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Malik Siraj Akbar

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Working With Sharks: A Pakistani Activist's Successful Battle Against Sexual Harassment

Posted: 03/14/2013 12:18 pm

Working with Sharks, a compelling account of a leading Pakistani gender activist, Dr. Fouzia Saeed, against sexual harassment at the workplace, was released in the United States on March 8 on the occasion of the International Women's Day. When a slightly different version of the book was published in Pakistan in 2012, it opened up a serious nationwide public debate about sexual harassment against women at workstations.

Prior to the publication of the book, Dr. Saeed drafted two bills against sexual harassment in 2008, which got into the legislative process and -- through her intensive lobbying -- the Parliament in Pakistan unanimously passed both the laws making sexual harassment a crime and mandating every formal sector to institute an anti-sexual harassment policy. The prime minister of Pakistan declared December 22, the day this case was filed, the national day of working women. The new laws invariably gave the Pakistani women a sense of legal protection.

While issues of female education, honor killing and acid attacks on women have recently found some space in the mainstream national debate in Pakistan and international attention, sexual harassment, on the other hand, still stigmatizes the victims. Very few courageous women, such as Dr. Saeed herself, have appeared in public to fight against this practice. Her book has inspired and encouraged young working women in Pakistan to break their silence against sexual assaults from their bosses and staffers. Very few books change an entire pattern of collective behavior and Working with Sharks is indeed one such book in Pakistan that has reshaped a society's behavior and response toward issues that people seldom talk about in the public domain because of the fear of being scandalized or otherwise blamed for inviting trouble.

Dr. Saeed, who is currently a visiting fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy (N.E.D.) in Washington D.C., has worked for more than three decades for women's rights in her native Pakistan. In 2001, Dr. Saeed stunned the Pakistani society with her revealing book Taboo: The Hidden Culture of a Red Light Area, the first research-based account of Pakistani female sex workers and their secretive troubled world. Taboo initially was received with discomfort by the social conservatives in Pakistan but it ultimately encouraged the society to have a frank discussion about the rights of those who have been pushed into the sex industry and face social and economic discrimination.

Working with Sharks is a firsthand story of the author and how she experienced sexual harassment at the prestigious place of the United Nations Development Program (U.N.D.P.) in Pakistan. The story brings to light not just the courage the author exhibited by standing up against a senior manager's behavior, but also the torture she went through to counter harassment and cover ups by the international senior management in the organization's Pakistan office for almost two years.

When Dr. Saeed, the author, bravely stood up against the intimidating behavior of her manager, 10 other women also showed courage and came forward to speak up against similar harassment they had also faced in the organization. These women's struggle turned more difficult after the United Nations, according to the author, came down to protect the manager accused of sexual harassment against the female workers who had lodged complaints against his objectionable behavior. In the face of all odds, these women persisted and pushed their case to a higher level where ultimately a senior bench was designated with senior U.N. officials from organizations outside the U.N.D.P. to provide justice to the fighting women.

In Pakistan, before the launch of this book, the author organized a silent auction for the first 10 copies of the initial edition. People from different countries bid on her book. The highest bid for the first copy, Rs 125,000, was offered from a group of women working in the U.N. to show support with the author and other women who stood against sexual harassment. Those who won the Rs 125,000 bid asked the author to send their copy to the secretary general of the United Nations.

The author regrets that the U.N. secretary general never acknowledged receiving the book which focuses on such a negative practice inside the U.N. system and elsewhere.

Working with Sharks is a depressing reminder of the fact that sexual harassment does not only take place in developing societies or among less educated, trained staff members. This is a universal challenge that simultaneously requires Dr. Saeed's courage to agitate against and strict laws that protect women in the workplace.

The U.S. edition of Working with Sharks is not a typical story of gender discrimination against one woman in a conservative third world country. It is indeed a different book that talks about courageous women's continued struggle, unflinching determination and ultimate success in hard countries like Pakistan. The book illustrates how women take their battles in adverse circumstances and still succeed through organized efforts. Most recent books on Pakistan have focused on depressing topics like terrorism and extremism in the nuclear-armed Muslim nation but Working with Sharks portrays a different Pakistan where women have sustained their rights movement and also written some remarkable success stories.

 

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