By Quratulain Fatima
“Given how our patriarchal understanding dictates that only prostitutes are to be found outside the safe space of the home — we thus cannot understand any other kind of suitable work for women outside these confines”.
Imagine this. An official government Whatsapp group sees a supposedly respectable senior male officer pass a lewd comment. This was appreciated by a rather young and modern male contemporary. And in this virtual space sat many women. As if this were not enough, insult was added to injury when it transpired that the former was none other than the chief of the inquiry committee constituted under the famous Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010. Maybe this gentleman should be reminded of the fact that within a formal organisation any incident of harassment represents a major abuse of power. And though misplaced perceptions would tell us otherwise — harassment is never about morality. It is about demonstrating in whose hands power lies and how easily this can be abused.
Women in the workplace endure all kinds of ordeals, both emotional and physical, as they go about their daily business. More and more women from the middle-class and upper middle-class have started joining the urban workforce here in Pakistan. All of which as begun to challenge the longstanding cultural norms of Chaadar and Chaar-dewari, meaning that the place for virtuous women is in the home. Which brings to mind a quote from Urdu literature that is, sadly, still relevant today: “given how our patriarchal understanding dictates that only prostitutes are to be found outside the safe space of the home — we thus cannot understand any other kind of suitable work for women outside these confines.”
Workplace harassment comes in many forms. This may range from verbal abuse, subtle sexual advances, after work invitations as well as explicit attempts to extract sexual favours from women. Moreover, it is a myth that women in positions of power in so-called elitists sectors escape such untoward attention. If this were the case, the following would not have happened. In a much respected military organisation that was the first to induct women into service — an overwhelming amount of harassment cases were reported during the initial years. The number was said to have gone down when intra-organisational marriages began to take place, once more lending credence to cultural notions of respect for women being intertwined with supplementary identities of wife, mother, sister or daughter.
It has been seven years since the aforementioned Act was promulgated. Section 2(h) defines harassment as: “any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favours or other verbal or written communication or physical conduct of a sexual nature, or sexually demeaning attitudes, causing interference with work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment, or the attempt to punish the complainant for refusal to comply with such a request or is made a condition for employment”. Whereas section-III provides that an inquiry committee shall look into matter and has the authority to impose penalties ranging from censure to removal from service.
At the time, this legislation was welcomed as a giant leap forward towards countering the rampant harassment of women in the workplace. And in fact, it represents a comprehensive document. Committee members are required to regularly monitor working environments and act on a priority basis upon all incidents of harassment brought to their notice. The Act also establishes powers to lodge complaints with an ombudsman at both the provincial and federal level. It is, additionally, mandatory for the Act to be displayed at prominent places throughout.
Yet here on the ground not much has changed, not in real terms. Consider this. The head of a particular government agency was removed following an inquiry into allegations of harassment filed by a woman employee. Yet the response of the majority of the men was that the complaint was nothing more than the sham actions of a typical feminist-minded (read evil-minded) woman intent upon seeking recourse in the law with the sole purpose of blackmailing men to advance her interests.
International and development organisations have traditionally been considered safer environments for women. Yet inevitably the reality has proved rather different. Women refusing to give into the sexual demands of men in power find themselves routinely sidelined when it comes to promotions or bonuses. This is to say nothing of the humiliation itself. As for those women who manage to break the glass ceiling — disgruntled male colleagues often accuse them of sleeping their way to the top.
Although The Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act has provided a mechanism through which women can report harassment — the ratio of formal complaints still remains very low. The reasons are profoundly simple: our societal and cultural norms place a high value on the honour of women and therefore demand silence from women whose honour is violated. This is because society prefers to hold a woman responsible for any sort of provocation received. Old adages such as, she must have been asking for it; she was leading the man on; look at what she was wearing — suddenly become common currency. Meaning that she would do herself a favour if she just kept quiet. Again. Why risk being fired or losing out on promotions?
Sadly, the patriarchy cannot be smashed by legislation alone. But it is a good place to start to affect much needed social change. What is required is a concrete commitment on the part of organisations, government or otherwise, to ensure implementation of comprehensive frameworks geared towards securing workplaces as safe spaces for women. Crucial to this is the taking seriously all complaints of harassment, however subtle they may be, and taking punitive measures where appropriate.
The onus is on organisations to create an enabling environment that is also self-corrective in nature. One in which is sufficiently empowering to itself detect harassment while simultaneously preventing aggressors from further climbing the career ladder. It cannot be so hard.