Break the Silence: Fighting Sexual Harassment Together
My identity, my life, my reality. It all rotates around the fact that I am a woman. I find myself talking without being understood. No man looks me in the eye because he’s too busy looking at all the other assets I possess. If I am too stern, I am deemed as ill mannered. If I am too nice, I am deemed as having a “loose” character. The louder I am, the more vulnerable I am to stares, glares and suggestive remarks. The softer I am, the more vulnerable I am to stares, glares and being exploited. When I’m sitting in a waiting room or in any public place, I find myself fixing my already well-put dupatta because of a man who cannot take his eyes off of me.
I am a woman and my body defines my life.
AASHA (Alliance Against Sexual Harassment) defines sexual harassment as “any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favours or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, when it interferes with work, is made a condition of employment or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”
Recently, I attended a seminar on sexual harassment at SZABIST, presented by Dr Fouzia Saeed. The way she addressed the room full of young adults was awe-inspiring. She made witty remarks, gave relatable examples and, above all, spoke of her own experiences.
The author of the bestseller Taboo stood at the rostrum and questioned the norms of our society, the very society in which a prostitute is slapped with bad words and negative labels while the man who visits her is subject to none. She asked, if there’s an area called the “red light area” where all the prostitutes live, then what is the name of the area where the “other” people live? With one thought-provoking statement after another, Dr Saeed was on a roll. She addressed the issue of respect: why is a woman’s tarnished, but a man’s intact in the same circumstances. And she asked how a woman in this country is socialised into being scared of going out in the evening, or alternatively, having a male chaperone accompany her if she does.
The ways in which women are abused and harassed in Pakistan are seemingly endless. Women have acid thrown on them, they are assaulted by their in-laws and they are victims of incest, but when a woman claims that her husband raped her, it is so hard to believe. But if rape is when someone forces himself or herself sexually on to someone else, then a husband who does that to his wife commits rape.
Then there are those cases that we hear everyday and to which we conveniently shrug our shoulders: cases in which women are constantly text messaged by ‘friendshippers,’ harassed by horny men with phone calls late at night, bullied after turning down proposals, and bombarded with unwanted suggestive comments and inappropriate emails. These things are seen as normal: jokes are cracked about the ‘friendshipper’ who emails, calls, stalks and texts; he’s famous for his harassment tactics.
But what of the women who face men like this? I doubt it’s fun to be woken up by a phone call at 4am by some low-life, drained-of-dignity loser who felt like testing his luck to see if there’s a woman on the other end. Dr Saeed said that society behaves as if it is the woman’s fault that she is born with her female body, and laughingly suggested, “Tau hum lohe ke tent pehn ke phireingai?”
She shared her experiences and has written about them in her new book, Working with Sharks, which she was inspired to write when she saw that women were being subjected to, and giving in to, the same kind of sexual harassment she faced while working for the United Nations. The harassment in the workplace has women fearful of senior male colleagues brushing up against them, angry with the uncomfortable ogling, and worst of all, scared of filing a complaint.
It is impossible to say how many women are harassed annually in Pakistan. Comprehensive statistics are not tabulated, and even if they were, many women would be uncomfortable reporting or even talking about the harassment they experienced (though, some people are working towards changing that: read about Raahnuma). It is clear, though, that the number is not small. In an article in the Huffington Post from 2009, one Pakistani psychologist who counsels victims of harassment admitted that she sees “about 50 to 70 women per year.” That is the tally from just one psychologist in a nation of 180 million people.
You see, we ask ourselves what has changed in all these years in our country. We are still fighting for women, and sexual harassment still prevails. But in Dr Saeed’s time, the term “sexual harassment” was not even allowed, and moreover, this behaviour was only deemed to be a nuisance. Today, however, there are laws against sexual harassment, thus making it a crime.
But is that progress enough?
Even though we have moved a step forward with the approval and application of The Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Bill, we need to remember that that is just one step. There is an entire ladder to climb and the only way we can do that is if we climb it as a society and pay heed to the harassment women face instead of shunning them, labelling them and neglecting them.
“I’m counting on your generation, you have access to the whole world, right in front of you,” said Dr Saeed. It’s time we end the “witch concept,” the concept of burning the idea of equality and the people who question the norms of society, those norms that suppress one to uplift the other. It’s time our society stands in solidarity and joins hands in the movement to liberate people in general and to do away with sexual harassment. Sexual harassment laws are not for women, but for people. “Let it be clear that this movement is not against men,” said Dr Saeed. “It is against [unacceptable] behaviour.”
The opinions expressed in this article and the views shared by readers in the comment forum below do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance or policies of Newsline.