IT was September 1997. I had returned from England after completing my Bar and had just started work at a prestigious litigation firm in Karachi. Our offices comprised a large hall — which also served as the reception, entrance and waiting room — surrounded by individual rooms. Junior lawyers — like me — and the clerks sat in the hall, whilst the more senior ones sat in adjoining rooms. My desk was placed at the furthest end from the entrance, surrounded by those of other lawyers.
Within weeks, however, I noticed clients ignoring all other chairs in the room and making a beeline for my desk. One afternoon, a client sat in front of me for nearly a half hour until my senior could see him. I was terribly upset and after he left, asked the head clerk why he had not asked him to move. The head clerk simply said: “If you come out to work, you should be prepared for this.” Stunned and shaken, I still managed to retort rather sharply: “I come here to work, not to make a spectacle of myself.”
This incident, minor as it was, remained seared in my memory as a reminder of the attitudes a woman has to encounter as she steps into the workspace. Over the years, however, as I spoke to many other workingwomen I realised that I had in fact gotten off lightly. Many women had faced far more difficult situations and had either compromised simply to retain their jobs and then too wasted away in subordinate positions, or had become frustrated and quit.
In 2010, when the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act was enacted, I was curious to see what difference it would make to the situation women faced. Certainly, the act did many good things: It defined harassment widely, to include all actions ranging from unwelcome sexual advances to simply sexually demeaning attitudes which were likely to interfere with work or render the environment hostile or intimidating. It also placed a responsibility on employers to properly implement the act.
The media must be utilised to create gender awareness.
However, in the four years since it has been enacted the term ‘harassment’ still remains to be fully interpreted: there are only two reported judgments, authored by the ombudsman Mussarat Hilali. In hearing appeals from decisions of the inquiry committees — which incidentally do not enter the public domain — she finds in one that calling someone ‘an illiterate and ill-mannered woman’ though upsetting, does not qualify as sexual harassment whereas in the other she finds that overtly asking for sexual favours does fall within the ambit of sexual harassment.
Ms Hilali’s somewhat black and white interpretations of the term ‘sexual’ appear to be based on her personal understanding rather than an evaluation of the law. In order to fully understand what the term encompasses, it is imperative to examine how it has been interpreted elsewhere.
In the UK for instance, where sexual mores are more permissive, any comment or act, ranging from a remark about clothing and appearance to cracking sexual jokes to even just staring, may constitute sexual harassment, provided it makes the recipient of such comment or act uncomfortable.
It is further important to understand that the issue at the heart of sexual harassment is not morality but abuse of power. An exchange, which may be considered harmless between two consenting adults, becomes laden with undertones and implications when it comes from a superior at the workplace. Surely, in a conservative society like Pakistan, where the ordinary spatial rules between men and women are stricter, the threshold of what constitutes harassment should be lower and not higher than what it is in the West.
Parliament may have done its duty by enacting a sexual harassment law but the government needs to do more to enforce it meaningfully. Particularly, it needs to appreciate that simply appointing a woman ombudsman is not the answer: that women can — and do — perpetuate chauvinistic views unless they are formally trained for gender sensitivity. It needs to require the workplace to do more to implement the law perhaps by making the maintenance of a gender code of conduct a requirement for the continued operation of business.
Most importantly, however, it needs to utilise the media to create gender awareness: to remind men that being Muslim is not merely about asking a woman to cover up but also as much about asking men to lower their gaze; and that women who work are as respectable as their female relatives whose honour they are so desperate to guard.
My story had a positive ending because I was educated and confident enough to stand up for myself, but more importantly, because my senior was sufficiently enlightened and supportive to ensure that such an incident would never be repeated. Everyone is not so lucky.
The writer is a barrister.
Published in Dawn, November 18th , 2014