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Harassing women

Updated October 31, 2017

The incident of the Karachi-based Aga Khan University Hospital (AKUH) doctor who was reportedly fired/suspended after sending filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s sister a Facebook friend request has ignited our very own mini Harvey Weinstein scandal.

Ever since Chinoy tweeted about the incident on Oct 23, people have been debating whether the doctor should have faced such action, whether Chinoy abused her star power in order to protect her sister, and whether what he did genuinely constitutes sexual harassment.

Let’s clear up a few misconceptions, especially about what sexual harassment is. We have a horror of even thinking about the subject, and prefer to suppress it rather than confront it. This is a global reflex, but now it’s time to overcome it and think hard about what we’re doing to women every day in our own country.

Sexual harassment isn’t just vulgar comments to a woman walking by on the street, or the sleazy man at work forcing himself onto his colleagues or subordinates. It is also unwanted personal attention in everyday situations.

According to the University of Michigan Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Centre, harassment can be “Letters, telephone calls, visits, pressure for sexual favours, pressure for unnecessary personal interaction and pressure for dates where a sexual/romantic intent appears evident but remains unwanted”.

People may claim that a Facebook friend request is an innocent attempt at social connection, but an emergency room doctor has no business sending a Facebook friend request to a woman he’s treated in the ER.

Not only does this violate medical ethics and codes of conduct, but it violates the patient’s personal information and goes against the recommendations of many medical boards on social media and doctors. The British Medical Association, for example, states very clearly that doctors should not be Facebook friends with their patients.

It’s part of the system to doubt women.

Strangely, while discussing this on Twitter and Facebook with friends and colleagues, I encountered dozens of men and women defending the doctor, insisting that what he did was not harassment, and that Chinoy was defaming the country by having spoken out about the doctor’s misconduct.

Even after it emerged that he was under warning from the administration for previous episodes of misconduct, and that AKUH had come to its own decision about firing/suspending him, these men and women continued to defend the doctor and slur Chinoy and her family.

But this kind of defensive behaviour is no surprise to anyone who studies gender interactions and is familiar with the issue of sexual harassment. People may claim to be very confused about what sexual harassment is, but the issue goes beyond simple ignorance.

It’s simply a part of the entire system to doubt the woman who says she feels harassed, pick apart her accusation and label it ‘not really harassment’, and defend the predator as ‘a nice guy’ or a victim of a witch hunt.

Sexual harassment can be blatant or subtle, but the result is that it creates a hostile environment for women, in which they become psychologically affected and unable to do their job. In the case of a patient, the doctor’s office or emergency room transforms from a safe space in which she entrusts her life to the doctor’s care into yet another minefield where she has to defend herself against unwanted attention — the doctor holds power over the patient, no matter what their classes outside the emergency room.

Not only is initiating an unwanted Facebook friend request highly inappropriate for a doctor, it can provoke feelings of stress, trauma, and anxiety in a patient who has just been through a medical emergency.

A Facebook friend request may seem trivial, and this is one of the main arguments men and women defending the doctor have been putting about: it was just a friend request, it was harmless, just block it, ignore it, move on.

But as women we get hundreds of these a day and have to waste our time and energy rejecting them, changing our privacy settings, and protecting ourselves online in a way men never have to even think about. Instead of minimising the constant harassment of these messages, why not listen to women for a change tell you how annoying, intrusive, and stress-inducing this unwanted attention really feels, without suggesting that she should just get off social media if she can’t deal with it?

Finally, you should examine your motives when defending the actions and intentions of an alleged repeat offender.

The tech website Tech Crunch spoke to a woman CEO, Joelle Emerson about this phenomenon. She said: “People who defend harassing behaviour do so because they have engaged in such behaviour themselves. Or they defend individuals accused of this behaviour because they believe them to be generally ‘good people’. Or, as a rule, they just don’t believe women.”

The writer is an author.

Twitter: @binashah

Published in Dawn, October 31st, 2017