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Maheen Usmani Headshot

Pakistan's Sexual Harassment Problem

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Chador-clad women looked on curiously from the fringes, as excited men rent the air with incessant and cringe-worthy cat calls as I wrapped up a report in the heart of Islamabad's open air market. Judging from the ravenous looks, you would think that my arms, clad in half sleeves, were akin to succulent barbecued chicken legs. If slipping the mike under the shirt without exposing a millimeter of skin was a nightmare, my facing the camera attracted people like bees to a honey pot.

As soon as the recording began, the guy hawking watermelons on my left raised his voice a few decibels. When the cameraman started gnashing his teeth, I requested the stall owner to lower his voice, which resulted in him screeching like a banshee. Amidst the swelling cacophony, I was unable to hear myself speak while the cameraman couldn't decipher my lines despite the headphones and the microphone. Since the smirking municipal authorities seemed unable to control the gawking and gesturing men creeping closer, we turned tail and fled, the wolf whistles and ribald comments dogging our heels. Inside the safety of the car, I detached my mike with trembling hands and exhaled.

"In Pakistan [harassment] is like a white elephant in the room that no one sees," says journalist Shazia Nawaz. The problem is so deep-rooted that sexually harassing women is considered a form of recreation rather than a crime, with the focus squarely on the victim's conduct and appearance rather than on the aggressor. When a woman complains about harassment, people tend to turn a blind eye.

According to lawyer Zia Awan, even educated women in Pakistan do not understand what harassment is: "Sexual harassment does not just mean an act of physical offense. It starts from any gesture, stares or remarks that make women feel insecure and uncomfortable -- while rape, molestation... remain the most severe forms of sexual harassment."

Domestic worker Shamim affirms that "men try to touch you and grope you whenever they find you alone on the streets of Pakistan." The majority of women, who commute using public transport wagons and buses, complain of different forms of harassment including verbal, physical and sexual harassment. A survey of 75 women commuters revealed that inappropriate touching and sexual comments is commonplace.

Shazia says, "[Eve teasing] takes away a very basic human right away from women. Everyone should have the right to freedom of movement."

"Eve teasing" is a subcontinental euphemism used for public sexual harassment of women by men, with Eve being a reference to the biblical Eve. As Wikipedia put it: "it is referred to with a coy suggestion of innocent fun, making it appear innocuous, with no resulting liability on the part of the perpetrator. Many feminists say that considering the semantic roots of the term in Indian English, eve-teasing refers to the temptress nature of Eve, placing responsibility on the woman as a tease, as though the aggressive response of the males was normal rather than criminal." Victims who speak out against harassment are often labeled as troublemakers who are looking for attention. Thus, the victim often becomes the accused with their appearance, private life, and character likely to fall under intrusive scrutiny.

Educational institutions are rife with tales of sexual harassment which range from standing too close to sharing vulgar jokes and sexual invitations. University student Amna recalls one of her teachers "patting our backs, touching our hands and staring at us suggestively." Recently, a teacher was suspended on charges of sexually harassing students at the University of Peshawar. While the provincial government has formed a committee to investigate these allegations, they do not have any evidence against the accused as nobody is ready to testify against them "They are among the power-brokers on campus and no one wants to have problems with them," says a teacher.

Workplace harassment is also common, with tales of bosses and colleagues preying on women employees. A police superintendent was transferred after some lady constables alleged that he had sexually abused them. Despite the presence of the law against sexual harassment, no legal action has been taken against the official. In 2010, Pakistan became the first South Asian country to declare sexual harassment a crime. The Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace Bill aims at creating a working environment for women free from harassment and abuse. Punishment for the violators of a code of conduct ranges from censure to dismissal to an unspecified fine. Although legal and institutional mechanisms are present, implementing the laws has remained a challenge

According to a Dawn profile of social activist Dr. Fouzia Saeed, "it is the power hierarchies that resist change. So unless these power structures are broken and replaced with good and effective structures the mindset will not change, just creating awareness is not enough besides accountability is vital here." This is quite evident in the Mukhtaran Mai case where a crime was committed against a woman and yet the majority of the culprits went free because of the strong power structures providing them safety. According to the Dawn profile: "It was a test case and a major setback. It spoke volumes about our faulty criminal justice system, starting from the police reporting to documentation of evidence, the long delays and mindset of the lawyers and judges. The whole system needs overhauling."

The introduction of the law, which is also included in the Pakistan Penal Code, makes it important for all stakeholders to understand it in order to make it work. Rampant chauvinism and social pressures are major hindrances which often prevent victims from reporting cases of harassment. All sections of society must be sensitized about the issue and the relevant law in order for it to be effectively implemented. Beenish adds, "The most important point is that when a woman complains about sexual harassment do not blame her dress or attitude. The woman does have the right to present herself in any way that she feels fit, but no one has the right to touch her or make her feel physically threatened in any way."

The issue of sexual harassment has impacts on the decisions of many women in Pakistan not to leave the comfort of their homes and work. They are thus unable to contribute towards the economy or to involve themselves in social or political activism. At a time when Pakistan is tottering on the edge of the precipice, our womenfolk deserve the protection and security of the state so they are able to be truly useful members of society.