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Sexual Harassment - Unpacking the Bitter Truth

(March 28, 2021)

The Report

The dialogue was opened by OPP and NWC briefly introducing the basic values and missions of their respective organizations and the reason why they felt the issue was of utmost importance to be thoroughly discussed.


Defining the issue, OPP said that sexual harassment could be any form of sexual behaviour, verbal or physical or visual that could be harmful or irritant or embarrassing towards a person, male or female. This can occur at any time or location such as home, buses, schools, hospitals and even graveyards. It is deeply rooted in our traditions, culture and faith patterns which promoted certain kind of self-perception and self-entitlement for the male who derive their power from patriarchal power structures and misogynist mindsets.

He said the problem of the denial of occurrence of Sexual harassment and disbelieving the victim was because the perpetrator mostly is someone very closely related, from parents to partners, boss, coach, friend, teacher or anyone that is otherwise respected and trusted and has some kind of power over the victim.


The Panel Discussion 

While moderating the panel discussion, Ms Anila Noor of NWC said, we need to acknowledge this bitter truth. She narrated her personal experience of being harassed by her university teacher in Lahore, Pakistan. She said she could not react because nobody in her house had taught her how to respond and handle such a situation. She insisted that the culture of silence on this issue was one of the main causes of its widespread occurrence. “Have we given confidence and knowledge to our daughters? And we women, do we feel empowered and conscious to face such situations?” asked Ms Noor. She asked why sexual harassment is seen in the context of the social concepts of Haya and Ghairat (“proper” conduct and honour). 

Well known veteran human rights and gender equality activist, Ms Tahira Abdullah said self-reflection and introspection are of vital importance as respect should not be one-sided. She said Haya was a subjective concept, which was always in the eyes of the beholder. Chaddar or Burqa cannot ensure the character. A prostitute also is made by the society of men. These concepts identify women only with their body. Religion instructed men as well in terms of modesty and character, but society puts all the onus of character on women. She narrated her personal experience of how a university guard instructed her to cover her “naked” head. She mentioned the incident when a tribe had to give 15 minor girls as payback because one of its members had accidentally killed the dog of the powerful tribal elder. She said all such concept were selectively interpreted and implemented to uphold the misogynist grip of patriarchal socio-cultural structures and mindsets.  


Senior intellectual and human rights activist, head of the Aurat Foundation, Ms Mehnaz Rehman said laws are not being implemented because social setup and system gives provisions to elite and power. Poor are grabbed by law. The first step of harassment is peeping, staring, and looking, which is the first form of harassment. If a woman is uncomfortable, it is harassment. The second form is in public transport where they are molested. Then it occurs at the workplace. It is a very well-known perception that if a woman is out of the home to study or work, she is liable to sexual harassment. According to law, you can report the incident of harassment with the police. This awareness is very important so that Police write the correct FIR (First Information Report). Mukhtaran Mai incident was world-known but her FIR was written so wrongly that the powerful criminals were free. Law is an achievement, but social change and orientation and awareness are also very important. Men and women must work together for this goal. 

Responding to the culturally accepted forms of sexual harassment, famous columnist, and doctor, Tahira Kazmi narrated her experiences and observations of molestation and harassment in public transport. There is a perception in society that any woman who comes out of her home is the cause of moral degradation. She asked has God given this world to only men? Where it is written that women cannot work and study? Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) had worked for and married a businesswoman. She said every form of sexual harassment is torture - from peeping to staring to touching or raping. The reason is that they think that a woman is property and lesser in intellect, social status, and rights. This is patriarchy that has set this system and mentality. She said in hospitals, the new and young female doctors are not taught or promoted if they don’t allow their seniors to “touch” them. Discussing the video of a bank manager harassing his colleague, she asked why other people did not question and stop him? She said it is a question of taking social responsibility. 


The young panellist Ms Natasha Noreen, an activist advocating migrant and women’s rights in Italy and Pakistan, andfounder of “Feminism in Pakistan”, shared the experience of her life in Europe. She said in Europe, we Pakistanis are not able to recognize what is wrong with us. For a woman, her body is a sin, so she must live in hell, in persecution. Patriarchy has objectified the body of a woman. We Pakistanis bring our mentality to Europe and hide it. We need to tell our girls in Europe that if she does not want to take a scarf, nobody can impose it upon her. We need to make our girls aware of their social and human rights. Western women have earned their freedoms and we need to learn about their great struggles. For me, every woman killed in honour mentality is a martyr. Being a woman does not give you any privilege in any part of the world as you always must earn it. We must work on literature, society and especially law because this struggle is not over yet. 

In a nutshell, panellists were of the view that sexual harassment was deeply ingrained in the social, cultural and religious patterns and concepts of honour-imposed denial, at one hand, and patriarchal structures, deprival redressal to the victim, at the other. Ms Rehman gave an example of a celebrity who has recently rewarded a presidential award even though a case of sexual harassment was pending in the Supreme Court against him. Ms Tahira Abdullah discussed the difficult issue of incest in the families as close family members such as father, brother, uncle etc. She said one problem was that it was almost impossible to collect exact facts and figures about it while a parallel system of justice, jirga, Panchayat, Shariah courts, PPC, CRP, Qisas and Diyat laws are being misused against women. 


Commenting on the issue of constitutional rights and the curriculum, Dr Tahira Kazmi said feminism has been associated with negativity. Some women say I believe in women rights, but I am not a feminist. A Feminist is taken as a lesbian. The system is made by men and serves the men, so why men will acknowledge the feminist movement. Shame and blame culture are so much that a girl child is fearful. Media also bashes the women. Ms Natasha Noreen said lack of education was a big problem as a child of five years to an old man of 80 years are harasser. We cannot hang them all, Hanging will not solve the issue, so we need to talk and educate. I just feel like a child that my parents are behind me and they will listen to me, instead of feeling why my body is disgusting. 



Q&A Session:

The session initiated a strong discussion on related issues. A participant while appreciating the panellists’ observations, asked how to spread this awareness in the backward areas where girls could not go to schools? Another participant asked, the way forward and how to engage men in this struggle? Other participant raised the issue of the role of patriarchal perceptions. He also mentioned the issue of child labour where especially female children were routinely subjected to sexual abuse. The other participant asked whether we should minimize the hard slogans such as Mera Jism Meri Marzi?

Ms Kazmi responded, instead of minimizing the slogans, men and their society should understand the true meaning as it is shameful that womanhood is equated only with the body. She said this slogan means that nobody has the right to torture or abuse a women’s body. Responding to the question about the way forward, Ms Abdullah insisted upon education, education policy, curriculum, textbooks, and teachers training and pedagogy methods. She is insisting on educating the 24 million students out of schools.


Another participant, while sharing her experiences about sexual harassment of minority girls at the workplace, which was being done in the cover of religious extremism, asked why men in Pakistan are so frustrated? Responding to the question, Dr Tahira Kazmi said it was culture to consider the body of a woman as property to be used, grabbed etc. Especially minority women opt to be silent. Ms Noreen said society is so much sex-segregated that it ingrains frustration deep in the psyche of the people. This is the reason men cannot respectfully see women.

Another participant asked why such incidents are less in Europe. Is it because of laws, which are truly implemented in Europe? He said men were also struggling for gender equality and women`s rights in Pakistan. Responding to the question, Ms Anila Noor said we need to understand our position, power, and privileges. We need to stop the sexual harassment and we need to disengage it with the concept of haya or gharait. She said sexual harassment was going on in the families of Pakistanis in Europe. We need to see these issues as collective human issues instead of women or men.


Closing Statement: 

In the end, OPP closed the webinar while saying that this issue is deeply connected with all the aspects of the society including class decision, culture and history, social norms, and religious perceptions. The hope lies in all of us coming together and talking bravely about this issue as male and female relationships in Pakistan has been sexualized. Sexual harassment knows no age limit, it happens anywhere, any time and it has endless forms. Most acts are unnoticed and unreported so undefended. The most fundamental issue is the unbalanced power relations and roles. Rape as a punishment and revenge is widespread. Most incidents of sexual harassment were perpetrated by men, so the responsibility lies with men. We must stop the culture of victim-blaming. We need to be conscious about sexual jokes taken so lightly in our society. We got to recognize that men are the biggest part of the problem, so they must be the biggest part of the solution. They don’t need to “protect” the women, rather they need to change themselves by stopping sexual harassment. 

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