Imagine going against the tide, the system, the people and the culture you are born in, only to dream of representing your country in sports at the international level. Playing in front of a packed house at a world event in your reveries, you wake up each day to practise hard so you can earn that ‘big call-up’ and show everyone what you are made of. An intriguing thought, no?

Now imagine that dream being taken away from you forcefully; being pushed hard to the corner, being made to suffer in silence to a degree where you do not even think twice before not only giving up on your goals but on your will to live as well. No words can do justice to what Haleema Rafique must have felt when she was failed by her very own society.

Rafique was a 17-year-old kid and a cricket all-rounder. She knew how to bowl and she knew how to bat. What she didn’t know was the fact that she would be fighting a battle in which only a few have emerged victorious. She may have been a warrior on the cricket field but, off the field, she was as vulnerable as most of her countrywomen.

Sexual harassment is one of the hindrances to progress of women’s participation in sports in Pakistan. But as a taboo issue, it hardly gets reported or the attention it deserves

According to her friends, 2013 had been extremely stressful year for her. It all started when she appeared on a TV show on a private news channel along with four other female cricketers a year before she died. All five had accused some of the top officials of Multan Cricket Club (MCC) of asking for sexual favours in return for getting a recommendation for a place in the national team or for being selected in the regional team. The allegations were denied by the MCC and an inquiry committee was subsequently set up by the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB).

All of the accusers failed to submit the evidence. In fact, two of them — including Rafique — even missed the hearings. As a result, the allegations were not only dismissed by the inquiry committee but all five were slapped with fines and a nine-month ban as well. But, as it eventually turned out, the matter was far from reaching its conclusion.

A defamation suit for Rs20 million was filed by the accused against all of them and the two anchors of the show in which the allegations were made. Rafique didn’t have the slightest idea that she’d be summoned by the court. Perhaps she didn’t understand the gravity of the situation when she levelled those charges. In all likelihood, the reality only dawned upon her when her brother read out the news, about the court summoning all the accusers for a hearing, to the family.

What happened afterwards is history and something that is going to haunt many of the people for the rest of their lives. Rafique ended her life by drinking toilet cleaning liquid. Even if she were a part of a mud-slinging campaign against the officials of the MCC, she didn’t deserve to die. Even if the allegations were untrue, she deserved the space she needed. But at the end of it all, a life was lost and a dream was shattered.

According to research, women are more likely to encounter sexual harassment than men. But, they are also more likely to be less vocal about it. And, unfortunately, in a society such as ours where patriarchy still persists, there is very little hope that things will change for the better soon.

According to Section 509 of the Pakistani Penal Code, anyone who intends to insult the modesty of a woman by saying something or by displaying any object, by making a sound or a gesture, by impinging her privacy at work or in a public space, is punishable by law. The perpetrator can be punished with an imprisonment sentence of up to three years or with a fine or with both.

It is hard for women to speak up about their experiences of being victims of sexual harassment in Pakistan without getting flak in return. And if they muster up the courage to do so, their claims are dismissed instantly. Instead of lending them an ear, people judge their moralities by what they or their family members wear.

When Ayesha Gulalai levelled sexual harassment charges against Imran Khan earlier this year, pictures of her sister, Maria Toorpakay Wazir, Pakistan’s number one woman squash player, started floating around the social media. Questions were raised about her character in a targeted vicious campaign by a group of trolls for wearing skirts while playing squash.

A woman who had made the country proud only a few years ago by becoming the only female squash player to have emerged from one of the most dangerous areas of Pakistan — Waziristan — had now become “a reason of embarrassment” for some because her sister had spoken up about sexual harassment. To Imran Khan’s credit, he immediately asked people to stop targeting Maria Toorpakay Wazir.

Eos tried to contact Syeda Sadia, former goalkeeper of the women’s national hockey team, and Saeed Khan, the team’s head coach, following allegations of assault and harassment made by the former against the latter. Both of them didn’t respond to calls and text messages despite several attempts.

Sadia in her statement earlier had said that she had been assaulted by the head coach and he had asked her to call him “at night” when she confronted him as to why she was not selected in the national team. The allegations were denied by Saeed Khan and Tanzeela Aamer, secretary of Pakistan Hockey Federation’s (PHF) women’s wing. In his defence, Khan said that if he had been guilty, he would have escaped the camp. According to Khan, Sadia had only made those accusations because she was frustrated at the thought of being dropped from the national side. The PHF women’s wing also termed the allegations as “baseless.”

It’s easy to tell when someone is trying to harass you even when you are playing. If somebody keeps finding ways to touch you unnecessarily, you should just go and tell the match referees. They are there for a reason. In the meantime, a girl should also ‘stay within her limits’ and not do anything that gets her unwanted attention.”

In an ideal world, the PHF women’s wing should have formed an independent inquiry committee and asked it to probe into the matter instead of dismissing it straightaway. It should have provided an equal opportunity to both the parties to defend themselves and then could have acted accordingly. It could have set the right precedent for other sports governing bodies in Pakistan and could have also sent out a strong message that it takes sexual harassment very seriously. But as they say, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

“It’s the duty of sports governing bodies to educate their female athletes,” says a local female hockey player on condition of anonymity. “They should tell them about their rights and should make it easier for them to report such approaches.”

“Sexual harassment in sports is real, it is very real. There is basically no awareness among the female players. It happens all the time. The parents and guardians should also talk to their children and should accompany them to their games in order to win their trust and provide them with a safe environment so that children can easily confide in them,” she adds further.

“Teams are usually accompanied by physiotherapists on tours but I believe they should also have psychiatrists with them, someone who could understand the mental state of a female player and could help her overcome the ‘guilt’ of being sexually harassed,” she says. According to her, some female athletes tend to get involved in mud-slinging activities as well. “They think it will help them get selected more quickly.”

“I once hit a guy with my hockey because he was trying to harass me,” says another local female hockey player who also spoke to Eos on the condition of anonymity. “The next day when I came to the ground and told my coach what had happened the other day, he got up and appreciated my action,” she adds.

“You see, it’s easy to tell when someone is trying to harass you even when you are playing. If somebody keeps finding ways to touch you unnecessarily, you should just go and tell the match referees. They are there for a reason. In the meantime, a girl should also ‘stay within her limits’ and not do anything that gets her unwanted attention,” she says.

While educating female athletes about their rights and about how to respond to sexual harassment does seem like a good idea and can indeed cut down such incidents in future, what’s disappointing is the fact that none of the subjects Eos spoke to thought of educating men about such issues or felt confident about attaching their names to what they were saying. Perhaps, that is what years of patriarchy do to a society. g

The writer is a member of staff
He tweets @HumayounAK

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 17th, 2017


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