ISLAMABAD: Women lawmakers in the National Assembly flayed the incompetent handling of a harassment case – filed by two Pakistan Television (PTV) anchorpersons against the head of the channel’s current affairs department – and demanded the constitution of a fresh inquiry committee to investigate the allegations and ensure justice for the victims.

A far cry from previous sessions that witnessed pandemonium over the Panamagate scandal, Tuesday’s sitting of the lower house tackled a massive 75-point agenda on private members day.

Chaired for the most part by Naeema Kishwar Khan of the JUI-F, the session saw also the introduction of at least 11 pieces of legislation on key issues – such as healthcare and women’s protection – with women lawmakers taking full advantage of the presence of a woman chairperson.

The harassment case came up when PML-N’s Begum Tahira Bukhari sought debate on a resolution calling for improvements at PTV. Seizing on the issue, PPP’s Shazia Marri – who had also submitted a calling attention notice on the matter – criticised the work environment at the state broadcaster.

“The indecent attitude that is adopted with women employees by the PTV management is highly condemnable,” she said.

“It is unfortunate enough that such practices are still prevalent at PTV, but the tragedy is compounded when the state refuses to rectify such mistakes. This leads to more frustration; these two women have been pleading their case for nine months now, but the corridors of power are unmoved,” she said, referring to the complaint lodged by anchorpersons Tanzeela Mazhar and Yashfeen Jamal against the head of current affairs, Agha Masood Shorish.

“I want you,” she said, addressing the chair, “to give a ruling that a conducive environment should be provided to women working in our national institutions. Otherwise, qualified people will not come forward.”

She was livid over the ostracism the two women had to face for coming forward and taking on their harasser, saying that for their troubles, the women had their contracts cancelled.

“Being an ex-media worker, I have no qualms in saying that the environment at PTV today is nowhere near the kind of environment that existed there during its heyday,” MQM’s Saman Jafri told the house.

She argued that women were suppressed in the workplace and subjected to physical and psychological harassment and lauded the two anchorpersons for speaking out against the treatment they faced.

“But the real tragedy is that the investigation committee formed to probe the matter pursued a line of questioning that should make us all hang our heads in shame,” Mr Jafri said.

She revealed that while deposing the victims, the head of the committee – also a woman – had asked the women why they didn’t “stay home after being harassed by their boss”.

“There is so much misogyny and chauvinism in our society, but women cannot fight such discrimination unless they have the support of other women,” she contended.

She demanded that the two anchorpersons be reinstated immediately and said that members of the investigation committee who had asked such insulting questions, should also be taken to task so that a positive precedent could be set.

“Unless we start treating women as equal members of society, we cannot ensure equality for them in the workplace,” she concluded.

Legislation

Two key pieces of legislation were also tabled by Ms Jafri; the Poisons (Amendment) Bill 2017 and the Legal Practitioners and Bar Councils (Amendment) Bill 2017.

The first sought to classify acids – frequently used to attack women – as a poison and regulate their sale, while the second sought to ensure a one-fourth quota for women practitioners in all bar councils across the country.

Explaining her rationale, Ms Jafri said that even though it was known that acid was often used as a weapon against women, there had been no effort to regulate the sale of this hazardous substance. By classifying it as a poison under the Poisons Act 1919, she hoped to ensure that its sale would be monitored.

The demand for a quarter of all seats in bar councils for women, she said, was the culmination of her efforts to ensure women’s representation in the judiciary and the legal fraternity. Ms Jafri has, in the past, introduced bills calling for a similar quota for women judges in the superior judiciary, but both drafts were shot down by the standing committee. The latest draft aims to give women a good platform to be groomed in the legal profession by ensuring that one-fourth of the seats in the provincial and Pakistan Bar Council be allotted to women.

Several women lawmakers also used the opportunity to highlight ways in which the treasury benches tried to take credit for private members’ legislation by incorporating it into their own bills.

Dr Azra Fazal Pechuho took issue with the government’s lacklustre response over bills that had even made it past the committee stage.

When the PPP lawmaker introduced the Compulsory Blood Test of Relatives of Thalassaemia Patient Bill 2014, which was recommended for passage by the Standing Committee on Cabinet Secretariat, Parliamentary Secretary for National Health Services (NHS) Dr Darshan told the house that his ministry had not received the draft.

The parliamentary secretary asked that the bill be referred to the NHS standing committee, a suggestion that incensed Dr Pechuho, who said that the bill should not be sent anywhere else once it was cleared for passage by the standing committee. Although her stance was supported by the acting speaker, the matter was deferred until the next private members day on Law Minister Zahid Hamid’s suggestion, in order to give the NHS ministry time to go over the bill.

Published in Dawn February 1st, 2017