GENDER POLITICS: THE SILENT SUFFERERS

Updated August 20, 2017

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Mahira* had just begun her new job at a well-known shipping company in Karachi when she noticed something. Her boss hugged all the girls in the office and was very short-tempered. “It made me very uncomfortable,” she says.

“When we’d go for meetings, he’d move around his desk and hug us. The first time that happened, I quickly shot out my hand but I didn’t know how long I could avoid getting ‘hugged’ by him. He would also bark orders and didn’t want to listen to my feedback on the programmes which is what I was hired to do.”

Mahira left the position a couple of weeks later but not everyone is lucky or brave enough to leave their job or boss behind. The harassment accusations brought forward by politician Ayesha Gulalai Wazir against Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf chairman Imran Khan show that not even the richest or most privileged amongst us are spared harassment in the workplace.

MNA Ayesha Gulalai’s harassment allegation is a reminder that harassment is not uncommon at the workplace

According to Dr Warsi, assistant director at the Council of Gender Equality, Islamabad, one in three workers are subject to work-related harassment or bullying. Most incidents of bullying at the workplace, however, go unreported. “People are mostly afraid of being misjudged,” he points out. “I have seen many people with workplace-related trauma, stress and attention-deficit syndrome. They become paranoid, repeat the same things over and over again and doubt the intentions of every passerby.”

Pakistan is also ranked very low in gender equivalence at the workplace: according to the 2016 Global Gender Report, Pakistan ranks 143 out of 144 countries in terms of workplace and sexual harassment. Even heavily patriarchal societies, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have made tremendous improvement in curtailing this issue and are ranked higher than Pakistan.

One of the reasons for Pakistan’s low ranking is most likely because of an unfriendly environment at the office. Sara*, a former employee at a TV station talks about how she once rushed to work and didn’t have time to really put on make-up or blow dry her hair. Her manager wasted no time in commenting on her appearance: “I can’t really repeat what he said because it was so inappropriate but it devastated me. I stopped going to work from the next day.”

The Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010 is supposed to legally address the kind of sexual harassment Sara and Mahira faced but often it isn’t effective. According to Reema Omer, a legal adviser for the International Commission of Jurists, there are “a number of shortcomings. For example, the definition of workplace is very narrow. It is still not clear whether it applies to students in educational institutions, and it appears unlikely that it applies to domestic workers or political parties.”

“[There is a] lack of awareness about the law and what constitutes sexual harassment,” emphasises Omar. The lawyer also lists other factors hindering the effectiveness of the law such as the “failure of employers to implement [it], the reluctance of victims to register complaints, the limited funding and other resources available to the ombudsperson’s office, and prolonged delays in appointing ombudspersons.”

However, Omer is quick to point out that the law has worked well in many ways as organisations and government departments have “adopted the code of conduct provided for under the [2010 Act] and constituted inquiry committees [which have] expeditiously decided cases, finding against the accused in quite a few cases where allegations have been proven.”

There are, however, situations that are not covered under the law and women often have to manage a delicate balancing act. For instance, Sana*, assistant manager at a public-sector bank says that “working in a male-dominated sector is all the more difficult. If you laugh a bit loudly or try to be friendly with your co-workers you are judged as easily approachable and willing. If you are reserved you are labelled as pretentious and coy.”

Women are also expected to work harder than men. The case of Saira* illustrates this well. A lecturer at a public college, she continued working while she was pregnant and almost lost her child because of unreasonable work pressure.

“I was supposed to start my maternity leave from the next day and was asked to work late to answer emails,” says Bano. “I was feeling some pain in my abdomen but always felt the pressure to do as much as I can and I didn’t want to say no. I ignored the pain. Eventually, I had to be rushed to the hospital and I almost lost my child.”

For employees such as Sana and Saira, there are few options to address the harassment they face at the workplace. While there are laws in Pakistan against sexual harassment at the workplace such as the Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010, there is nothing that addresses other forms of harassment for either gender.

The 2010 Act “does not apply to other kinds of harassment such as harassment based on religion, ethnicity, disability, etc. [but] this doesn’t mean bullying and other forms of harassment are lawful in the absence of such a law,” says Omer. “In some cases, Pakistan Penal Code offences could be applicable,” she says. “For example, intimidation is a crime under section 503 of the Penal Code.”

Dr Warsi also points out that most victims of office bullying are not aware that they have a right to not be treated this way or they are reluctant to address the issue. “In our society the concept of bullying bosses or co-workers is relatively newer,” he says. “However, people sometimes do not know that they suffer from harassment or are victimised. The latent gestures and hidden motives are never reported.”

This leaves employees with few options such as leaving the job. This is highlighted in the case of Rukhsana Shaheen, the former secretary of education, who says that she was marginalised and overworked in her department for being too ‘assertive’.

“I was a young, vulnerable female in the midst of a male-dominant arena,” Shaheen recalls. “I would be asked to fly to Lahore from Islamabad at two in the morning without prior notice. I belong to a middle-class family with no bureaucratic background and they exploited me till the end.”

According to the former education secretary, the hectic work schedule eventually took its toll. “My health began declining and after reflecting on it, I offered my resignation, which was immediately accepted. Within a day I was relegated to a non-entity,” she adds.

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals*
Fareeha Khan is an Associate Professor of English at Government Degree College for Women, Peshawar
Maliha Diwan is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 20th, 2017