Published May 6, 2018
Illustration by Soonhal Khan
Illustration by Soonhal Khan

She went public about being sexually harassed, he categorically denied it; other women spoke up and said they had similar experiences. She complained to the management and disclosed it on Twitter; he sent her a defamation notice. People took sides. Commentators said she did this for fame and personal gain, that all women in the industry are cheap and easy, doubted her version, commented on her clothing and behaviour at private gatherings, and asked why she continued to stay in a toxic environment.

The woman referred to here is television journalist Tanzeela Mazhar, who was joined by journalist and anchor Yashfeen Jamal in pursuing a case of sexual harassment against PTV’s then director of current affairs, Agha Masood Shorish. These women braved professional losses and social censure, courageously went through the formal complaints process, and won. In November last year, Shorish was fired on charges of sexual harassment.

While most women do not report sexual harassment, for ones that do, the immediate response and aftermath follow a predictable template, as evident in the recent Meesha Shafi-Ali Zafar standoff. However, as awareness in the wake of recent laws and platforms for interactions increase, there are slow but evident changes in social reactions.

A spate of allegations of sexual harassment have been highlighted recently, especially on social media. Are the numbers actually piling up? And if so, why?


Going by social media, it seems there is an explosion of sexual harassment cases, of women finding the strength to break the silence. A wider lens, though, would show that social media has been slow to catch on. Women have been fighting both inner demons and external opponents to speak out for over a decade now.

Hockey player Syeda Sadia Nawazish was expelled from the national team after she filed sexual harassment charges against head coach Saeed Khan. Earlier this year, she approached the Lahore High Court to demand that a woman be appointed to the Punjab government’s apex body dealing with sexual harassment. She asserts that the provincial ombudsperson’s office did not conduct a formal inquiry and pressurised her to withdraw her case. She is not just fighting her case itself but fighting to make the formal system more responsive to women.

Rewind to eight years ago. On March 9, 2010, over a hundred professional women working in the police, in airlines, private corporations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), doctors, health workers, bankers, teachers, all cheered from the upper galleries of the National Assembly as President Asif Zardari signed into effect the law on Sexual Harassment at the Workplace. The law was steered through a 10-year gestation by Fouzia Saeed, the first woman to publicly complain and contest a case of sexual harassment in Pakistan. One of the first women to file a formal complaint under the law was PIA pilot Captain Rifat Haye.

Rewind another eight years from then. It was in 1998, when I wrote (from what I know) the first report on sexual harassment at work in Pakistan for the legal aid organisation Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Aid (LHRLA). I spent half the interview time explaining to women what the concept meant.

The change is palpable.

In an earlier incarnation of the law, the policy had to be called the ‘Code of Conduct for Gender Justice.’ The law itself, insisted the then-PML-Q government, could be ‘Law against Gender Aggravation’, because the phrase ‘sexual harassment’ could not be used. Now, as per the law, guidelines against sexual harassment have to be prominently displayed in public spaces in government offices.

As an illustration, look at the office of the Sindh Ombudsperson on Sexual Harassment at the Workplace. It was instituted in 2012 and only one case was registered that year. The next year, the number rose to 25, to 38 new cases the year after that and in 2016, there were 134 cases filed. In six years, that’s an increase of a whopping 197 percent. The most number of complaints were filed in Hyderabad, followed by Karachi, Khairpur and Naushehro Feroze.

The rise in the number of cases being brought on the public radar was made possible by the 2010 law. But it is no coincidence that women have started speaking out on abusive work environments at the same time that they have started claiming their right to public space, whether it is riding bikes or sitting at dhabas, and the same time that ‘khaana khud garam karlo’ [heat up your own food, the playful protest sign which drew the ire of some men] becomes an issue. It’s the economics.

More women are now working outside the house than ever before, and with the preconditions for women’s work increasingly in place, the number is set to continually rise. See the data pointing to seismic socioeconomic changes:

The mean age of marriage for women has risen from 16 years in 1961 to 22.8 in 2007. Since 1988, fertility has almost halved and teen fertility decreased from 20 percent to eight percent. Later marriage and fewer children are the prerequisite to women joining the workforce.

As poverty has declined in Pakistan — by 25 percentage points between 2002 and 2014 according to the World Bank — women are less occupied with dealing with household survival needs such as collecting water, subsistence farming or domestic chores.

Pakistan’s female literacy has also seen a slow rise, reaching 49 percent in 2015, but is considerably higher for women in the 15-25 age bracket, at 66 percent. Between 2004 and 2014, according to economist S. Akbar Zaidi, there has been a 432 percent increase in girls’ enrolment at universities. Mobility has also increased — women who can visit markets alone rose by 12 percent in the past five years — now at 37 percent.

All these statistics are reflected in the changes in the labour force profile. Female labour force participation increased from 16 percent in 2001 to 24 percent in 2012, rising eight percent in a decade, as female unemployment went down from 16.5 percent to nine percent. While women being a quarter of the workforce is still substantially below regional averages, the rate at which it is changing is significant, as is the fact that the increase is not only in agricultural work — the traditional mainstay of women — but also in the formal economy and in the services industries.

How do these figures connect to sexual harassment?

If almost a quarter of the workforce — one in every four employees — is now women, it would mean that working women are no longer an aberration. The earlier reflex reaction at sexual harassment was questioning why women were working outside the home at all, or telling women to quit their jobs and sit at home. That is no longer viable.

The primary reason why women did not openly complain about harassment was that they wanted to or needed to continue working. Women’s presence at the workplace is now generally not challenged, even if their roles, responsibilities and authority continue to be.

There is also strength in numbers and women are not as isolated as they previously were. The dynamics between being the only woman in a workplace and being one out of many is significantly different. Additionally, economic independence and the ability to contribute towards household expenses significantly changes women’s position inside domestic power hierarchies, which in turn impacts the kind of familial support networks available to contest harassment.

It also means employers will have to deal with women differently now. While lobbying for the 2010 law to be passed, the Alliance Against Sexual Harassment (AASHA) made a voluntary code of conduct on sexual harassment for organisations to adopt. Interestingly, the private sector came on board before even women’s rights NGOs did, with over a thousand companies adopting and instituting it before the law was even passed.

Only those in a position of privilege will ask questions such as why didn’t she report it when it happened,” argues Uzma Noorani. “[Those who cast aspersions] have not experienced the pervading confusion, vulnerability and insecurity when such acts happen.”

In the statement of reasons in amending the law on sexual harassment in public places, the note by then Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani states: “This amendment will not only make the public and work environment safer for women but … more and more women will get the courage to enter the job market.” As women’s employment becomes economically desirable and the preconditions are in place, women will increasingly influence the terms of engagement as these sexual harassment cases show.


But women aren’t cresting any waves yet.

Five years ago, a young woman committed suicide because her accusation of sexual harassment was not taken seriously. Haleema Rafique, a cricketer who played with the Multan Cricket Club — along with three other players — accused the chairman of the club of sexual harassment. He filed a suit of 20 million rupees against the girls after the Pakistan Cricket Board inquiry committee did not find evidence to support the accusation. Her family says she could not cope with the social censure and with her trauma being rubbished by the authorities.

Even today, it is still difficult for women to report cases because of the power hierarchies involved. Rarely are there instances of junior staffers sexually harassing line managers or senior executives. By going public, women risk taunts, jeers, workplace ostracism, penalties and professional losses, social censure and family opprobrium. All this in addition to the emotional toll such acts take on women. The usual pattern in discrediting women’s testimonies is character assassination, of focusing on past behaviour, dress, relationships and so on.

Norm setting is a universal function of the privileged and establishing what is acceptable is a function of power. By allowing women to define what is normal and acceptable and what is not, laws on sexual harassment subvert gendered power relations and hence trigger severe public reaction.

The possibility that an accusation could be fabricated prompts a unique panic. In Pakistan’s context, where fake assault, theft, kidnapping and even murder cases are filed by the dozens everyday (the institutionalised practice of ‘intiqami karwai’ or acts of vengeance), the possibility of the misuse of no other law leads to calls against the law itself.

Despite symbolic power, the laws have constrained outreach. The sexual harassment at workplace law only extends to formal workplaces and does not cover the informal economy where the bulk of women still work, such as in the agriculture sector. The law regarding harassment at public places, which is not well known by women or well understood even by the police, is tougher to prosecute, and does not have many prominent success stories yet.


Sexual harassment is notoriously hard to prove. It can easily degenerate into ‘he said/she said’ statements when accusations are flung around and it is one person’s word against another. But there are ways around it.

With workplace harassment, the law itself is expansive enough to allow a broad-range interpretation, and includes verbal harassment, and no material evidence is necessary to lodge a complaint.

Women have found innovative ways of providing proof even years after the incident — such as by writing down details when such an act occurs, dating it and sending it to one’s self through courier or registered mail and leaving it sealed till they decide to formally complain. The authorities concerned can then open the sealed, courier-dated document to ensure the evidence was not fabricated overnight.

There have been many sexual harassment complaints in which there is no proof or circumstantial evidence, but trained investigators have been able to hold harassers guilty by establishing patterns. Despite harassers bringing in people to vouch for their character, investigators speak to others associated with either the victim or harasser one-on-one in confidentiality without involving police or the courts and unearth corroborating factors.

“In 90 percent of cases, harassers target more than one person and it’s not a stand-alone act. We know how to get to that,” says Maliha Sayed, executive director of Mehrgarh, an institution specialising in this and which has dealt with almost 4,000 cases of sexual harassment.

But to know these mechanisms, women experiencing harassment have to reach out to others, to look up the law and to go through the systems that have been put in place.

It is here that things become touchy.

This issue exploded in India last year. A senior law student crowdsourced and published a list of over 60 renowned Indian male academics who, she said, were sexual harassers based on what others had told her privately.

Some seasoned Indian feminists, who have been political vanguards and fought for women’s rights over decades, wrote a cautionary letter about unsubstantiated, anonymous accusations and underlined the need for due process so as not to delegitimise the struggle against sexual harassment. It divided the women’s movement into what some referred to as a ‘feminist civil war.’

Older feminists were accused by young feminists of protecting male academics belonging to their own class, of being upper-caste apologists, of upholding a system that had failed women. Younger feminists promoted unconventional and radical methods of naming and shaming sexual predators because, they argued, that the due process didn’t work for them. In the generational divide, the older feminists were dismayed that all their work and struggles were summarily dismissed and that the principle of fairness was being overridden.

The same dynamic also played out in Canada where committed feminists such as writer Margaret Atwood expressed concerns over the #MeToo movement and the eclipsing of due process in a case of a Canadian academic. She faced the same anger and rejection and was dismissed as redundant by younger women. Atwood mused over the choices in an opinion piece in The Globe and Mail: “Fix the system, bypass it, or burn it down?” she asks.

The same dilemma has emerged in Pakistan.

Those who have been part of the women’s movement for decades and have fought to institutionalise women’s rights emphasise the need to engage with the system, however flawed it may be, and work to fix it and not bypass it. For instance, they insist women facing sexual harassment at work must report it formally and follow up with case investigation and not accuse someone on social media and stop there.

Fouzia Saeed was the driving force behind the sexual harassment law and set up AASHA. Anis Haroon was the chair of the National Commission on Status of Women when the law was passed and currently is on the National Commission for Human Rights and Women’s Action Forum (WAF). Uzma Noorani is with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and runs Panah, a shelter for women and is part of Sindh’s provincial Sexual Harassment Implementation Watch Committee. All three believe the existing law and its mechanisms must be used and just accusing someone without formally complaining trivialises the process. Pointing to the success stories where women managed to get justice, they iterate the need for due process.

“Breaking the silence is critical when there are no systems in place. But now we have legal protocols, and they get undermined with media trials,” says Fouzia Saeed, referring to the accusations MPA Ayesha Gulalai made against Imran Khan.

Anis Haroon illustrates with the recent case from the University of Karachi, where the victim did not have screenshots or other forms of proof but a pattern of behaviour was established and the offending professor was prohibited from entering the university ever again. In National College of Arts (NCA), Rawalpindi, female faculty members fought a case against the director of the campus and, in accordance with the recommendation of the inquiry committee on sexual harassment, NCA announced that he had been “compulsorily retired.”

“Speaking out is important but you should follow through,” suggests Sayed. “Women have to decide what their goal is. There are now forums for resolving things. If those are not used, then it’s just accusations, statements and controversy. The process should not be unjust to anybody. At least try using the mechanisms first.”


All women’s rights activists at the same time point to the need of believing the victim.

“It’s a rubbish argument that women make such claims for publicity,” says Haroon. “Here, it only offers notoriety, abuse and wrecked nerves. No woman will make such claims lightly. We believe them. If they approach us, we always help them.”

Those who professionally investigate sexual harassment cases say it is unhelpful to look at allegations as true or false. Since an allegation is a statement of belief that some wrong has occurred, they suggest the assessment should judge whether the charge is substantiated or not, and not be framed as whether it is true or not.

In most cases, globally and not just in Pakistan, women generally file complaints after some time has passed after the incident and they can gather the courage, secure themselves in a support network or are no longer in a position subservient to the abuser.

“Only those in a position of privilege will ask questions such as why didn’t she report it when it happened,” argues Noorani. “[Those who cast aspersions] have not experienced the pervading confusion, vulnerability and insecurity when such acts happen. The law has no statute of limitations. Women can report no matter how much time has lapsed.”

One significant influence on public disclosure is if women realise what is happening to them is a pattern; that they are not alone in experiencing this. It could be the knowledge that the abuser is a serial harasser. Or it could be impersonal — the understanding that what they are going through is a phenomenon across society or even across countries and cultures. Having instant access to such information and to connect with others has become pivotal.


Accessible media has been a game changer for women. The instantaneous mass outreach of social media enables trends to become global, such as #MeToo and #TimesUp. Activists had earlier tried to catalyse such moments around rights-based movements — for instance, the World Social Forums in the early 2000s — but without social media platforms, they were unsustainable. The Aurat March is another example of the cascade effect, as women’s marches were held across the United States for the past two years.

Social media platforms have created and democratised space for women.

Often women experiencing sexual harassment experience anger, confusion and self-doubt. The act of speaking out breaks through the isolation women experience and as others share their experiences, it allows patterns to emerge through a cascade effect.

Illustration by Soonhal Khan
Illustration by Soonhal Khan

While condemnation of women who speak out is routine, social media has created channels for people to express solidarity. In the recent cases where women have accused men on Twitter, many women have expressed support and admiration and said the simple words that women often do not get to hear: “I believe you.” Many women on social media were unflinching in their support for victims and pointed out the hypocrisy and misogyny of gender and cultural hierarchies. In a departure from the norm, many men have also expressed support to women who speak out, have condemned harassers and challenged other men who defend them.

In one case, it had an instant effect. Patari stated that its CEO accused of harassment would be stepping down, expressed complete support for victims of harassment and announced a detailed investigation, and through a statement by investors, iterated its commitment to positive and progressive workplace values. It was a best-case scenario.

Conversely, the organisation The Digital Factory (TDF) in a statement denied all charges against its chief — also accused of harassment and lewd behaviour — and said that the accusations are based on personal grudges to defame the organisation.

This points to the shape-shifter the media can be.

There has simultaneously been an outpouring of scorn and outright abuse against Shafi. When known activist and social analyst Marvi Sirmed observed that the broadcast media persons condemning Shafi were also known for harassment, she also faced a barrage of abuse, much of it also amounting to sexual harassment. Social media provides the anonymity and amplification that allows for diatribes and taunts against the victims. The Federal Investigation Agency and private organisations such as Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) and Bolo Bhi are working to address online harassment as a phenomenon. DRF has set up a cyber harassment helpline, through which 1,500 cases were registered in a single year.

“Nothing works,” fretted a senior activist friend. “We thought better laws would fix things, then we thought increased education would, then that women becoming financially independent would, then women in leadership positions would.”

She goes quiet for a moment.

“I understand structures and patriarchy and all that, but so much could be eased if these boys just had better manners.”

The writer is a researcher and consultant in the social sector. She tweets @Nazish_Brohi


The strength of the workplace law is that it has an inbuilt implementation system. It mandates all organisations to have inquiry committees to deal with complaints and provincial and a federal ombudsperson’s office that can either be approached directly by women, or be used to challenge decisions of the committees. The ombudsperson’s decision can be appealed before the governor, whose decision will be final. The courts are not involved. No material evidence is required to approach the ombudsperson and verbal testimonies are given weightage.

If organisations have not made standing inquiry committees, that complaint can be taken to the ombudsperson’s office too. Women who are not employees but have been harassed in a work-related environment, for instance freelancers, can directly appeal to the ombudsperson’s office.

The other law is that which addresses sexual harassment in public places and covers all spaces outside the workplace, including private gatherings. This is the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) 509. In addition to physical sexual advances, it includes words, sounds, gestures and exhibiting of objects of sexual nature that women find offensive. It is punishable by three years in prison or fines or both. These cases, heard before first class magistrates, involve the courts, are bailable and require warrants for arrest.

All provinces are meant to have sexual harassment implementation watch committees. Though Balochistan and Khyber Pukhtunkhwa have not instituted these as yet, the ones in Sindh and Punjab are in place and have dealt with numerous cases already. The committees comprise bureaucrats but also rights activists and civil society members. While the appointment of Krishna Kumari as a senator was celebrated by many for the election of a Hindu Dalit from Tharparkar, many people may not know of her expertise on sexual harassment code compliance and that she ran Sindh’s provincial centre of Alliance Against Sexual Harassment (AASHA) for years. Many other women politicians have also been active in anti-harassment efforts including Shahnaz Wazir Ali, Sherry Rehman, Shazia Marri and Attiya Inayatullah.

There are many organisations that assist women attempting to deal with sexual harassment. These include Mehrgarh, Interactive Resource Center (IRC), Women in Struggle for Empowerment (Wise), Tehrik-i-Niswan and Women’s Action Forum (WAF), among others.— N.B.

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 6th, 2018



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