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Recognising harassment

By Lubna Jerar Naqvi

Recently, I met a working woman and while talking to her, I found out that she was endangered by harassment by a senior colleague. Weirdly, her boss was also a woman and on inquiring why she didn’t take her case up to the female boss, she said that any woman, who does so, is told that they shouldn’t expect to be treated any other way once they have opted to step out of the ‘comfort’ of their homes. She said all the females, including the female boss, have encountered similar abuse in the said organisation or in other organisations where they have worked, and they expect this from their male colleagues. And apparently these women were fine with this. However, the female I was talking to, said she had sent written complaints to the human resource department, and they had been forced to conduct an inquiry. Ironically the inquiry was conducted by a team in which most members were women. Unfortunately, this inquiry was just a formality and nothing came out of it, the offender was allowed to work in close proximity of the women he harassed, one would have thought he would be cautious now that he had been pin-pointed. On the contrary, he had become bolder mainly because, as he always boasted, he had been found not guilty and therefore absolved of all ‘accusations’. He was officially wrongly accused; hence he did as he pleased.

Many working women may not even be aware but they maybe facing harassment in their work place. But the fact is that more often neither the victim nor the harasser is aware that they are stepping over the line of friendliness and stepping in the danger zone of harassment. The main thing is that we must determine what constitutes harassment. Well according to one definition, harassment is defined as “any physical or verbal abuse of a person because of her race, religion, age, gender, disability or any other legally protected status.” Harassment in the workplace can further be clarified as “any conduct that creates significant anguish to another person, with the intent to bother, scare or emotionally abuse her.” However, in certain societies like ours, where we are taught to respect our elders, older bosses usually take advantage of their age to touch, pat or even peck their younger female colleagues. These male bosses are quite safe in doing this since they are sure that their young female colleagues will not consider this as a sexual overture towards them; if they do, unless they are brave enough to speak up and protest this advance, they will keep silent thus providing their harasser to get bolder. The harasser slowly expands his circle, and the harassment increases, as do the number of victims. The victims of these men are vulnerable young women, since they are usually the ones who will be too scared to complain mainly because they don’t want to lose their jobs or fall out of favour with their superiors. And the harasser is aware that these girls, wrongly, believe that they will be blamed for attracting such attention to themselves. Unfortunately, the harasser is right, if a woman complains that she has been harassed, her other male colleagues have a field day with her reputation, citing that she wants to be noticed by men which is why she is making such a big deal about it. This may lead to them trying their luck with the victim, thus increasing the level of harassment of the girl. As this was not enough, women working with this victim are no help, instead of standing by their colleague, they add vicious rumours. They never own up that they have also been victim to the same or any other harassment in the work place. On the other side, the innocent pats and touching begin to get bolder and bolder, and unless someone actually stands up to him, no woman is safe from becoming victim to harassment in the work place.

Then there is verbal harassment that may include abusive language or ‘open’ dialogue, which includes sexual innuendoes, some subtly and others clear. Women will not be expected to understand these and ‘will’ be expected to ignore them; however if they do react, they are scrutinised by their male colleagues, who unashamed of their own conduct will be more interested in how she understood those remarks in the first place. Rounding it off with the accusation that she has a ‘loose’ character and not for once thinking that she is a working woman and is exposed to more in life than an average woman. She is bound to be worldlier, and it is wrong to begrudge them.

The other aspect of suppressing women from voicing the abuse of harassment is our society and the misuse of religion. Women are made to believe that their male relatives’ honour (a big deal in our part of the world) is the most precious thing in their life, they are wrongly made to believe that the religion also states this, and therefore they cannot by any act or speech defame their male relatives. This in turn leads to these women bearing all kinds of physical and mental torture. There are instances when females bear all kinds of abuse on the streets, educational institutions and work places but they never utter a protest mainly because they are afraid that they are defaming the ‘honour’ of their families, and more so because they know that if they protest, their family will not tackle the problem, but will make them sit at home. Which is why they choose to keep facing various forms of harassment without complain.

There are many kinds of harassments, like bullying, psychological harassment, racial harassment, sexual harassment and stalking. In this day and age, the last kind of harassment, i.e. stalking also includes unwanted or an extraordinary number of calls, SMS or emails to people other than friends and families. Unfortunately, we in Pakistan have not be taught any rules or manners pertaining to the boundaries of cyber space, which creates problems when we overstep certain limits. Even though we have cyber laws, but we are still struggling with normal laws, to understand the relevance of cyber laws and their impact.

It seems Pakistani authorities have become aware of the menace of harassment in the work place, and all the political parties unanimously passed the bill in the National Assembly with amendments in section 509 in Pakistan Penal Code which gives protection to women against harassment. And before divulging into details, it must be mentioned that women like MP and former information minister Sherry Rehman, have been the driving force behind this bill. This Bill declares sexual harassment as an inappropriate behaviour and a crime. This time the bill includes harassment of women working in the fields, women labourers working on the brick kilns or those working as domestic workers. It is also for women protection against such behaviour in private or public places.

In the amended version the term sexual harassment has been defined more explicitly, so that people can understand that this behaviour is not acceptable. This will also give women more information as how to file cases against the offenders. According to this bill, the punishment has increased the prison term for ‘outraging the modesty of women’ from one to three years, plus it imposes a 50,000 rupees fine. And will also allow for sexual harassment cases to be heard in higher courts. Now all that remains to be done is the strict implication of this law, so that it makes a difference in our society. And I propose that people, especially working women should be trained and taught as to what comprises harassment and what can be the consequences, so that they know exactly what is allowed and what incorporates harassment.
Source: The News