By: Waleed Tariq
KARACHI: Violence against women in patriarchal societies isn’t something new and has been going on for centuries. Yet, if one doesn’t go astray and remains in her ‘limits’, she shall stay unaffected. Having taught this from childhood to adolescence, I believed it, but it was all a lie.
Fouzia Saeed was speaking at the launching ceremony of ‘Bher Ki Khaal Mein’ – Urdu translation of her fearless expose – ‘Working with Sharks’ at Arts Council, Karachi on Thursday.
“Women in veils, miniskirts, and minors as well as older women are raped and harassed. It’s not the victim who is to be held responsible but the rapist,” she said.
Her book, she said, was about the case she filed against her boss who sexually harassed women at the UNDP office in Islamabad. “There were 16 women, out of whom 11 women, including me, had been sexually harassed by the same official,” she said. “We all had similar stories which continued for years, each staying silent out of fear and humiliation.”
Fouzia, along with her colleagues, took a strong action and lodged a formal complaint on December 22, 1997 to the UN hierarchy, but all their attempts went in vain as no drastic action was taken against the official. “We were so naïve, we thought our problems would end once we file a complaint. But that was when everything began.”
On taking the official to the court, they eventually won the case after two years resulting in the accused man getting fired on the spot and bringing out changes in the UN itself. “This stand finally culminated into a legislation that was passed by the Parliament in March 2010, declaring sexual harassment as a serious crime,” said Fouzia.
Congratulating Fouzia on the launch of the Urdu version of her book, Dr Riaz Shaikh of Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Institute of Science and Technology said although English is the official language in Pakistan, it has limited readership. An Urdu version, he said, would fill that gap and fulfil Fouzia’s mission of making her voice reach the masses.
The book, said Shaikh, could be regarded as Fouzia’s “semi-autobiography” which shares intricate details about her encounters at UNDP all the way till the legislation was passed against workplace harassment.
“This book is on the issues faced by women in societies categorised by compulsion of religion and suppression of freedom,” said Shaikh. “It’s about the ones who stand up for their rights, and try finding solutions to their problems.”
Atiqa Odho, an actor and social activist, regarded Fouzia as a daring lady who took a bold step and shared her challenge with the masses. When she started, she said, there were hardly any women in the media; but now, the situation is otherwise. “More than 50 percent of the people working in the media today are women,” she said. “People, after years of suffering, have opened doors for the present generation, and Fouzia is one such woman.”
Odho urged women to speak up and stand for their rights. Men, she said, couldn’t be generalised and there were good men, too. “There are wonderful human beings who listen and support us. Never lose hope.”
Sherry Rehman, who has been one of the driving forces for Fouzia in her struggle in passing the workplace harassment bill, regarded Fouzia’s work as “unique” – she shared a common problem through her experience. “Fouzia is a worker, leader and mentor who shared her struggle with the audience to learn their lesson,” said the former ambassador. “She did not do it for interviews or photographs but for other women for whom every sort of harassment is the order of the day.”
“Sexual harassment is a serious issue which cannot be swept under the carpet now,” she said.