and interns too in the same room, but it is divided in sections.

I sit with the men. I am the only woman there. I can sense vibes from them. Different vibes of distrust, xenophobia, chauvinism, and patronising vibes. They don’t want me, but while I’m there, why not use me?

They pass lewd comments about other women, mostly celebrities, in front of me. I ignore. Then they start making double-meaning remarks on me. They think I cannot react. One day I say “CD andar nehin ja rahi” out aloud (There was a problem with my computer). The alpha male there retorts, “Daal dete hain”.

I slam my drawer shut and turn towards him, asking what he means. He instantly backtracks. I slam the door and go outside attracting a lot of attention.

Some reporters come and ask what happened and I tell them I’d bash this guy up. Afterwards, the guy never said or did anything other than being polite to me.

I realise, that if you act like a ‘man’, and behave like one of them, they show you respect. But if you are ‘womanly’ about your responses, like complaining, they will treat you like dirt, as if ‘you didn’t know how to play’ the Game.”

5) Men who are complicit

“As a freelance journalist, I spent a lot of time on the phone with government departments and would find that senior spokespeople – men – would only want to engage via text messages and not speak on the phone for comment.

There would be innuendo and requests to meet outside of work, over dinners, rather than responding to routine questions any journalist in the world would want a government department to go on the record about.

These are the casual and unwritten rules of sexual harassment in Pakistan; things are made clear without ever being stated. If you want access and contacts, woman, then play by my rules and do what I want. Be available for me when I want.

One time while working on a story on the outskirts of Peshawar – a public protest – the all male crew decided that they did not feel comfortable having me amongst them because they did not feel it was safe for me.

When I asked them why it wasn’t safe – obviously I knew, but I wanted my male colleagues to acknowledge the reasons – they said the area was crowded with men and anything could happen.

The fixer at least looked embarrassed when telling me the truth, but others also added there was a high security risk in the area due to the number of people gathered.

I said, in that case, the risk was the same for all of us and so we either worked as a team or we should leave the area and forget about reporting on the story. I stood my ground.

We worked on the story as a team and spent many hours on the ground working. I was pleased that the men felt discomfort at the way many of their fellow men were behaving around us and me in particular.

While filming in Karachi, a man who I had been in contact with to fix the story I was working on decided it was OK to ring my cell phone non-stop for days ahead of our meeting, and for days after asking me if I was alone and if I wanted company.

No is not a word these types of men like to hear or respect.”

6) Disrespect from peers

“As a woman, it’s difficult to be taken seriously. It’s worse when I’m doing fieldwork. Many times it has happened that I’m covering a lifestyle event and I’m getting more unwanted attention than the celebrities attending. Maybe the men think that since I’m not a celebrity, I’m more approachable. But I’m there to work.

I once covered an event where the cameramen and reporters would ask to take pictures with me. When I’d refuse, they’d say, “At least share your personal number.” I’d tell them to let me work, just like they should be, and they’d laugh it off and call me a prude.

They didn’t know me, they didn’t work with me, but they just wanted to invade my space and interfere in my work. I feel like if I hadn’t been assertive, they’d have followed me around.

Some of them would also start the conversation asking where I work, and without even paying attention to my response, they’d proceed to lecture me on how to go about my job. They don’t know me but automatically assume I’m an amateur, desperate for advice. I’ve been here a while. I know what I’m doing.”

7) Resenting women in authority

“Even though I hold a senior position within my organisation, I’ll occasionally encounter men who decide to put me down, not take me seriously or just plain harass me because I’m a woman.

Like the senior male journalist who was introducing me to a group of other journalists, and instead of using my name and title as a means of introduction, chose to introduce me as a ‘bachi‘.

Or the source who I was interviewing over text messages for a story who kept commenting on my Whatsapp profile picture.

Or the colleague who conveniently ‘forgot’ my name during a meeting despite the fact that I’ve worked with him for two years.

Or the writer who tried to mansplain my job to me even though I was the expert in the room, not him.

Or the other source who kept suggesting we ‘grab dinner’.

While these incidents aren’t physical harassment, they contribute to a culture of misogyny that makes women feel they’re fighting an exhausting, constant uphill battle.”