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Women and sexual harassment at the workplace

Published Sep 18, 2017 03:38am

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Photo courtesy: Dawn.com
Photo courtesy: Dawn.com

"Sorry!” smirked Samina’s boss as he brushed against her for the fifth time that day. Disgusted and seething with indignation, yet unable to protest because of the management’s trust in its senior employees, Samina returned to her seat. This daily humiliation and frustration kept her constantly on the lookout for another job, but she’d had little luck so far. And while she had considered lodging a complaint with her current employers, the potential repercussions kept her silent.

With her husband’s job perpetually in danger and two children to look after, she could not afford to lose her job. Given that sex – and anything related to the subject – is taboo in Pakistan, it comes as no surprise that sexual harassment is such a hush-hush affair. Yet this issue is not particular to this country, and neither is it limited to any social or professional demographic.

As increasing numbers of women enter the workforce across the world, various cases of sexual harassment have come to light in the past decade or so. On August 12,1999, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) sacked a senior manager after 11 women filed complaints of sexual harassment. In 1996, Asma Siddiqi, who worked at Pakistan’s largest pharmaceutical company,accused her supervisor of harassment. However, a subsequent inquiry held by the company judged her claims unfounded.

On March 20, Umme Salma registered an FIR accusing Swiss embassy official Ashir Francis of sexual harassment, tampering with her passport and registering a false case with the Federal Investigation Authority(FIA). The Swiss embassy in Pakistan and the FIA found the allegations to be true and are currently investigating the scandal. More recently, on June 21, Sindh Assembly legislator Shazia Marri was sent an ‘indecent’ note by a fellow ‘graduate’ minority legislator Ishwar Lal who was subsequently suspended by the speaker.

In developed and the developing countries such as India and the Philippines, sexual harassment is legally defined as any action, conduct or behaviour – verbal, physical or visual – that is sexual in nature and unwelcome to the receiver. This includes – but is not limited to – sexual jokes, innuendos, requests or pressure for dates and sexual favours.

Included in the definition of sexual harassment are touching, cornering, suggestive letters,calls, looks and gestures. Commonly, however, sexual harassment is confused with gender discrimination. The latter is a case where an employer gives preference to one gender in appointing, employing, promoting or awarding professional benefits. Other forms of gender discrimination are where, on the basis of gender, an employee is excluded from group tasks such as meetings, where the individual’s workload is inconsistent with one’s caliber or where the employer uses bullying tactics against an employee of the gender discriminated against.

In the cases cited earlier, the victimised women took the risk of speaking up. The majority, however, such as Samina, suffer these unwelcome and unpleasant advances in silence because of their circumstances. As Anees Haroon of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Aurat Foundation explains, “There is a culture of silence in Pakistan because whenever a victim speaks out, people question her intentions. A victim is first sexually and then socially harassed, which is even more humiliating.”

What’s more, if a victim does voice her concerns, the objectionable remarks are too often dismissed as ‘male talk’ and the woman is accused of being too ‘sensitive’. In some cases, instances of sexual harassment are either condoned or denied by a management that fears for the reputation of the organisation.

Women who have the courage to object to sexual harassment often find themselves in a no-win situation, where they are stigmatised as ‘troublemakers’ not only by their male colleagues but surprisingly enough, by female colleagues as well.

When Samina, for example, discussed her experience with her female colleagues, she was told that she was imagining things. Since then, their attitude towards Samina has changed. “They have become indifferent and avoid me,” she muses. “I think they fear that I’ll get them into trouble.”

Marri has also suffered similar victimisation as a result of her refusal to tolerate sexual harassment. She says that politicians formerly associated with the party are accusing her of “spoiling the party environment,” and that her name is now freely – and unjustly – being associated with different men. “It’s a full-fledged character assassination,” she comments. “I’m against the mindset, not Ishwar Lal. What’s the difference between an MPA and an eve-teaser?”

In case of assault, sections 10, 11, 16 and 18 of the Hudood Ordinance are also applicable. However, he warns that the victim may have to suffer mudslinging

Marri maintains that in fact, Lal had been harassing her for the past two years and that she complained about him twice, but to no avail. Lal’s act is not an isolated case in the legislature. As Marri adds, “Last year, a member who wasn’t allotted a seat frequently sat behind the seats reserved for women and made unacceptable comments. We complained and he was warned but no further action was taken.”

“Girls often put up with sexual harassment because they fear compromising themselves,” states psychologist Dr Haroon. “The victim fears for her own reputation and that of her family. Often, pressing circumstances force her to continue working in such an environment. What’s more, even the family may not offer the victim support: she may be told that this was bound to happen and that she ought to have stayed at home.”

Yet as another psychologist Dr Ali Wasif comments, it is not just women who are the victims of sexual harassment. “Men, particularly the junior staff,are often similarly harassed,” he says. “And then, there are areas where our society is out of sync with reality: male transgressions are tolerated with a wink while women grow up on a diet of Khawateen digests.”

According to Dr Wasif, 60 per cent of the young people who visit his clinic suffer psycho sexual problems. “Sex is taboo and as a result, there is a build-up of sexual frustration that is expressed as either anxiety or aggression, the latter being more common. A young woman can easily be intimidated and so it is easy to harass her.”

In matters such as these, the management must play a pivotal role. Zia Awan of the Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Aid believes that “every organisation should have a conflict resolution committee, constituted of people who are not the immediate-boss and whom a victim can comfortably and easily approach.”

The issue of sexual harassment is one that no company or supervisor can prudently ignore. Some multinational companies, including British Petroleum Pakistan, Shell, Unilever Pakistan and a few local organisations such as Pakistan State Oil Company have well defined harassment policies. Usually, at the time of appointment, the applicant is given a clearly worded text describing the code of conduct, the organisation’s discrimination and harassment policy and the protocol to be followed in case of a problem.

As Shell’s Human Resources (HR)Manager Leon Menezes, stresses,“Such behaviour ought not occur. If it does, there must be a remedy. No one should be intimidated.” However, Menezes points out that the ability to accuse a colleague of inappropriate behaviour can “become a double-edged sword.Anyone can claim to be a victim in order to victimise a colleague.”

At Shell, therefore, a neutral board –the ethics committee – deals with such problems.Similarly, HR Manager Geo Television Network Zulfikar Ali explains that his organisation has a zero-tolerance approach towards sexual harassment or intimidation.“We have removed five or six people, from coordinators to departmental heads, because of this complaint,” he says. Last year we initiated a poster campaign against sexual harassment within the office and are relaunching it this month.The situation has improved in the past year and a half.”

While large companies may have well defined harassment and conduct policies, the most vulnerable are often those that are the least protected. Waitresses, air hostesses,nurses and junior level staff are often victimised. Harassment policies are an alien concept in workplaces such as hospitals, retail outlets and eateries. All too often, the women working there have not even signed a contract. As Josephine Peter, a nurse at a Karachi hospital says, “A girl is harassed in her student life and then in her professional life. You can either be uptight about it or laugh it off. Either way, there is a lot at stake.”

According to another nurse who requested anonymity, a junior nurse at a government hospital in Karachi was transferred to Islamabad when she complained about sexual harassment. She believes that in connivance with the shift supervisor, doctors were assigning young women to the night shift, who were then forced into providing sexual favours.

Pakistan is also a signatory to the UN Declaration on Violence against Women, where Article 2 specifically mentions sexual harassment and intimidation at workplace.

Indeed, there are some forms of employment where women are likely to face sexual harassment. Fasiha, for example, has worked in various clothing stores and eateries for five years and argues that some customers feel that “since we are paying, we can buy anything.” At the pizza outlet where she once worked, she was on the night shift and “customers there were often drunk. One Arab man behaved so badly that I was reduced to tears."

There is, however, the flip side of the coin. Some women are inclined towards tolerating minor levels of sexual harassment, since they believe that it will help their professional progress. Fasiha, for example, says that “I was once passed up for promotion since my manager thought I was too stiff.” This leaves many women in the unenviable position of either submitting to harassment or losing job benefits.

So what can one do? Dr Haroon stresses upon the need to maintain a professional distance and demeanour so that no one is given the opportunity to take liberties. Similarly, Uroosa Sahar of the Working Women’s Support Centre believes that such behaviour must be nipped in the bud. On the other hand, as Anees Haroon admits, “the burden of proof lies with the victim. If the harassment is verbal, which is often the case, then it cannot be proved and the man gets away with it.

”Victims of sexual harassment often suffer deep psychological effects. According to Dr Wasif, “A victim may suffer from depression, anxiety or post-trauma distress. There can be drug dependence and a general withdrawal from social life. Furthermore, a tense, distrustful and hostile work environment is not beneficial to the organisation itself.”

There are legal options available to those who can afford them. According to lawyer Mohammad Nawaz Chaudhry, sexual harassment can be tried under section 509 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC),which relates to any word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman. He adds that the harasser can be further tried under section 506 for disgrace and threats, while accusations of criminal assault are tried under section 452.

In case of assault, sections 10, 11, 16 and 18 of the Hudood Ordinance are also applicable. However, he warns that the victim may have to suffer mudslinging. Moreover, advocate Noor Naz Agha of the Pakistan Women Lawyer’s Association says that“under Section 18 of the Hudood Ordinance, any-one who attempts to harass a woman can be punished with a sentence that is one half that of an attempt to commit rape. This includes 30 lashes.”Further laws that may be invoked are sections 354,354-A and 355 of the PPC that relate to assault or criminal force with the intent to outrage a woman's modesty, commit assault or use criminal force against a woman with the intent to dishonour her.

The minimum sentence is one month and the maximum is two years’ imprisonment with a fine that depends on the person's status. Section 355, however, is punishable by life imprisonment.The drawback is that none of these laws cover harassment through text messages, phone calls or the internet. They also place a huge burden on the victims to prove their case. This, despite the fact that Pakistan is a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women [CEDAW]. Article 19 of this convention binds governments to protect women from sexual harassment.

Pakistan is also a signatory to the UN Declaration on Violence against Women, where Article 2 specifically mentions sexual harassment and intimidation at workplace. Furthermore,Pakistan is also party to the International Labour Organisation Convention 100 and 111, concerned with equal remuneration for equal value of work and discrimination in employment and occupation.Given the country’s poor track record in the context of women’s rights,perhaps this is not surprising.

According to the World Economic Forum’s gender-gap index, Pakistan is ranked at number 56 of the 58 countries for women's economic and political participation, health and access to education. The UNDP Human Development Report for 2005 ranked the country 107 amongst 177 countries for building the capabilities of women.In 2002, the Alliance Against Sexual Harassment – an alliance of nine NGOs including Action Aid Pakistan, Bedari, Working Women’s Support Centre, Working Women Association, Islamabad Women’s Welfare Agency,Conscience Promoters, Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research and Working Women Organisation – presented a code of conduct to then adviser to the prime minister on women’s development, Nilofer Bakhtiar.

This code was to be made mandatory in all organisations. The draft was taken up in September, 2002, in the Cabinet but there has been no progress since then. Some claim that the clause relating to the anonymity of the accuser made legislators uneasy for fear of its abuse.In view of the arduous legal process involved in seeking redress and the insufficient protection provided by companies, it is time that that the government woke up and took notice of this issue. As increasing numbers of Pakistani women join the workforce, the problem of sexual harassment must not be allowed to spread.


This was originally published in the Herald's July 2006 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.