SEXUAL harassment is big in the news these days, with the high-profile case of Ali Zafar, accused by Meesha Shafi of harassment, going as far as the Supreme Court. Karachi University also had to respond to allegations that two faculty members have been harassing students with inappropriate texts and WhatsApp messages. Sexual harassment has now become part of the national conversation in Pakistan, in line with the global #MeToo movement, which has seen many powerful men forced to answer for their abuse of that power.
It’s the start of a sea change: Pakistan’s women have found the courage to speak up instead of suffering in silence when they are being harassed in the workplace or in their schools and universities. However, when victims come forth, everything about the victim is still up for discussion — and her motivations are considered suspect if some period of time has elapsed between the event and her breaking her silence. But these shibboleths can change, as evinced by a recent television interview of Meesha Shafi in which Geo TV anchor Shahzeb Khanzada refreshingly gave space to Shafi to speak and respond to many of the rumors and falsehoods circulating about her.
During the interview, Khanzada was respectful of Shafi’s emotional safety, frequently asking her if she was all right with answering certain questions, and emphasising again and again that how long a victim takes to bring up charges is the victim’s decision alone, whether that is weeks, months or even years after the event. Having these conversations on national television, in Urdu, is a vital shift in how we speak about sexual harassment in our country. Khanzada is to be commended for how he is being a true ally to women and their causes, and also how he is educating the public about sexual harassment.
Statistics show that at least two million people suffer from mental health issues in Karachi. The number of people suffering from depression has risen from 2pc to 20pc, and women make up roughly 55pc of those afflicted. Endogenous biochemistry as well as job stress, money matters and family issues are usually pinpointed as causes of anxiety and depression. But unnamed as a precipitator of mental illness in women is sexual harassment and sexual violence, which account for a high number of cases of mental health issues throughout the nation, and the rest of the world.
Unnamed as a precipitator of mental illness is sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment has clearly-proven negative effects on women’s mental and physical health, whether subtle or overt, whether a woman is harassed by a superior, a colleague or even a subordinate. Numerous studies have shown that sexual harassment at the workplace causes anxiety and depression, high blood pressure, loss of sleep, and many other mental disorders and issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, self-harm, or turning to drugs and alcohol to cope with the trauma.
Let’s not forget that a workplace isn’t just an office or a music studio. For the thousands of women who work in agricultural labour, in factories, or even in homes as domestic helpers, their workplaces are also unsafe because of sexual harassment. Many, unable to confide in a friend or bring a complaint to their bosses, become depressed. Some become so anxious or depressed, they cannot function. Their grades fail, they underperform, they start to skip school or work. Eventually, they leave work or school for good. Imagine the thousands of hours of lost productivity and a traumatised female labour force and you begin to realise the cost of sexual harassment — not just to the individual, but to the entire country. Yet all this remains undiscussed and unreported because of the shame factor.
In Pakistan, girls and women who are harassed don’t just become mentally ill overnight. First is a long period of processing the trauma, where the victim questions herself, internalises a great deal of guilt, and must face the censure of society if she eventually comes out with what happened to her. The more subtle and nuanced the harassment, the more a woman will gaslight herself, says a mental health professional, Jannat, working with the Digital Rights Foundation. Even victims believe that harassment doesn’t happen to good girls; if it does, she must have done something to bring it upon herself.
Our society is still unaware of what sexual harassment is and how it manifests in our country. But just as time is up for sexual harassers, it’s time we let go of our outdated, sexist way of turning sexual harassment victims into criminals. It’s unacceptable to cause double mental and psychological trauma for Pakistan’s girls and women. Complaints of sexual harassment must be brought up, addressed, and resolved fairly and justly, but we also must support the victims. When we do so, we place power back in the hands of the powerless, which is the best safeguard of a victim’s mental and emotional health.
The writer is the author of Before She Sleeps.
Published in Dawn, May 12th, 2019