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‘There is a sense of shame attached to reporting harassment’

August 04, 2018

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SP Shahla Qureshi speaks at IBA 
on Friday evening.—Fahim Siddiqi /White Star
SP Shahla Qureshi speaks at IBA on Friday evening.—Fahim Siddiqi /White Star

KARACHI: Harassment against women has become very rampant in society and despite this discussions about it are usually done behind closed doors, if at all. There is a taboo regarding tackling such an issue publicly even though it plagues all women, young and old. At the IBA on Friday, I Am Karachi invited speakers to underscore the importance of creating safe spaces for women and discussed ways on how to eliminate harassment from society.

Shahla Qureshi, the first woman SP of Karachi, was present and spoke about the double standards and discrimination Pakistanis practised when it comes to gender. There is a sense of shame attached to reporting harassment which is taught to young girls and continues for most of their lives.

She also criticised former governments for not allowing women to work in certain areas, reserving them exclusively for men. This, she said, was a disgusting abuse of power. “However, things have changed over the course of the last few years.”

Speakers discuss women’s struggles in society against harassment

When harassment is reported, we usually make those responsible for meting out justice who are also the perpetrators of injustice and harass women regularly. “If a person cannot give justice then such people should not be allowed to be part of committees that aim to protect against harassment,” she said.

One important thing is “to make sure that all organisations set up committees that protect the rights of men and women and these committees must put down rules and regulations clearly for all to follow.”

Women, including young students, are mostly victimised on public transport which is a dilemma of society and our society needs to be trained about how not to take liberties with others.

“Things are particularly alarming in rural areas. I visited prisons and shelter homes in Larkana and met a young girl who did not know anything about love marriage or honour killing, yet had been attacked by her own family on such accusations and was physically tortured and harmed.” Women, she summed up, have to face a lot of challenges, which is why society needs to empower them and help find a solution to the problem of harassment.

Shahbaz Islam, head of human resource and corporate communication at Sui Southern Gas Company, explained that sexual harassment is very closely tied to power. “According to Michael Crichton, harassment is about power — the undue exercise of power by a superior over a subordinate.”

Victims as a result do not report harassment most of the time, he explained, out of fear of losing opportunities in the workspace and being labelled. The effects can be so overwhelming that it deters women from reporting such incidents.

Some behaviour changes are required to combat harassment, he said. “Communication is the key to tackling such problems.”

Know the limits

Television artist Hina Khwaja Bayat spoke about the limits people must be aware of when praising somebody or showing their admiration. “There is a very thin line between admiring somebody and harassing that person. In your mind you may just be doing what is widely shown on television and movies, but the one on the receiving end of your overtures may be feeling very uncomfortable. And that feeling must be respected and acknowledged.”

What appears appealing on television and movies is not always so in reality, she added.

Young girls must also be educated and made aware from a young age about the dangers of being touched inappropriately. “I was very blessed as a child as my mother made it very clear to me that nobody has the right to touch me against my will, and if such an event did happen, it must immediately be reported.”

The purpose, she explained, is to empower children to report harassment from a young age so they do not live in a climate of shame and silence and embolden their perpetrators.

Speakers were of the opinion that such programmes were necessary to allow people to communicate and discuss their problems. Then only would the country become a more tolerant, accepting and safe place for all.

Published in Dawn, August 4th, 2018