Sunday magazine special: Sexual harrasment

A touch, a text message, an unwanted invitation … or much much worse. Sexual harassment can take on many forms.
Published April 13, 2014

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.

Noman Ansari

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.

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.

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.

Photo by Hussain Afzal
Photo by Hussain Afzal

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.

Photo by Hussain Afzal
Photo by Hussain Afzal

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.”

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’.

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.”

The pressure to provide evidence, the fear of fighting a superior, the probable impact on career, and adverse publicity prevent women from reporting sexual harassment.

Madeeha Syed

Photo by Hussain Afzal
Photo by Hussain Afzal

In the mid-90s, an incident shook the Pakistani corporate world. Ayesha*, a female employee in a multinational pharmaceutical company complained of sexual harassment by her male superior. His inappropriate conduct wasn’t limited to her alone; many women from the organisation had dodged his advances and had adopted the ‘suffer-in-silence’ approach. Ayesha wasn’t going to be one of them. She stepped up and issued a verbal complaint to the management. And then all hell broke loose.

The management asked her, point blank, to take back her complaint since the culprit was a very senior member of the organisation and a ‘family man with grown up daughters.’ She refused. The harasser, in the company of another colleague, admitted to what he had done and told her to take back her complaint or suffer the consequences. Instead, she registered a written complaint and also contacted the regional management, who told her that they had full faith that the Pakistan office would handle her case fairly.

An inquiry committee had to be formed. The standard practice of inducting a female member was ignored, thus bringing into question the integrity of the committee. In an online statement to an advocacy group for civil liberties, she related, “The inquiry committee, instead of playing the role of an unbiased body, followed the lead of the management and formalised the intimidation process. In this instance it led to defamatory remarks, threats and ridicule by the higher management to coerce me to take back the complaint. The management threatened me and labelled me a ‘troublemaker’ and ‘whistleblower’.”

The list of witnesses she had issued to the management were individually tracked down one by one. Using both intimidation and reward tactics, the committee told those witnesses to withdraw their written statements regarding having suffered similar treatment by the culprit. One of the witnesses, who had taken a transfer from the culprit’s department because of his harassment towards her, even came out in support of him. Needless to say, the witnesses who changed their stance were all given promotions and sent on foreign trips once the investigation concluded.

Ayesha was forced to work under her harasser whose behaviour went from bad to worse — especially now since he realised that he could get away with murder in broad daylight. When she complained again, she was told to put up with it or leave. She chose the latter.

It was only 14 years later that the government of Pakistan would introduce a law criminalising workplace sexual harassment.

Safe on paper

On Jan 30, 2010 the Bill against Harassment of Women at the Workplace was signed into law by then president, Asif Ali Zardari. During its passage there had been strong criticism from religious parties, and last-minute amendments also extended the protection to men as a compromise.

But even four years later, many remain ignorant of its existence. However, with an increasing number of women joining the workforce in the corporate sector, many organisations have chosen to adopt their own Standard Operating Procedures when it comes to the handling of a complaint regarding sexual harassment in the workplace. Having said that, these organisations often don’t make it a point to make their employees aware of the existence of such policies. As a result, these questions are left unanswered: What is the procedure to file complaints, how are they to be handled and what are the repercussions for harassing another colleague?

Bullying by numbers

It isn’t just men who may engage in inappropriate and intimidating conduct, and sometimes both male and female colleagues will gang up against the victim of harassment.

“We once hired a woman, a fresh graduate, very bright and one of the best in that department,” related Hasan who has been working at a top managerial position in a media-buying house for several years now. “She used to wear sleeveless outfits and a group consisting of several female and male colleagues began giving her lectures on morality.”

She immediately went and complained to her boss. “I didn’t take it seriously at first,” said Hasan, “I thought it was a passing phase. She wasn’t attracting any kind of vulgar attention and what she wore was her personal business anyway. But the second time when she complained, she broke down crying in my office. That’s when I knew things had gotten serious.”

The harassment by her colleagues, instead of dying down, had only become worse. It came to a point where she was having difficulty doing her work. “We filed a complaint with the HR and, as per policy, a woman manager was inducted into the investigating team,” said Hasan, “Eventually that group was made to apologise to her.”

Unspoken policy: no woman, no cry

Ask a group of people employed in the corporate sector in which industry they believe women enjoy the same treatment as their male colleagues at work, or where the chances of them being sexually harassed are at a minimum, and the most common response you get is banking or advertising.

While the participation of women is very prominent in both of these sectors, it emerges there are a few banks and advertising agencies that have an ‘unspoken policy’ of not hiring women at all! Some go as far as to restrict their male employees from even receiving any female guests.

When asked why, responses ranged from claims that women are unable to spend as many hours at work as compared to men or that women are a ‘distraction’ to their male colleagues and ruin the ‘environment’ at the office. Finally what also emerges is an institutional unwillingness to deal with potential sexual harassment complaints.

“While visiting a friend’s advertising agency, it took me a while to figure out what was odd about the place,” said Asad, who also works in advertising. “I realised there was not a single woman … anywhere!” says a surprised Asad. “This was rather strange, because you expect to find women in such a workplace, if for nothing else then to contribute to the women’s product market at least. When I asked my friend he laughed and said they’ve had issues before, where employees have gotten ‘involved’ and things have gotten ‘ugly’ so now to prevent that they simply don’t hire women.”

According to them, prevention is better than cure. If there are no women, there is going to be no sexual harassment. Academic studies in the subject, however, show that segregation fuels sexual harassment instead of diminishing it. Adopting a policy based on avoidance is not a solution.

Fatal attraction: when the roles are reversed

“I came across a very strange case once,” related Fahad*, who works in local bank. “An acquaintance worked in the head office of a bank and soon after he joined, he became the object of the somewhat indecent attention of his female boss.” He did not return her affectation and that became a source of problem at work. From harmless flirting, the boss’s behaviour slowly started to become aggressive.

“He would be called into her office at the smallest of pretexts and plied with questions about his personal life, asked out for dinner (which he’d politely refuse) and his interaction with other female colleagues was closely monitored,” said Fahad, “He was even told by his boss that she didn’t approve of him interacting with them! Every time she made a pass at him and he wouldn’t respond, she would find an excuse to berate him in front of his other colleagues. He didn’t know what to do!”

Needless to say the man was mortified. Going to his colleagues and complaining would only invite teasing from their side. After all, what kind of a man doesn’t want attention from another woman? Most importantly, ‘real’ men don’t get bullied by women. Eventually, he decided to quit and find employment in another organisation.

The general assumption might be that only women are harassed, but the opposite can also hold true. Where most women don’t register complaints for fear of having their reputations ruined by defamatory remarks, the stigma surrounding men being harassed by women very much exists and is a cause of great mental and emotional stress by the victims. Men often ask themselves the same questions women do in a similar situation: “Whom do I go to? Who will believe me? Will this blow up in my own face instead?”

Names of all of the people mentioned in the article have been changed to protect privacy

Getting the law against sexual harassment in the workplace passed was no easy task. Sherry Rehman talks about the behind-the-scenes struggle.

Razeshta Sethna

In January 2010, the Senate unanimously passed The Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Bill amid strong criticism from religious parties, further amending the Pakistan Penal Code 1860 and the Code of Criminal Procedure 1898. Though last-minute amendments extended protection to men — an apparent compromise — this legislation pertains to an amendment in the Pakistan Penal Code, Section 509, to include the definition of sexual harassment, making it a criminal offence at home, on streets and at workplaces, with a punishment of up to three years imprisonment and a maximum fine of Rs500,000. It defines sexual harassment as “any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favours, or other verbal or written communication or physical conduct of a sexual nature or sexually demeaning attitudes, causing interference with work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment or the attempt to punish the complainant for refusal to comply to such a request or to make it a condition for employment.”

The law calls for all registered organisations and the public sector to institute a code of conduct, which is basically an anti-sexual harassment policy that includes the formation of a three-member standing committee to deal with complaints. After an inquiry, the committee will recommend penalties/punishment which the management must execute. In case the owner or a senior manager is implicated, an employee will have the choice of going outside the organisation to file a complaint with the Federal Ombudsperson, specifically for this purpose.

As Minister for Women Development in 2008, Ambassador Sherry Rehman, who has also authored other pro-women bills, such as the Women Empowerment Bill, the Domestic Violence Prevention Bill, and Anti-Honour Killings Bill, initiated legislation for The Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Bill which she explains was necessary to support women in the workplace. In an interview with Dawn Ms Rehman talks of the challenging course adopted to protect women’s rights.

Q) When The Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Bill was passed critics said it was un-Islamic. What were the challenges at the time?

A) Critics of human rights legislation have always used religion to skew the debate and orchestrate opinion against change. I took up this bill as the one thing I would get done in the three months I had as Federal Minister for Women’s Development as additional portfolio. I was supposed to ‘just look after it’ until it went to another cabinet colleague in the Nawaz League. I decided not to waste the opportunity of holding the portfolio and called in women from all political parties; women’s rights activists and federal secretaries from the law, labour and women’s ministries for consultative meetings. We would roundtable with these people, who all had objections as well as ideas; one of our objectives was to ensure that the bill would not just get flagged as anti-Islamic, because there really was no reason for it to be treated as such. Given that Islam does offer protections to women, I cited such clauses in the non-written preamble.

At the early stages though, hurdles came from the politics of government and not from the bill itself, which is usually the case. The labour ministry opposed it strongly, because they felt that their laws already allowed for adequate protections and saw it as an invasion of their turf. So I made sure I kept the Labour Minister, an old PPP colleague, on board and withdrew his bureaucracy’s objections.

Q) It’s an assumption that certain male parliamentarians would oppose pro-women legislation, but did you have trouble convincing women legislators, especially from the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F) and Jamaat-i-Islami (JI)? Was support easily available from female legislators across party lines?

A) Most women did support it. But treasury bills have to get past the cabinet before they go to the parliament and this is not always easy. My plan was to take it to the cabinet before the ministry went into the doldrums with someone not passionate about human rights legislation. So I thrashed out the objections, added value and had it presented at a cabinet meeting. At the cabinet meeting we got road-blocked by two ministries that had been involved from day one. First, what was shocking was the briefing by the women’s ministry secretary. He made it sound like a bill that should not get past the cabinet into parliament for voting and committee scrutiny.

So while he could not oppose the bill, he did all he could to block it until the last day. After his disastrous presentation to the Prime Minister, the Law Minister just outright opposed it.

A stunt like this normally kills all such bills, but I made my own presentation to the cabinet and appealed to Prime Minister Gilani that this was a PPP government and that we need to pass such laws. He overruled the Law Minister and consulted the two other women — Samina Gurkhi and Shahnaz Wazir Ali — present in the cabinet that day, to see if they agreed with me (which they did). Following that, he allowed it to get past the cabinet in principle, which is what we needed. I made sure this decision became irreversible. As I was also the Information Minister who conducted the cabinet briefing, I took the Prime Minister’s permission to announce it to the media that day, because once that is done, the government has to try and carry it through the parliament over the objections of other ministries. And that is exactly what happened. Later, when the bill got stuck after a year in parliament because of objections raised by powerful ministers and the JUI-F, it was the same cabinet colleagues and women across party lines who kept pursuing it with the Prime Minister and the President. A year later, we gave the JUI-F the concession of having the law become gender-neutral, which means it would protect male victims as well. There was much quibbling and hair-splitting on language, but it got done in the Speaker’s office over a meeting. Many women came forward, and we are grateful to all of them for this truly collaborative outcome.

Q) When Alliance Against Sexual Harassment (ASHA) drafted a code of conduct which also served as the foundation of The Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Bill, women politicians and those within the women’s ministry had lobbied for the bill. How significant was ASHA’s lobbying and what role do women activists play when it comes to pressurising and getting parliamentarians to move bills and draw attention to issues of significance?

A) ASHA was the non-governmental organisation, and Fouzia Saeed brought the bill to me initially; it is a result of their draft and later much lobbying that we got it passed. The bill would never have passed without the women who collaborated on this, both within and outside the parliament. Fouzia also continues to monitor responses to it and owns it in ways legislators cannot once the law is passed. So in a sense this bill is the best example of a law made in collaboration with civil society, which was the initiator of the draft, and also carried its implementation forward.

Q) Many point to the weaknesses and legal loopholes in this bill saying it was a good idea to initiate but not easy to implement with various kinds of working environments and harassment cases within universities. Would you agree?

A) There may be many flaws, but getting it passed was the actual goal; flaws can be ironed out later on. This is one law that is actually being enforced in many private sector entities. I myself saw it being used in the public sector. I was on the board of Quaid-i-Azam University, for instance, where we actually used the law to address complaints and the Higher Education Commission took our use of it as a roadmap for other institutions under its purview. I have never seen such proactivity for progressive laws.

There may be an onerous number of cases, obviously, where it doesn’t get applied or loopholes get exploited, but that would be the case for any law, anywhere in the world. We do need to start somewhere and as time goes by, usage can dictate amendments. No law is perfect, nor is it immune from reform. Most bills are works-in-progress. The important thing is establishing the principle. Now it is hard to take this law back as well as the principle that the state has to stand up to protect a woman or man being harassed in the workplace.

Q) Should there be government-led monitoring organisations perhaps under provincial women’s ministries to check that organisations/work places are implementing the law?

A) Yes, this is what the Provincial Women’s Ombudsman should be doing. This was my suggestion, so it also becomes an option for appeal between the public step of going to a court and the private and often predatory accommodations of an office committee.