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Special report: Sexual harassment in workplaces in Pakistan

Sexual harassment, abuse and discrimination in Pakistan’s workplaces is pervasive, mostly unreported and ignored.
Updated Apr 19, 2018 09:51pm

Misogyny in the workplace: Hidden in plain sight

By Razeshta Sethna, Tooba Masood and Ramsha Jahangir

Sexual harassment, abuse and discrimination in Pakistan’s workplaces, including universities, are pervasive, mostly unreported and ignored by senior managers, a Dawn survey of 300 women found.

In response to being asked whether women were made to stay silent about workplace harassment, 61 per cent said their employers did not coerce them to keep quiet, but a significant 35pc were told to remain silent by their colleagues and bosses.

The survey conducted through online questionnaires and interviews in Karachi, Islamabad, Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta collated responses from women in the workforce, across professions and industries, to gauge experiences of sexual harassment and whether workplaces have anti-sexual harassment policies in place.

Nonetheless, when it comes to formal reporting mechanisms, testimonies from women suggest most lack faith in the process — only 17pc of those who experienced harassment approached their organisation’s internal inquiry committees.

Despite 59pc reporting that their managements do take harassment seriously, most women expressed worry that managers wouldn’t sanction harassers and their work situations would not improve. Most women felt they would not be believed during investigations or when perpetrators had support in high places.

A surgeon’s proposition

Women in medicine shared stories of a toxic culture of misogyny. Some as students endured catcalling, comments about their body size (“they would rate us on a scale of one to ten,” said one) and gossip about their reputation.

Some doctors said promotions were denied on the pretext that they were ‘less experienced’, not ‘as committed’ as male colleagues or because they didn’t succumb to sexual demands. Those who call out workplace misconduct are routinely portrayed as hysterical and malicious liars or whiners.

One former medical student of a university hospital said her professor, a well-known orthopaedic surgeon, often paid her unwanted attention. Once, he propositioned her while she was operating on a patient under his supervision. “He stood so close to me, shoulder-to-shoulder in the operating room. He told me I’d have to come back to him if I cut my finger while operating. No one knows when you wear [surgical] masks what a doctor is whispering to you,” she said.

“Female students would invariably get higher marks than male students. He had power over students he favoured. We knew his behaviour was problematic, so did our seniors, but by complaining we’d be jeopardising our careers. We were given warnings about some professors and male students we should steer clear of. It was a very uncomfortable environment. I hated it.”

Hostile work environments

Bad behaviour doesn’t have to be sexual to constitute harassment. In fact, everyday aggressions by male bosses often create humiliating work conditions for female subordinates.

Women in technology speak of how managers denigrate their worth and work; improper touching and comments, bullying; and bosses taking credit for their achievements.

Schoolteachers talk of promotions promised in return for sexual favours. One said she was publicly mocked for using the bathroom ‘too often’.

Politicians said they are routinely criticised for their appearance — they must not look too feminine since that’s not associated with leadership, nor too masculine since that’s not their lot. Being perceived as usurping power in a man’s world makes them fair game, they said. Even legislative assemblies in which pro-women laws are sanctified are not safe from everyday sexism.

Sexism in parliament

In January 2017, PML-F’s Nusrat Sehar Abbasi was well into her second tenure in the Sindh assembly and accustomed to the frequent jeering and heckling by certain male legislators from the ruling party.

Nonetheless, she decided enough was enough when PPP’s Imdad Pitafi invited her to come to his chamber for a ‘satisfactory response’ to a question she had asked, which prompted laughter from other members of the ruling party. She even threatened to immolate herself if he did not resign.

“I didn’t get what he said at first because of the poor acoustics, not until other women told me. I wasn’t given the chance to respond because PPP’s deputy speaker Shehla Raza switched off my mike; she didn’t stand in my defence. I was fed up with the constant whistling and bad language used by male legislators,” Abbasi tells Dawn.

“They believe women on reserved seats [are not elected] on our own merit. They don’t realise we do most of the work and pass the most bills, while they heckle us.” Pitafi eventually apologised on the floor of the house, after Bilawal and Aseefa Bhutto-Zardari urged him to do so.

This was not an isolated incident. Many women lawmakers suffer inappropriate banter intended to publicly demean them. In June 2016, then defence minister Khawaja Asif called PTI’s Shireen Mazari a ‘tractor trolley’; in April 2017, PPP’s Khurshid Shah remarked that women would ‘fall ill’ if prevented from ‘chattering’; in Nov 2014, JUI-F’s Fazlur Rehman claimed PTI’s female supporters were of ‘bad character’. Failing to condemn this behaviour, women lawmakers mostly support their parties for fear of censure by male leaders.

Enabling misconduct

When women protect harassers they are actually ‘enabling’ these men and their misconduct, explains Nighat Dad of the Digital Rights Foundation.

“Society is wired in such ways because of the stakes involved; even if you might know of their behaviour you will stay silent. Networks empower people and people don’t want to lose their communities. Often harassers are weaker but enablers allow them to become strong so they stay within communities and are not isolated. You won’t see these powerful enablers around complainants often so they become weak and isolated.”

Silence and secrecy enforce perpetrators. If a woman cannot be completely silenced, they make sure she is disbelieved or shamed, say lawyers dealing with harassment cases. The more powerful the perpetrator, the more he is able to discredit the victim through his network of supporters.

In the line of duty

Senior police officer Maria Taimur admits women in the force won’t talk about harassment as much as they should.

“At a higher level we don’t face intimidation as much, but lower entry-level constables and ASIs do. Women in the force can go to their DPOs or CPOs to complain, and have learnt to give men shut up calls. But often the matter is also hushed up. We have anti-harassment drives in most districts, we try to change mindsets, but it’s a slow process,” she said.

Taimur raised another issue: “You can’t spot a harasser because often their demeanour is so respectful in public. This makes it easier for them to cover their tracks.”

Having worked with male colleagues for over 12 years, Uzma, an ASI at Lahore’s Lower Mall police station is well versed in their psyche.

“Tharak jhaartay hain aadat se majboor,” — they flirt out of habit — she said. Although women in the force can hold their own, she admits certain men try to cast them as being of ill repute.

“What rubbish. Women work because they need to.”

Still, women facing harassment are often caught between two bad choices.

Put up or get out

Of the women surveyed, more than half said they would leave their jobs if harassed. For 12pc, reactions of workplaces and families would determine whether they stayed. But many recognise that ignoring harassment or leaving the workplace altogether will only exacerbate the problem.

“If it’s not one woman, then it’s another, which is why predators need to be held accountable,” said one interviewee.

One of the Punjab ombudsperson’s first cases was a complaint from a junior clerk in the agriculture department in 2014, recollected Bushra Khaliq of Women in Struggle for Empowerment. The only woman in her office, for six months, her colleagues maligned her reputation, told dirty jokes in her presence and blew cigarette smoke in her face. “When the department failed to take her seriously, her family went to the police. Eleven people were nominated in the complaint, and each was given different levels of punishment.”

But such an outcome is still an anomaly. In interviews, women explained how disciplinary action against harassers is virtually non-existent in a society where powerful men are immune from censure: “They usually get a slap on the wrist at most.”

A law unto themselves

One lawyer talked of misbehaviour in her profession: “My [former] boss, an influential former Senator and lawyer-politiian, made unwanted sexual advances, told me that at the civil courts women lawyers are sold for Rs500, and that he had slept with many ‘pretty women parliamentarians’. Once he tried to hug me, and when I told him specifically that this was not okay, he said his last employee was a tomboy and never hesitated to hug him. I left that law chamber.”

Recalling her early days, another lawyer wrote of a senior colleague, a son of a high court judge, who would send her dozens of inappropriate, late-night text messages.

“I never replied and would greet him the next day at work, pretending they had never happened. … The firm had no anti-harassment policy or procedure … I was made to believe that this was a rite of passage and that the messages would stop. … After I quit, I received another text from him calling me a slut.”

Obstacles in enforcing workplace rights

“Sexual harassment is a question of power and authority over women. The Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act is aimed essentially at behaviour correction, it doesn’t involve courts or the police directly,” states Khaliq. With its enactment and the amendment to Pakistan Penal Code Section 509, both in 2010, the real challenge is implementation.

Legal experts argue that though sexual harassment in public spaces is now punishable with imprisonment and/or a fine, it has not served its purpose given the criminal justice system’s shortfalls.

Meanwhile, although the civil law requires organisations to adopt a code of conduct and constitute internal inquiry committees, organisations often fail to implement it.

“They don’t say they won’t comply, but some public organisations don’t. It was a nightmare to get PTV to nominate a committee. Banks, on the other hand, are more compliant because it is part of the State Bank’s audit,” explains Maliha Hassain of Mehergah.

Under this law, if a complainant is not satisfied with the internal committee, they can approach their respective ombudsperson for cases of workplace harassment. But, eight years on, the only provincial ombudsperson’s post that is presently filled is Sindh’s — Punjab has had no ombudsperson since April 2017. And while compliance with rulings is almost universal according to former federal ombudsperson for harassment, retired justice Yasmin Abbasey, she admits that the high courts have sometimes issued stay orders to stop proceedings despite lacking the jurisdiction to do so.

“Granted, it is risky for women to talk because of lack of supportive mechanisms. But they are more aware and understand they don’t need to tolerate this. The #MeToo conversations are trickling down to the grass roots,” Khaliq says. And what of the effects of these conversations? Of her own profession, Abbasi believes that speaking up will help to ensure that “the path for younger women to enter politics is not as difficult”.

Uzma Al-Karim, former special adviser to the Sindh ombudsperson, believes only a mindset change will make workplaces safer for women. But, until then, “We have to enforce the law so that there is zero tolerance for all forms of harassment in a work environment.”

Sanam Zeb, Asma Mojiz, Xari Jalil, Sarah Eleazar, Waseem Ahmed Shah, and Sadia Qasim Shah contributed to reporting.

*Illustrations by Marium Ali


If you are facing sexual harassment at work and would like to file a complaint, please follow the government's guidelines here and here. You can also reach out to NGO helplines. If you wish to share your story at Dawn, write to us at blog@dawn.com

Breaking the silence on sexism in academia

By Razeshta Sethna, Sara Eleazar, Waseem Ahmed Shah and Tooba Masood

For too long, sexism and sexual harassment in Pakistan’s universities have been considered routine experiences, tolerated by those in authority. Believing that the consequences of taking action are more damaging than staying silent, most women continue to put up with harassment and misconduct.

This was the choice Navin G Haider confronted two years ago as assistant professor of history at Karachi University’s (KU) Pakistan Study Centre. She decided to formally report on the harassment she experienced on campus, not knowing what the consequences would be (the first harassment incident she reported was in February 2016, and then, another incident she suffered on 14 March of the same year.)

Calling out harassment and discrimination became a noose around Navin Haider's neck.

Haider decided to file a complaint to the university’s internal inquiry committee after Dr Jaffer Ahmed — then acting centre director, and her immediate boss — failed to take action against her alleged offender, a visiting faculty member teaching Urdu, Dr Sahar Ansari (Ahmed, who has known Ansari for decades, told Haider’s friend, an academic from a private university, that he was ‘neutral’ to both parties.)

In her complaint, Haider alleged Ansari twice harassed her in the form of unwanted and inappropriate physical contact. Although she took a route rarely pursued by victims for fear of backlash, Haider says she was unprepared for what followed.

With 27 years of teaching experience, she was now labelled a troublemaker — even a nuisance by KU’s top management. Calling out harassment and discrimination became a noose around her neck. Yet, as she soon discovered, she was not the only woman who had been harassed by Ansari.

Haider says Ansari must have been around while she was a student at KU in the 1980s, but she rarely crossed his path until he began teaching Urdu at the centre in 2002. There, too, they hardly interacted.

“My limited interaction with Dr Ansari can be traced to December 2015 when he came into my room, sat on a chair next to me to look at student theses he could possibly use for an Urdu magazine for which he had just been appointed editor,” she says.

In an interview with Dawn, Ansari claims, “Through the years we were friendly as colleagues could be. She told me she would get me work on a translation project at the Ismaili community centre in 2000. [In other words] there were ample chances for me take any liberties [with her] if I wanted to. But at this age [reportedly mid-70s] and with my background I would not.”

Haider says she was unaware of what she stated was Ansari’s apparent predilection for fair-skinned women until she filed her complaint and other alumni and students begun to speak of their experiences with him.

She learnt that he took their numbers on the pretext of contacting them about academic work, and instead called them incessantly at night — asking them out to lunch, commenting on their physical appearance and marriage eligibility.

Some claimed he had groped them. A male staffer corroborated this.

“A computer operator at the centre told me he had witnessed how Ansari swept his hand right from the top of a woman’s shoulders to her buttocks. He was also one of the many witnesses who recorded his statement during the official inquiry,” Haider tells Dawn.

“In fact, Dr Ahmed’s wife and the centre’s current director had also warned her female students — I teach the same students in my history classes — to keep their distance from Dr Ansari. Something these girls told much later. Boys in his class knew he’d grade girls’ exams higher if they flirted with him,” she explains.

Haider’s ground level office — a tiny room packed with books and papers — is at the end of a drab, quiet corridor. It was here around noon one day in February 2016 that Ansari, without knocking, walked in while she was at her desk, engrossed in work. He strode right up to her, grabbed her hands in a tight handshake, and would not let go.

“It is friendship day, he told me. Besides, I like you beyond work, he said to me,” Haider says.

Ansari explains he was being friendly, not inappropriate, by shaking hands.

As the second inquiry committee ruling (a copy of which is available with Dawn) in January 2018 noted, Ansari denied that standing too close to a woman, hugging or touching her hands would make her feel uneasy and be inappropriate. He asserts he was made a scapegoat by Haider, who was displeased with Ahmed’s way of handling the centre’s affairs.

The ‘troublemaker’ complains

Even though her boundaries had been violated, Haider knew it was pointless complaining to the director.

“I was angry and vulnerable at this point for reasons concerning my work and promotions as well. I knew he was a friend of the acting director and that meant I should stay quiet. I would be called a liar if I spoke out. What evidence did I have? Also, being concerned about the manner in which contract faculty was hired and their tenure extended, I had written a letter to the university’s board of governors outlining corrupt practices in 2014, so I was perceived as a troublemaker internally,” she says.

Instead, she avoided him. She kept her office door locked, she recalls, and would avoid the library where Ansari would tutor mostly female students after class.

On March 14, 2016 Haider went to Ahmed’s office to discuss something when she spotted Ansari leaving the same office. She moved aside to make way for him, she said, but instead of walking past her to the door, he grabbed her by the shoulders and shoved her against the director’s personal assistant’s table (the assistant was out for lunch at the time). Holding on to her shoulders, he said, “Aap hichkicha kiu rahi ahin?” (“Why are you hesitant?”)

Horrified, Haider’s reaction was to yell, “What are you doing? Are you mad? Do you have no shame?”

Humiliated and stressed, she reported the incident to Ahmed that very afternoon, after which she submitted a written complaint to the university’s vice chancellor.

When Haider’s complaint was investigated by an internal inquiry committee (a committee member, for instance, was Ansari’s former student Dr Seemi Tahir) it absolved him of all charges in May 2016.

Despite testimonies furnished by alumni and students about Ansari’s misconduct, in its judgment (a copy of which is available with Dawn) it recommended that “[Haider] should be asked to improve her temperament”.

“They concluded I was insane,” she says.

It further stated that she “unnecessarily provoked the students towards agitation and boycott to settle her personal problem”.

In June 2016, she filed an appeal against this decision with the office of retired justice Shahnawaz Tariq, the provincial ombudsperson for the protection against harassment of women, explaining the inquiry committee had disregarded witness testimonies (16 people reporting harassment by Ansari had come forward), and failed to record statements and cross-examine both parties — all of which are legally binding.

Noting these discrepancies, the ombudsperson wrote to KU in August 2017 asking that a second committee “of independent, impartial and honest” officers submit a report in 30 days.

Noting that “any unpermitted and unconsented touch of the body of a female by any male is amounting to cause harassment”, the ombudsperson’s decision stated: “Neither the Inquiry Committee had made transparency nor ensured the impartiality while conducting the inquiry proceedings as well as passing its decision.”

In January 2018, a second committee headed by Dr Nasreen Aslam Shah ruled that Ansari behaved inappropriately with Haider. Its findings noted all witness statements about Ansari’s reputation for the type of attention he paid his female students.

The report (a copy is available with Dawn) stated no one regardless of their age, profession or fame has the right to harass another person on campus or otherwise. Also, incidents such as these will deter women from studying at KU unless strict action is taken against harassers, it elaborated.

Denying he had touched Haider outside the director’s office, Ansari claims: “She wanted to create a law and order situation in [the director’s] centre. If I had held her shoulders, why did she not push me away? Isn’t that unnatural — she didn’t yell? … She is bold, an activist … She is stout and healthy, and I am a semi-handicapped person.”

During an interview with Dawn, Ansari was asked twice if he had expected Haider to push him back. He responded in the affirmative both times — only if he attempted to touch her shoulders, he added suddenly, asserting he had not touched her.

Defining harassment in Punjab

Based on data collected from 260 students from 12 departments, a 2017 study in the Research Journal of South Asian Studies highlights the pervasiveness of harassment at Punjab University, including one incident that received much media attention.

“Two years ago, the termination of the services of a professor … who reportedly kept a bedroom next to his office on university premises, was initially applauded. However, recently, despite the university’s resistance, he has returned to the university due to political pressure.”

Clarifying the above, Dr Zakaria Zakar told Dawn the accused professor had not returned, but the court had restored his pension benefits as he had retired during the same time.

Before being appointed interim VC this year, Zakar headed the committee for investigating harassment complaints.

According to him, students’ complaints about verbal harassment on campus, such as catcalling, do not fall under the purview of the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, 2010, as the law primarily provides cover to employees.

His interpretation of the law — including the definition of workplace sexual harassment and whom it should apply to — is antithetical to the views expressed by competent authorities such as the federal ombudsperson, who ruled: “The fact remains that work means physical and mental effort or activity directed to the production or accomplishment of something that one is doing, making or performing especially as an occupation or undertaking a duty or a task therefore, the act equally applies to employer, employee and students.”

Across the country, many within academia have reported that the most common harassment they face is ogling, sexual and vulgar comments, and unwanted touching. All felt angry and degraded though many are shamed and blamed; many researchers and teachers leave their jobs, while students are forced to endure continued harassment if they want to finish their degrees. Many more try to ignore the harassment and avoid the harasser.

In April 2017, over 50 students (mostly female) signed a petition against four students at the Government College Lahore claiming verbal harassment at a bus stop.

After several months of initial hearings, an inquiry committee comprising only men was established, which goes against the law: one woman on a minimum three-member committee is mandatory.

According to sources privy to the hearings, the questions posed to students ranged from irrelevant to downright absurd, while the committee only appeared sympathetic after one of the complainants burst into tears. The questions included: “You have stated that you were walking to the bus and plugging in your hands-free device when one of the boys cat-called you. Why were you using a hands-free device?” and “How do you know [the harassers’] names? You found out from Facebook? Why are you on Facebook?”

Fighting against a powerful harasser

Even though the law is clear that sexual harassment is discrimination, a violation of rights and therefore illegal, perpetrators do not face the full force of the law. The appointment of Saqlain Naqvi as VC of Bacha Khan University (BKU) in Charsadda is under review in the Peshawar High Court (PHC) for these very reasons.

In a December 2016 judgment by the federal ombudsperson, Naqvi was censured for sexual harassment while dean of the faculty of sciences at Arid Agriculture University in Rawalpindi.

A researcher complained that his behaviour was the reason for the 10-month delay in her PhD thesis examination, because of which she had not been awarded her degree.

Although she attended only one course with Naqvi, his extraordinary attention towards her made her extremely uneasy. He made it untenable for her to stay, and so she quit the university.

Denying the allegations, BKU’s management told the PHC that the Rawalpindi bench of the Lahore High Court set the ombudsperson’s decision aside on April 18, 2017. However, the petitioner’s counsel told Dawn that the LHC had set aside the ombudsperson’s order on technical grounds and referred the issue to the Punjab provincial ombudsperson, as Arid University was not in the federal ombudsperson’s jurisdiction. It had not referred to the merits of the case.

With no ombudsperson appointed in Punjab, the case remains in limbo.

In interviews, professors and students have told Dawn they are either dissuaded from making officials complaints, withdraw their allegations or ignore serial offenders fearing the impact on their education and careers.

Students harassed by male professors who have authority over them, including the power to manipulate grades, are often intimidated by the consequences of reporting.

A former student at a private university narrates her experience.

There are cases where some senior male faculty attempt to trade grades for sexual favours.

At the University of Peshawar, there are no well-established mechanisms for addressing complaints, says Noreen Naseer, a professor of political science in a faculty dominated by male staff. There are cases where some senior male faculty attempt to trade grades for sexual favours.

As a senior female staff member, she feels responsible for younger students, often warning them to stay away from those known for predatory behaviour.

When a student was heard screaming in a professor’s office, the entire department was aware because she ran out crying, Naseer tells Dawn. The professor claimed he had asked her to take off her hijab so he could identify her.

An investigative committee was formed, but the teacher is still on campus.

“Because he belonged to the Jamaat-i-Islami the case was hushed up, even though other parties protested on campus. The woman got scared and didn’t pursue it,” she says.

Women told Dawn that when they do complain, in most cases universities downplay any wrongdoing and seek to keep matters quiet to protect their own reputation.

A teacher at a private university in Karachi discusses the power dynamics contributing to workplace harassment

However ironic, it is often conservatism that deters potential perpetrators from pursuing and harassing women in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The fear that he will be killed by a woman’s male relatives might be one restraining factor, explains Naseer, but clearly not enough to keep older men away from young students.

One professor on condition of anonymity said she even threatened to throw a senior professor in her department “out the window” if he didn’t stop harassing a young student who had come to her not knowing what to do.

“I was so angry at him for pursuing a 19-year-old student. There was no other way to get the message to him so I said what I did. Inexperienced younger women feel older men paying them attention is all good, not knowing it involves much more. I requested he let her finish her studies; stay away from her because she was uninterested in him. He would send her vulgar, bold messages — becoming demanding. She refused to press charges. This wasn’t the first time he had intimidated a woman into having sexual contact with him. And he had high-level contacts. But when your provincial assembly is sitting on bills to protect women, what can you do?” she says.

The cost of staying silent

Repressed anger accompanied with the trauma of harassment leads to psychological problems, says Kashif Faraz Ahmed, chairperson of the applied psychology department at the Government Islamia College Civil Lines, at a recent seminar.

Because of the way harassment complaints are often dealt with, victims end up blaming themselves leading to low self-esteem and mental and physical health issues — especially if the case becomes public.

Feminist activist Aimen Bucha explains, “Just because you have never seen it happen or haven’t harassed anyone, doesn’t mean that this doesn’t happen”.

Even then, it is hard to uncover the real scale of harassment on campuses. Our research points to a culture of impunity protecting powerful offenders. Victims, meanwhile, feel anger, remorse, shame and guilt — even when they do complain.

It’s a boys’ club so that’s the bigger battle I doubt I will win,
says Navin Haider

“Unfortunately, behaviours which may constitute inappropriate conduct are normalised in society; victims who have not been physically assaulted are not considered victims of harassment,” says psychologist Mary Pervaiz.

Dealing with the consequences of calling out predatory behaviour is tantamount to silent suffering.

“It’s a boys’ club so that’s the bigger battle I doubt I will win,” Haider says.

Though reconciled with her choices, she has already paid a price for her bold stance. Nearing retirement, her chances of getting a promotion are virtually non-existent; she has suffered a personal loss while fighting her case and her health is affected.

Women who do not stay silent know that unwittingly allowing such things to happen will not create change in workplaces. Though the cost of going public is high, it will translate into long-lasting change, they say — only then will the fundamental attitude of society towards women undergo transformation. These voices heard will only upend power relations.

Improving the workplace for women

Interview by Aasma Mojiz

Retired Justice Yasmin Abbasey, former federal ombudsperson for protection against harassment of women at the workplace, talks to Dawn about the ambit of the anti-harassment law.

What kind of behaviour constitutes workplace harassment according to the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, 2010?

YA) The perception that this law only deals with direct [physical] sexual harassment — which is often not possible in the office — is not the case. There are many forms of harassment in the workplace that are all covered in the law. Harassment does not just mean in terms of physical or sexual assault. It also means unnecessarily interfering in the work of others by harming their progress or promotion.

Men tend to submit complaints of hostile work environments; women also have the same issues, where there is so much interference in their work that they are not able to perform, and that interference is affecting their career. This law does in fact apply to both men and women in the workplace. However, most cases are women reporting harassment by male colleagues.

What kind of workplace environment do women contend with?

YA) Women in key positions usually do not face problems. They have gone through a process, they are at a position; they can handle the situation. But at the lower level, they do face problems. If there were no problems for women, this law would not have been made. Until now, harassment in the workplace has been ignored. But it is a painful experience for those affected and that is something that was not given credence in society; women felt it, but society did not.

Besides specific incidents, women also face uncomfortable workplace environments. How do you combat something like that?

YA) Harassment also applies to the kind of environment that makes women uncomfortable. During my tenure, the kind of cases that emerged meant I tried to evolve the law through my judgments. I have tried through my judgments to send a message that if you are spreading false rumours about someone, for example, that also constitutes harassment. It is not in writing, but you are spreading something baseless about another colleague — even if it is not baseless, you do not have the right to spread it.

What types of organisations or industries report a high number of harassment cases?

YA) Both government and private sectors are covered under this law. We have assessed there are more cases reported from the government sector than the private sector. But which public sector departments in particular matter only to an extent – our focus remains mainly on the issue.

When a case of harassment has been proven, to ensure the order [judgment] is implemented it is sent to the department from where the complaint came from. It wouldn’t be appropriate to disclose where cases come from because these are sensitive issues. We don’t wish for an institution to get a bad name just because of a case of harassment; we are working to improve the way women are perceived and treated in workplaces.

What procedures are followed by the ombudsperson for deciding a case?

YA) According to the law, the time period [for adjudication] is 60 days — from the date of filing a complaint until the final decision. Once a complaint is filed a notice is sent to the other party and they have to submit their reply in 15 days. Sometimes, it goes back and forth a little, but that does not matter much. The point is the quick disposal of the case.

If it extends beyond 60 days, it becomes an illegality. So we try to give decisions as soon as possible, usually within the 60 days time period. There are a few cases that have gone on longer, but not by months or years.

After a complaint is filed, a defence is filed. After the defence, if the parties wish to give a verbal statement, then, we take their statements under oath in the form of an affidavit. Copies of each are shared with both parties, and then there is a cross-examination. The procedure for recording evidence that's followed is the same as is done in the civil courts. After that there are final arguments, and then we give a decision.

If the complainant proves [the allegation], a punishment is given in accordance with the case. This is conveyed to the relevant department; they are given 15 days to implement the judgment and report back. Once reported, the matter is closed. Only the complainant has to come forward themselves, because someone else cannot file a sworn complaint on their behalf. Confidentiality is maintained.

What is the procedure for the federal ombudsperson to deal with cases from the provinces?

YA) We take those cases that involve institutions at the federal level that the provincial ombudspersons cannot deal with. The Supreme Court also gave a recent observation in which organisations with branches in various cities/districts are also treated as if they are at the federal level, so we deal with such organisations.

What kinds of punishments are given?

YA) There are minor and major punishments. It is not necessary to give all the minor penalties together; it depends on the nature of the case — the facts, what the complainant was able to prove and the intensity of the harassment. We cannot give a formula. There have been all kinds of punishments; we have kept it to censure, ordered compulsory retirement, removal and payment of compensation.

What is the level of compliance on the federal ombudsperson’s decisions?

YA) The compliance is [almost] 100 per cent. In some cases, our high courts have interfered and given stay orders to stop proceedings. But the Federal Ombudsman Institutional Reforms Act, 2013 says that no court or authority can interfere or assume jurisdiction in this institution’s proceedings. Despite that, they do try to intervene, and we try to avoid them and proceed with deciding cases and implementing rulings.

In some cases, institutions do not implement rulings but instead contest them. I think the responsibility then falls on the courts to curb this practice. Our purpose is not to show our supremacy, but to give people justice as soon as possible. If you issue a stay order in a case that then carries on for a year or two, then the purpose of the institution and the law itself is rendered useless.

Does the federal ombudsperson receive complaints from domestic workers or labourers?

YA) No, we have not received such cases. But when I took charge of this office and I studied this law I felt there were a lot of ambiguities and lacunae. Perhaps, it is human error, because we are the ones who make these laws and things get left out.

So I drafted a proposed amendment and tried to get it approved for four years, but I did not succeed. It has remained in the law ministry’s office for four years and there has not been further progress.

I hope that the coming ombudsperson will take it forward. Domestic servants, bonded labourers, workshop labourers, employees whose terms and conditions are not settled or in writing — my aim was to make sure the law covered them as well.

How involved is the office of the federal ombudsperson in raising awareness on workplace harassment and the law itself?

YA) I think this is the only institution that is raising awareness about the law. Our liaison officers have held over a hundred seminars at various institutions to disseminate information about this law — how to file a complaint, etc. We are also on social media, regularly sharing guidance and the institution’s progress.

However, there are two problems: lack of awareness and social restraint, particularly for women when it comes to reporting cases of harassment — and even cases amounting to violent crime go unreported. I think every day we might have 5,000 or so such cases in Pakistan in need of investigation, but barely one or two are registered, investigated and prosecuted.

The work of this institution is therefore critical given they aren’t punishments for workplace harassment of the kind that are in the criminal procedure code for other crimes. We are trying to reform society and make people aware that this is wrong behaviour and should not be taken as a joke, as though it’s not a big deal to tease someone. A woman is also a person.

Have you seen improvement in your time as the federal ombudsperson?

YA) Nothing that negatively affects vulnerable people is abolished quickly. Look at the recent Zainab case; were there no cases of child rape before this case shook the country? There were. And there have been since, as well. One decision will not change society’s mindset.

Women share their harassment stories

Women in workplaces are either dissuaded from making official complaints about sexual harassment and abuse, withdraw their allegations or ignore serial offenders, suffering all forms of harassment for fear of losing their income, and because of the impact on their education and careers.

In interviews with Dawn, many said they have never reported harassment, fearing the impact on their education or careers. This suggests that the true scale of the problem is far greater than what is believed.

Here are some of their stories about the toll harassment has taken on their lives. The audio versions of these stories were read out by journalists.

The student, 24, Hyderabad

He was my teacher and also the only ENT specialist in the department. So I went to him when I developed a severe ear ache. He diagnosed a fungal infection suggesting I have my ear suctioned.

Then, oddly enough he asked me to lie down on my back with my arms and legs straight for the procedure. Click to hear audio.

Usually, that is not required but after receiving an assuring nod from a friend who had accompanied me to his clinic, I thought to myself that he’d know better.

Soon I felt his hands sliding down my neck and towards my breasts. At first, I thought he had touched me by mistake. I moved away a little, enough to make him aware that I was uncomfortable. But he kept fondling my breasts and acted as if nothing were wrong.

I put his hand aside but he placed his hand over my chest yet again. I regretted having gone to him. I felt disgusted having found myself in a situation not knowing what to do – should I have abruptly left the examination couch or told him off? He called me for a follow-up check-up, one I never went to. But that was not the end of my problem. I had to see him every day and had to recall the traumatic ordeal because he taught me.

At the time, there was no public discourse on sexual harassment and the university had no anti-sexual harassment policy as such. Then, I found out I wasn’t the only he had molested.

This realisation motivated me to take the issue up with the dean of the department. That’s when I learnt another lesson; if you complain, the complaint becomes synonymous with your identity.

The dean warned me against becoming ‘the girl who was harassed’. He told me: "it’s your final year, there isn’t much time left anyway.”

Hardly surprisingly then that he was already aware of this teacher’s behaviour on campus. But when the dean said the man in question was the only ENT specialist at the university and would leave after the semester anyway. I was back to where I started.

The Islamabad lawyer who hopes all women will have courage to speak up

Even women working in the legal profession aren’t safe. A few years ago, at the age of 22, I entered the legal profession. Many prepared me for what was to come. I was told not to wear too much makeup, keep my hair tied back, keep my gaze stern and wear a dupatta always.

The rules are always set for women. I joined a legal firm of national repute and genuinely believed that my LLM degree and general privilege would shelter me from workplace harassment. But, I was wrong. Click to hear audio.

In a city as small as Islamabad and a legal fraternity even smaller, I, like, all fresh graduates, wanted to be known for my professionalism. That’s why, when I was first sent messages by a senior colleague telling me how I looked like a ‘gem’ and that I was beautiful, I kept them to myself.

The person sending these messages was the son of a high court judge. When a woman is working in a professional environment she has struggled to get to the position she has in the first place. Some have fought various arguments at home to be able to pursue a profession. But I guess parents are apprehensive of sending their daughters to work because of such men.

With time, the messages became more frequent; most of them arriving between 11pm and 3am, between 20 to 30 text messages almost every day, the contents of which were almost always personal and inappropriate. I never replied to his messages and would greet him the next day at work, pretending they had never happened.

One of the messages I received at 11.24pm (Oct 29, 2013) – [screenshots available with Dawn] — read: “I really don’t know should I or shouldn’t I say to u, but I couldn’t hold myself, I want u to stay in office. Try ur best to stay individually… I would really be great full if its kept in between. Take care.”

With my patience running thin, I mustered the courage to speak to my bosses. But when even the lawyers turn a blind eye to the law, where do you go? The firm had no anti-harassment policy or a procedure to pursue such cases. Instead, I was made to believe that this was a rite of passage and the messages would stop and I should concentrate on my work.

Soon afterwards, I left the law-firm because I could not work in an environment where I felt unsafe with a mature married man in his 30s, harassing me relentlessly. Just a week after I had quit, I received a message at 12.30am from the same person calling me a slut.

Despite having family and friends that will always support me, I'm still scared that this public abashment might lead to him saying even worse things about me. This is why I hope for a time when women will be able to go to courts, hospitals and offices without men commenting on their appearance or their clothes or believing they are fair game.

I hope for a time when women will have the courage – something I didn’t possess till a few years ago – not to brush instances of harassment under the carpet by considering them a ‘rite of passage’ or ignore them only because of fear of the power that such perpetrators might appear to wield. Silencing a woman is easy, but silencing harassment is not.

She still practices law in Islamabad.

The software programmer, 27, Karachi

He led this project where I was involved. He would pass comments about my body whenever I’d pass by. The constant pressure of feeling his eyes on me was distracting and stressful. He would wait for me to take the elevator to join me in close proximity. It was disgusting. Click to hear audio.

In the elevator, his eyes would be fixated on my body. I cover my head with a scarf and wear a shalwar kameez. I would greet everyone and eat alone at work. Despite keeping to myself and getting on with my work I was continually harassed.

My male colleagues waited for me to enter the room to snigger about me in the corner. Sometimes, they would whistle and hoot, then apologise later.

Surprisingly, the woman in human resources told me to stay quiet because he was a reputed harasser. She had been through worse herself she told me. But, despite being in HR she couldn’t do much as recruitment and employee relations were under project heads themselves.

When I finally confronted him, he was so calm and undeterred; asking if I could prove my accusation.

I asked the same woman in HR to support me but she didn’t because she needed her job. I discussed this on a Facebook group, and they all agreed I quit before something happened. And so, I quit. I failed.

The nurse at a private hospital, 28, Karachi

It wasn’t the first time I was harassed as a nurse. It’s so common in our profession — except that it’s not written as part of our job description. But he was the worst of all experiences, and I do hope he is reading this. Click to hear audio.

It started when my supervisor sent personal messages expressing his fondness for me and the desire to become friends. “Tum dosri nurses se bohat alag ho [You are very different from other staff nurses],” he’d say. Because I was not working during the same shift as him, he would stay back late at the hospital so he could catch me and make conversation.

He decided what timings I’d work so I wasn’t surprised when mine were changed mid month. He would often ask me to check his blood pressure (it was always normal) and constantly stare at me with a sleazy smile on his face. He would also ask if he could check mine but I’d decline.

Often, he would try to get uncomfortably close. It got worse when he would call me unnecessarily outside office hours and message me late at night. He’d tell me how he was thinking about the time we were “close” during the BP check and how he felt it was something “special”.

This made things difficult at home since I had coerced my parents to allow me to practice nursing. My mother thought I had led him on, blaming me for his misconduct. My parents advised me against reporting the issue to the human resources department, despite the hospital’s anti-harassment policy. They feared he would take revenge or spread rumours about me. I was not allowed to go out with my friends. I was miserable. I didn’t fear him, I feared my parents. The burden of harassment is tolerable, but the burden of being blamed for someone else’s misconduct is not. That’s why I quit.

A few months later, I heard he was promoted. As for me, I haven’t been able to work anywhere since.

The training officer at an NGO in Peshawar

I’m a Peshawar-based coordinator and training officer for a reputable non-profit organisation that manages around 15 schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas. I have been sexually harassed by the managing director in his office and several times during meetings and training sessions as well. Click to hear audio.

Not only would he comment on my clothes and hair but he would call me after office hours and needlessly keep adding to my workload.

When he harassed me I felt guilty believing maybe I invited his attention. But as I discovered, it wasn’t just me he harassed but also other women at the office – including interns and schoolteachers.

With other women he would directly ask them for sexual favours or to have sex with him in exchange for career progression. He would also take them out of the country under the guise of conferences, etc.

Teachers and other women coming to our office for training sessions would be asked to stay till late so he could make a move on them.

Many times women just had to run away because he would directly ask them for sexual favours. He would bring up the topic of sex in every conversation making the environment at work very uncomfortable. This one time he asked me about a tweet by Deepika Padukone [something specific she had tweeted] and using that as an excuse he started talking about her body and sexuality which I found very uncomfortable.

The software designer at a US-based firm, 20s, Islamabad

Earlier I worked for a tech firm in Islamabad and resigned wanting to pursue other options. Shortly after I left, women working at the same IT firm were fired because of a policy change that meant no women would be hired.

Most of the women who lost their jobs thought I was responsible when this policy change had nothing to do with me. Later on, while at another firm where one of these women was also working, most were told I was responsible for her previous experience. So the women at my new workplace started to ignore me. It became a hostile environment where I ate alone, worked alone which essentially gave my manager enough time and space to makes his moves. Click to hear audio.

When I went to the director to complain about his verbally abusive behaviour (the manager’s probation was extended to 10 months when the duration is generally 3 months), no real action was taken.

This man had been fired previously due to similar sexual harassment charges but was later rehired by the same firm.

There is no committee for reporting sexual harassment at this firm. He would call me at all odd times in the night so when I blocked his number he used that against me professionally.

He would hold a meeting without informing me for instance, claiming he tried calling me but couldn’t reach me. He also kept taking credit for my work or gave it to someone else.

I resigned once but they didn’t accept it. I wanted to leave on a good note but they kept making it so difficult.

When we moved buildings, my manager would sit next to me – he felt this gave him the right to touch my watch or rings, just to make physical contact.

He would make sure to pout when talking to me. I would work in the canteen just to avoid him. Every time I went to complain to the director, he would fob me off.

Then my manager’s behaviour kept getting worse; he would purposely hold 4-5 hour long meetings so I would skip lunch, not interact with other colleagues. After a while, human resources called me in to inform me that he had complained about me.

When I explained my case to the head of HR she told me it was harassment. After discussing it with my mother, a single parent, I decided not to pursue it and that’s what I told them the next day.

However, HR asked me to hand over all the evidence I had (screenshots and call logs). Once I did that, the tables turned on me. They started accusing me of bad behaviour, claiming that the manager wasn’t at fault. The firm’s director told me to patch up with the manager. Instead, I told my harasser off.

Four months went on and nothing changed, so I resigned, giving them a day’s notice. I packed up and handed over my things. And that was when the HR head and the director gave me a termination letter.

Eventually, they coerced me into signing a non-disclosure document. This meant I cannot talk about the company and the terms/reasons why I left. Later I heard that they had finally terminated my manager.

Even now, the company and the former manager I worked with keep calling me – prank calls where they pretend to pose as potential employers. Sometimes I just feel suicidal about this entire episode but then I remember I have some good friends and support.

The nurse at Civil Hospital, Quetta

I contend with regular harassment in the hospital. And it could be patients or their families [male relatives] or even doctors, mostly either staring at us [nurses]; trying to draw our attention by asking irrelevant questions or commenting inappropriately on our appearance and bodies. Click to hear audio.

Surprisingly, there is this disconcerting perception that female nurses are around to sexually serve doctors.

While receiving treatment for a back injury, a Section Officer [who also works in the same hospital] asked me in front of other male colleagues to ‘treat him’: [which was to] come, and give me a hug, he said.

At first I did not respond but later on told him I was working in the hospital to treat people. Taking offence to my reply, he tried to defend himself. Then, he angrily threatened to transfer me to rural Balochistan.

According to him, he had friends in the health department and that’s why he boasted that he could get me transferred easily.

I am a Christian Punjabi, married with two children, so I was scared. No one stood up to him. Feeling threatened and unprotected, even though I was not at fault, I apologised.

The following day, he arrogantly told other colleagues that I had apologised to him. I nodded my head compliantly because I felt helpless.

Even though we have a union, we suffer such abuse in silence. Nor can we complain about harassment due to fear of reprisals.

Student at a private university, 22, Karachi

It was an extra class and only a few students had showed up. Since I had been assisting the teacher to operate the computer, I was the last one left in the room. He asked me to stay to keep him ‘company’ because the man who would come to escort him downstairs was not there yet.

He suffered from a disability which meant he needed help. Though I was reluctant, I stayed. Initially, it was just small talk, but of a personal nature. He would casually inquire who came to pick me and how far I lived. I was sitting on a chair and he was standing behind the podium. “So, tell me about yourself … why do you have a low self-esteem?”

We had discussed self-esteem in one of our classes where I had confessed that being slightly over-weight I had less confidence in myself. He, then, asked me how much I weighed. “Why do you ask?”

He, then, told me that he found my personality ‘very charming’ with an ‘infectious energy’, and that being in the same room as me made him energetic. I thanked him — sensing a red flag.

“If I could see you, I’d tell you how beautiful you are. I am sure a lot of guys hit on you,” he went on to say. “Not really,’’ I responded not knowing what else to say. Then, there was a brief silence. He dropped the computer mouse during this time and I picked it up for him.

Then, he asked me if I was religious, because, he was not. “I am not sure, I’m somewhere in between beliefs,” I replied. He laughed and said aray iss baat pe tou humein haath milana chahiye (we should shake hands over this), lifting his hand up for a handshake.

Being a well respected teacher, I thought it wouldn’t matter if I shook his hand. His hand was in the air for a few seconds till I gave in. It was like he knew I’d go for it. But, it was not just a handshake for him. He held my hand firmly and would not let go — even after I asked him to let go at least four times.

All this happened while he had a smile on his face. “I really hope no one is seeing this,” he said, while lightly pulling me towards himself.

Thank God for my weight, I managed to pull my hand back. Given my aggressive reaction, he apologised for offending me. But I couldn’t reply. I wanted to say something, but I was chilled to the bone.

As if the handshake was not enough, he went on to say: “Oh I wish I could just really hug you goodbye.”

I told him he was making me uncomfortable. He apologised again but was interrupted when a man entered the class. I took the opportunity and hurried out of the classroom. I’ll be honest at first I was confused and not sure if I had been harassed. But there was one thing I was certain about — I was disgusted by the handshake. I kept washing my hands again and again.

Little did I know; the episode was not over. Later that night, I received an email from him. It was not an apology, but in fact – and to my disgust — it was nothing close to regret. In the email, he wrote about how the day was ‘unforgettable’ and that it was one of the most beautiful days of his life.

He simultaneously sent me a friend request on Facebook. It’s then when I knew, yes, that is harassment.

The teacher no longer works at the institute after the management took notice of the victim’s complaint. However, he has taught at another public university where students have complained of similar behaviour.

The NGO worker from Quetta

In 2014, while on a project associated with the Benazir Income Support programme, I started working with another partner organisation – the latter is focused on skill centres for women’s technical education countrywide. This is where I encountered him. He is the president of this organisation which he has been managing for 10 years in Quetta.

When he first met me he mentioned he had worked in this sector for a long while but hadn’t previously worked with me. Then, he would invite me to his office on a Sunday and ask me to hug him and shake his hands.

When I told him this was not suitable for a married woman to behave with a woman in this manner, he just laughed at me. He also has political affiliations with a mainstream party.

My husband is a feminist and he is a Pashtun man – which was well-known among work colleagues. So once, this man even offered a bribe to my husband who turned it down.

The NGO sector in Quetta employs many women whose stories of harassment are never heard because we can’t report them and we have no avenues to complain.

The marketing professional at a mall, 26, Karachi

A few men over the age of 40 would send me messages randomly even when I had not given them my number. They disclosed who they were but the fact that they thought they could message me outside of work when I had no work-related connection with them was wrong.

Then, a married man in human resources had a habit of cornering me, giving compliments, emailing me or calling me.

When he was leaving, he asked me out for lunch. I agreed assuming he was inviting everyone at work. He specified he had only invited me but I could bring a ‘friend’. This was just harassment as he knew he couldn't touch me or find me alone in a confined space outside the office.

He kept saying: “I want to know you more, the best girl at [the mall].” After his last day at work, he called me on my Whatsapp twice though I had never given him my number. I didn't respond and it stopped.

While attending business school, two teachers taking different classes messaged me regularly to say they found me beautiful; that I should meet them more often. One suggested I loosen up and take his meditation class.

Another colleague – essentially more of a stalker – would wait outside my class, stop me and ask me to give him English classes to prepare for a job interview in Qatar after which he'd be ‘eligible for marriage’.

After he did that thrice, I told him to stop following me because I knew what he was doing and I would complain to the principle. I never did.

The reporter, 24, Karachi

He would pass my desk and stare at me. He was a young man working in the IT department. He often tried to initiate conversation in the smoking area, asking me for a lighter or about the Panama case – anything to talk to me. I ignored him but one day I lost it when he stared at me persistently as he walked pass my desk. Click to hear audio.

Confronting him in the newsroom, I told him to behave himself. He argued back saying “nazar toh par jati hai” (my eyes are bound to look), to which I told him ‘meri nazar nahin parti is tarha ke logon par ’ (I don’t look at such people) and this is no excuse for such inappropriate behaviour.

My boss was witness to this exchange. He intervened and asked him to leave. Then, he asked me to email him so that he could forward the complaint to the harasser's boss.

Finally, the head of digital media asked me if I wanted him fired or an apology. I told him that I just wanted him to behave himself and apologise.

The apology never happened but since then he has always walked past me with his eyes lowered.

When an older colleague recently made a sorry attempt at joking about this episode, I told him firmly that it was not something to be joked about. He didn't respond further.

The school teacher, Islamabad

I had a migraine while at work at the school and so I went to the doctor on campus to see if he had any medicine. When he said he needed to conduct a check-up, I was confused. What kind of check-up is needed if I had a migraine. Besides, he had no equipment.

He then proceeded to give me the weirdest head massage, so thorough that even my husband has not touched my head like that.

It was strange because I was put in such a situation where I felt I could not stop what he was doing.

The journalist, Lahore

A journalist S* whose name remains anonymous says that at various times she was touched or groped at the press club, or flirted with, and in so many words told that she was the object of someone’s (the harasser’s) affection. ‘Romantic’ messages were sent to her; sometimes they bordered on sexual. At other times, unknown text messages would be sent to her speaking about her body openly.

I wouldn’t be surprised if an abused person quits their job in self-defence. An abused person has to protect themselves because the social or collective responsibility is never acknowledged, such is the culture and atmosphere. It’s quite regrettable.

*Identities of the women sharing their stories have been kept confidential.

As told to Tooba Masood, Ramsha Jahangir, Sanam Zeb, Xari Jalil, Akbar Notekzai, Razeshta Sethna.

*Audio clips produced by Hussain Afzal, Kamran Nafees, Tooba Masood

*Illustrations by Marium Ali