Ask any Pakistani woman, and she’ll tell you it doesn’t take much to cross the line between banter and lewdness: an inappropriate touch, an unwanted remark, or even indecent flirtation. With women often advised to stay mum in the face of abuse, sexual harassment is reaching epidemic proportions in Pakistan.
It started with what seemed like harmless office pranks. Six months into a new job in Karachi; Saima started noticing strange happenings at her place of work — sabotaged equipment and missing property. She grew concerned when one day, she stepped out of her office to discover some missing documents appear suddenly outside her office door, neatly cut up and displayed, like some horrific scene out of an Alfred Hitchcock flick.Crouched on the edge of her bed, she scrolled the touch screen of her mobile phone as her hands trembled. She read and re-read the text messages arriving seemingly every second from an unknown number. She knew who this was and wished she didn’t. She broke out into a cold sweat; yes she was scared. Abusive words, threats of physical abuse, violence in public, damage to her car — he was telling her how dirty, advanced, low, helpless and alone she was and how he would punish her for ignoring his attention. This was sexual harassment that she had heard happens to others and now it was happening to her.
As the ‘pranks’ grew more worrisome, Saima and her co-worker, Kiran, began reporting the incidents to the management, who were slow to react, “They weren’t quite sure how best to handle the situation. Often, they didn’t seem to know what the next step should be.”
Unfortunately for the women, the incidents only escalated. Like characters caught in a bad film, they regularly began receiving lewd text messages, accurately describing what they were wearing to work. “Disgusting messages would arrive from an individual who seemed to be fantasising about us. It was obviously someone who was commenting from within work premises,” recalls Saima.
At first these text messages professed love, but when the girls didn’t respond, the messages became filthy. Not willing to lose their employees, the management tried to investigate, “They told us that they would handle it but the emails and texts wouldn’t stop.”
The text messages and emails suddenly turned into threats of rape, gang rape and murder. Saima’s husband Aftab insisted that she should quit work and hand in her resignation. But the nightmare did not end. “We have nearly 100 emails and text messages from this fellow, who might have tried to follow the women home. At one point, he described our street and the house we lived in. I don’t think he knew or cared if my wife was married,” says Aftab.
Presently, the two harassed employees have resigned and they still don’t know if they are safe.
What drives a man to threaten a woman with sexual violence? Erum Riaz-Ghazi is a department head at her hospital, and is currently pursuing her PhD from the Institute of Clinical Psychology at the University of Karachi. Here, she shares some insight, “Threats of bodily harm, rape, acid attack are all regressive behaviours. When anyone, be it a man or woman, resorts to threats of bodily harm to get what they want — it is like a child thwarted in his attempts to get what he wants, resorting to either screaming or shouting or hitting out at whoever is obstructing his path.”
If you think Saima’s case is an isolated one, think again.
“I am married and my husband was overseas for work. This senior executive at the bank clearly found me attractive and asked me out for coffee, which I politely declined. After this, I started getting abusive messages. This continued and, traumatised, I had to resign because I just couldn’t work there anymore,” says Zainab, a mother of two children who was employed at a top-tier multinational bank in Pakistan.
Erum points out that following such incidents, victims of sexual harassment tend to become depressed. “In a biased society when a group of people are marginalised and treated as outsiders; the victims feel helpless and hopeless,” she says.
Nadia was subjected to worse than what Zainab experienced. “One day at work, I was shocked to get an email where my Facebook picture was photoshopped into a porn[ographic] setting. It was definitely someone from work who was responsible,” she says.
Sana Saleem, a director at Bolo Bhi, a nonprofit organisation which among other social causes also works for gender rights explains that predators often use easily available pictures of their victims to blackmail them, “As Facebook keeps changing its privacy settings, women should be careful. Unless you are comfortable, don’t put your pictures on the internet because they are out there forever.”
Is it that Pakistani men are simply not used to working with the opposite sex? According to a report published by the Population Reference Bureau in 2005, alarmingly, only 16 per cent of Pakistani women were economically active, as compared to over 50pc in Indonesia.
Erum adds, “due to the economic crisis, women who earlier stayed at home had to step out and earn a living. Moreover, higher and widespread education entails that women are more open to realising their potential and becoming independent by entering the workplace. Taking over jobs previously held by men is a recent practice in Asia as compared to the West, which is going to take time to get used to as far as both men and women are concerned.”
Sadly, some men behave like wolves even though they are in committed relationships, “I was a junior resident and this sleazy senior resident with a bad reputation kept hitting on me. At one point I needed to go rest between shifts and he said, ‘why don’t you come and sleep in my bed?’” says Asma, once employed at a prominent hospital in Pakistan. “I was so angry! The next day, I exposed him in front all the staff members, which humiliated him and taught him a lesson to not mess with women. The worst part is that he was engaged and I feel sorry for his future wife!”
Despite the 2010 laws against sexual harassment (see Sherry Rehman’s interview), few women are willing to report the matter to authorities. According to Erum’s analysis, these victims feel that quitting is their only option, “Women resign because they are taught to compromise and stay silent. Silence means respectability. You are beaten, you remain silent; you are coerced into incest, you remain silent. Because if you make a noise then it is not the perpetrator who will suffer, it is the victim.
Ludicrously enough, it is believed that sexual harassment may have happened because the victim was provocative, the victim laughed too loud, was attractive, or independent. Anything you say or do will be held against you. It is the mantra of society where women’s plight is concerned.”
One single woman from Lahore who was harassed by her former landlord with threats of rape and sexual violence said, “Who shall we report it to? Even the police are men, and the attitude seems to be that if you are facing this you must have done something to deserve it.”
One couple did try reporting the matter. When Saima’s husband Aftab approached the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee (CPLC) in Karachi, he claims they asked him to just ignore the issue until it went away. An infuriated Aftab adds, “There is absolutely no recourse for women in this country.”
Although a working woman can be a victim of sexual harassment from any colleague, it seems that often, it is usually powerful male superiors who turn into predators. Erum adds, “Senior men usually are more secure in their positions and know the loopholes in their system and hence are able to manipulate individuals and rules alike.
Sheela, a Pakistani executive working in the UAE shares a story, “A few years back, I was mentoring a woman who was working in Islamabad and was recently divorced. She said that she was in desperate need of a job as she had to support herself and had to bear her living expenses. There was no support from her family for leaving her husband, plus the stigma of ‘being divorced’.Moreover, sexual harassment is less about lust and more about power, whereby men devalue a woman’s role in the workplace by actually emphasising her sexuality. According to Dr Gottman, a psychologist in the University of Washington, ‘sexual harassment is a subtle rape, and rape is more about fear than sex.”
On some probing, she revealed that her boss had somehow found out that she got recently divorced and was living alone. So every night he would arrive outside her home and invite her out for a drive and coffee. She was afraid that if she refused him, she may lose her job and also that if she could not control the situation diplomatically, things may move beyond ‘coffee’. Eventually, she had to leave her job solely because she refused to be available for the late night drives with her boss.”
Erum agrees, “Single, divorced and widowed women have one thing in common which is that there is no ‘husband’ backing them or providing them protection.” This, in our society, puts them in the ‘easy prey’ category as far as sexual harassers go.
“What we need is a wakeup call! Start educating sons about respecting human beings, be they male or female. More than the victim I would like to ask the family and society as a whole to step forward and provide protection and legal recourse to victims of sexual harassment. A person given justice is a person well served by society,” says Erum.
Sadly, it is the victims of sexual harassment who are often left feeling guilty. Erum advises, “As a psychologist I would say keep yourself safe. Learn to trust your instincts; if something does not feel right it probably is not. You have a right to be in a safe and secure environment. No one has the right to force you to do anything you do not wish to.”
Erum would like to see organisations spruce up their Human Resource policies. “Such cases need to be addressed immediately, and with sensitivity and tact, so when something like this is reported, it is imperative that the person is put on probation on condition that he will undergo therapy. The individual will then be given a clean bill of mental health, so to speak, and only then will he be put off probation. The victim also needs to undergo psychotherapy to undo the trauma caused by the harasser. The expenses may be covered by the company.”
Men with a history of sexually harassing women may have the capacity to change, but the will to change needs to come from within. Erum digs into their psyche, “Sometimes people do not realise the pain they are causing, and so creating empathy for the person in the weaker position is something that needs to be addressed. One’s own insecurities lead one to coerce others into taking part in illicit or forced behaviour. The psyche of one who does this is immature and dysfunctional. The harasser may view the opposite sex as mere sex objects, or is very conservative in his thinking, believing women who step out to work as ones with loose morals or ‘easy’. He may also feel threatened by women in his workplace, and may resort to such means to undermine them.”
Meanwhile, as someone who has delivered talks at many organisations and schools, Sana Saleem believes that sexual harassment often begins at school, “It can be devastating for young children and I have seen it amongst 14-year-olds. Often, girls will, without thinking, put up pictures online and then it leads to harassment from classmates. In one case a father came to us talking about his friend’s daughter, who stopped going to school because of harassment.”
Sana believes that changes at organisational level are sorely needed. Bolo Bhi offers free talks, which she says should be taken advantage of. But she doesn’t advocate that women facing harassment should instantly react by resigning; instead they should fight back.
If it is sexual harassment through digital means from an anonymous source, Sana says that it is better to ignore such threats; as such people, protected by anonymity, thrive only on responses. But in case of a colleague or a boss, it is important to not only maintain evidence, but to clearly tell such people that their behaviour is a source of discomfort. However, it is often not the words but the tone of a comment which is inappropriate.
Predators who hide behind the ambiguity of harmless ‘jokes’, should be combated with technology, “Voice recorders are very important. Nowadays you can download a voice recording app on your smart phone, and use it to collect evidence”, says Sana. It isn’t the words but the tone of the comments you need to capture. Keep a record of everything and report it to management. The predators themselves will back off when you have evidence.”
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