SEXUAL harassment, abuse and discrimination in Pakistan’s workplaces, including universities, are pervasive, mostly unreported and ignored by senior managers, a Dawn survey of 300 women found. In response to being asked whether women were made to stay silent about workplace harassment, 61 per cent said their employers did not coerce them to keep quiet, but a significant 35pc were told to remain silent by their colleagues and bosses.
The survey conducted through online questionnaires and interviews in Karachi, Islamabad, Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta collated responses from women in the workforce, across professions and industries, to gauge experiences of sexual harassment and whether workplaces have anti-sexual harassment policies in place.
Nonetheless, when it comes to formal reporting mechanisms, testimonies from women suggest most lack faith in the process — only 17pc of those who experienced harassment approached their organisation’s internal inquiry committees. Despite 59pc reporting that their managements do take harassment seriously, most women expressed worry that managers wouldn’t sanction harassers and their work situations would not improve. Most women felt they would not be believed during investigations or when perpetrators had support in high places.
A surgeon’s proposition
Women in medicine shared stories of a toxic culture of misogyny. Some as students endured catcalling, comments about their body size (“they would rate us on a scale of one to ten,” said one) and gossip about their reputation. Some doctors said promotions were denied on the pretext that they were ‘less experienced’, not ‘as committed’ as male colleagues or because they didn’t succumb to sexual demands. Those who call out workplace misconduct are routinely portrayed as hysterical and malicious liars or whiners.
One former medical student of a university hospital said her professor, a well-known orthopaedic surgeon, often paid her unwanted attention. Once, he propositioned her while she was operating on a patient under his supervision. “He stood so close to me, shoulder-to-shoulder in the operating room. He told me I’d have to come back to him if I cut my finger while operating. No one knows when you wear [surgical] masks what a doctor is whispering to you,” she said. “Female students would invariably get higher marks than male students. He had power over students he favoured. We knew his behaviour was problematic, so did our seniors, but by complaining we’d be jeopardising our careers. We were given warnings about some professors and male students we should steer clear of. It was a very uncomfortable environment. I hated it.”
Hostile work environments
Bad behaviour doesn’t have to be sexual to constitute harassment. In fact, everyday aggressions by male bosses often create humiliating work conditions for female subordinates.
Women in technology speak of how managers denigrate their worth and work; improper touching and comments, bullying; and bosses taking credit for their achievements. Schoolteachers talk of promotions promised in return for sexual favours. One said she was publicly mocked for using the bathroom ‘too often’. Politicians said they are routinely criticised for their appearance — they must not look too feminine since that’s not associated with leadership, nor too masculine since that’s not their lot. Being perceived as usurping power in a man’s world makes them fair game, they said. Even legislative assemblies in which pro-women laws are sanctified are not safe from everyday sexism.
Sexism in parliament
In January 2017, PML-F’s Nusrat Sehar Abbasi was well into her second tenure in the Sindh assembly and accustomed to the frequent jeering and heckling by certain male legislators from the ruling party. Nonetheless, she decided enough was enough when PPP’s Imdad Pitafi invited her to come to his chamber for a ‘satisfactory response’ to a question she had asked, which prompted laughter from other members of the ruling party. She even threatened to immolate herself if he did not resign.
“I didn’t get what he said at first because of the poor acoustics, not until other women told me. I wasn’t given the chance to respond because PPP’s deputy speaker Shehla Raza switched off my mike; she didn’t stand in my defence. I was fed up with the constant whistling and bad language used by male legislators,” Abbasi tells Dawn. “They believe women on reserved seats [are not elected] on our own merit. They don’t realise we do most of the work and pass the most bills, while they heckle us.” Pitafi eventually apologised on the floor of the house, after Bilawal and Aseefa Bhutto-Zardari urged him to do so.
This was not an isolated incident. Many women lawmakers suffer inappropriate banter intended to publicly demean them. In June 2016, then defence minister Khawaja Asif called PTI’s Shireen Mazari a ‘tractor trolley’; in April 2017, PPP’s Khurshid Shah remarked that women would ‘fall ill’ if prevented from ‘chattering’; in Nov 2014, JUI-F’s Fazlur Rehman claimed PTI’s female supporters were of ‘bad character’. Failing to condemn this behaviour, women lawmakers mostly support their parties for fear of censure by male leaders.
When women protect harassers they are actually ‘enabling’ these men and their misconduct, explains Nighat Dad of the Digital Rights Foundation. “Society is wired in such ways because of the stakes involved; even if you might know of their behaviour you will stay silent. Networks empower people and people don’t want to lose their communities. Often harassers are weaker but enablers allow them to become strong so they stay within communities and are not isolated. You won’t see these powerful enablers around complainants often so they become weak and isolated.”
Silence and secrecy enforce perpetrators. If a woman cannot be completely silenced, they make sure she is disbelieved or shamed, say lawyers dealing with harassment cases. The more powerful the perpetrator, the more he is able to discredit the victim through his network of supporters.
In the line of duty
Senior police officer Maria Taimur admits women in the force won’t talk about harassment as much as they should. “At a higher level we don’t face intimidation as much, but lower entry-level constables and ASIs do. Women in the force can go to their DPOs or CPOs to complain, and have learnt to give men shut up calls. But often the matter is also hushed up. We have anti-harassment drives in most districts, we try to change mind-sets, but it’s a slow process,” she said. Taimur raised another issue: “You can’t spot a harasser because often their demeanour is so respectful in public. This makes it easier for them to cover their tracks.”
Having worked with male colleagues for over 12 years, Uzma, an ASI at Lahore’s Lower Mall police station is well versed in their psyche. “Tharak jhaartay hain aadat se majboor,” — they flirt out of habit — she said. Although women in the force can hold their own, she admits certain men try to cast them as being of ill repute. “What rubbish. Women work because they need to.”
Still, women facing harassment are often caught between two bad choices.
Put up or get out
Of the women surveyed, more than half said they would leave their jobs if harassed. For 12pc, reactions of workplaces and families would determine whether they stayed. But many recognise that ignoring harassment or leaving the workplace altogether will only exacerbate the problem. “If it’s not one woman, then it’s another, which is why predators need to be held accountable,” said one interviewee.
One of the Punjab ombudsperson’s first cases was a complaint from a junior clerk in the agriculture department in 2014, recollected Bushra Khaliq of Women in Struggle for Empowerment. The only woman in her office, for six months, her colleagues maligned her reputation, told dirty jokes in her presence and blew cigarette smoke in her face. “When the department failed to take her seriously, her family went to the police. Eleven people were nominated in the complaint, and each was given different levels of punishment.”
But such an outcome is still an anomaly. In interviews, women explained how disciplinary action against harassers is virtually non-existent in a society where powerful men are immune from censure: “They usually get a slap on the wrist at most.”
A law unto themselves
One lawyer talked of misbehaviour in her profession: “My [former] boss, an influential lawyer-politician, made unwanted sexual advances, told me that at the civil courts women lawyers are sold for Rs500, and that he had slept with many ‘pretty women parliamentarians’. Once he tried to hug me, and when I told him specifically that this was not okay, he said his last employee was a tomboy and never hesitated to hug him. I left that law chamber.”
Recalling her early days, another lawyer wrote of a senior colleague, a son of a high court judge, who would send her dozens of inappropriate, late-night text messages. “I never replied and would greet him the next day at work, pretending they had never happened. … The firm had no anti-harassment policy or procedure … I was made to believe that this was a rite of passage and that the messages would stop. … After I quit, I received another text from him calling me a slut.”
Obstacles in enforcing workplace rights
“Sexual harassment is a question of power and authority over women. The Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act is aimed essentially at behaviour correction, it doesn’t involve courts or the police directly,” states Khaliq. With its enactment and the amendment to Pakistan Penal Code Section 509, both in 2010, the real challenge is implementation.
Legal experts argue that though sexual harassment in public spaces is now punishable with imprisonment and/or a fine, it has not served its purpose given the criminal justice system’s shortfalls. Meanwhile, although the civil law requires organisations to adopt a code of conduct and constitute internal inquiry committees, organisations often fail to implement it. “They don’t say they won’t comply, but some public organisations don’t. It was a nightmare to get PTV to nominate a committee. Banks, on the other hand, are more compliant because it is part of the State Bank’s audit,” explains Maliha Hassain of Mehergah.
Under this law, if a complainant is not satisfied with the internal committee, they can approach their respective ombudsperson for cases of workplace harassment. But, eight years on, the only provincial ombudsperson’s post that is presently filled is Sindh’s — Punjab has had no ombudsperson since April 2017. And while compliance with rulings is almost universal according to former federal ombudsperson for harassment, retired justice Yasmin Abbasey, she admits that the high courts have sometimes issued stay orders to stop proceedings despite lacking the jurisdiction to do so.
“Granted, it is risky for women to talk because of lack of supportive mechanisms. But they are more aware and understand they don’t need to tolerate this. The #MeToo conversations are trickling down to the grass roots,” Khaliq says. And what of the effects of these conversations? Of her own profession, Abbasi believes that speaking up will help to ensure that “the path for younger women to enter politics is not as difficult”.
Uzma Al-Karim, former special adviser to the Sindh ombudsperson, believes only a mind-set change will make workplaces safer for women. But, until then, “We have to enforce the law so that there is zero tolerance for all forms of harassment in a work environment.”