Can of worms

Published November 1, 2017

SOME cultures are pathologised as more misogynist than others, but the global epidemic of gender-based violence (GBV) proves it is not specific to any class or culture. Universally, sex crimes are about power and masculinity.

Nevertheless, some cultures do pride themselves on their women’s ‘modesty’ and perpetuate the myth that it’s ‘natural’ for men to be sexually aggressive. These attitudes lend impunity to abusers, while victims carry the burden of blame for ‘inviting’ violence. When GBV is considered a private issue, the crime remains sealed by silence.

Harassment cases that have recently come to light in the West but also in Pakistan are powerful reminders of the myth that educated, pious, liberal, intelligent men or male family members are incapable of GBV. They have confirmed women’s right to protection from intimidation, irrespective of their profession, wardrobe or demeanour. But they have also sparked debates about definitions and class privilege, veracity of allegations, and propriety when conducting activist campaigns.

The stakes in harassment cases are high.

Key, too, has been the use of social media for online activism but also, as a platform of abuse, rage and ill-informed condemnation on both sides.

The Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2010 is an exemplary combination of feminist thinking, experiential empathy and implementation effectiveness. There are, however, pre-existing conditions that were always going to challenge it. The recent case of Oscar-winning filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy alleging that a doctor harassed her sister is a case in point.

The social conversation has been over whether a Facebook request by doctor to a patient is not just unethical but also amounts to sexual harassment. Despite respecting a victim’s intuition and recognising discomfort as a symptom of harassment, according to the fairly broad legal parameters, this still would not qualify as sexual harassment. Critics who want a tighter, narrower definition should be cautioned against conceding to the state the right to decide all aspects of gender relations.

Women must beware of surrendering their own agency. They should be able to reject an online request without depending on some paternalistic law. There are guidelines that flag the tipping point of sexual harassment. We need to follow these rather than succumb to a moral panic such that a rights-based law begins to be interpreted as a patriarchal one.

The allegations posted on social media by Chinoy reveal a broader contest between formal and informal remedies for justice. Legally, all cases must observe due process and judgements must be implemented.

For too long, feminist activism relied on informal means of lobbying and pressurising for justice from outside the legal system, because many crimes against women were not even recognised by the state. Now that a legal protocol has been established for sexual harassment, using informal naming and shaming tactics, social ostracisation, and media allegations only undermine the legal process that depends on evidence and the testimony of litigants and witnesses only.

In reality, however, most women have no expectations from male-dominated workplace committees or the courts. Informal pressure and shaming may be inappropriate, but we all know that one high-profile, tip-of-the-iceberg case tends to become the trigger that can open up the entire can of harassing worms that crawl in too many workplaces. The stakes in harassment cases are high because if proven, it can lead to a chilling effect on future harassers and protect many women. However, the historical injustice of women not being believed cannot be corrected by abandoning due process altogether.

As for class privilege; the practice of on­­line crowd-sourcing of allegations and using social pressure for revenge-justice rather than due justice is counterproductive. Righ­­­­teous conservatives have always challenged laws penalising violence against women as power tools for avenging ‘innocent’ men, even though they do not hold similar views on the misuse of blasphemy laws.

Regardless, fairness demands that activists abstain from social media mob lynching.

Those who are sceptical about the importance of laws must recognise that without sexual harassment laws, none of these crucial debates would be taking place. Appropriate activist response and respect of due process does not mean abandoning social activism or fighting alone. Victims, even perpetrators, should reach out to women’s collectives who are experienced, discrete and yet resourced with information that helps guide survivors and offenders.

Despite Chinoy’s bungling activism, the abuse and vitriolic hate directed at her on social media reveals a perverse kind of male bonding and threatened male privilege and entitlement. Chinoy’s own witlessness has unwittingly revealed darker attitudes towards women and harassment and the potential of the law to protect women.

The writer is the author of the upcoming book Faith and Feminism in Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, November 1st, 2017

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