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Habitual harassment

A recent case reveals how little attention is paid to actually implementing the law against sexual harassment in the workplace

Habitual harassment

Dear All,

A news item in January mentioned that two women anchors at the state broadcaster, PTV had filed a harassment complaint against their immediate boss. Then came the news that both the complainants had been removed from any on-air role, at which one of them, Tanzeela Mazhar, protested that this seemed to be punishment for having filed the complaint.

Some voices were raised about the matter. Some women parliamentarians took up the issue. The present minister (of state) for information spoke about it in parliament. But then after weeks (actually two months) the enquiry committee announced that they had cleared the alleged harasser. The complainants were apparently meant to go back to work with the same man acting as their boss.

Her co-complainant had already left and Mazhar herself quit the job once the committee’s decision was announced.

I recently was able to learn more about Mazhar’s experience, and the details are truly shocking. She says that the harassment went back many years and that her alleged harasser (her boss) tried to sexually assault her as long ago as 2009. Apparently, this harassment continued, albeit with some respite when he was moved to another post in 2013. During all of this time she raised the matter several times and with a number of senior people within the organisation, but the harasser seemed to enjoy immunity, and was never really taken to task.

Mazhar says that she had a strong case with clear evidence and people willing to corroborate her account, so she and her colleague (Yashfeen Jamal) felt that their complaint would carry some weight, especially in view of the fact that legislation against this sort of behaviour, the Protection of Women in the Workplace law had been enacted in 2010.

I have noticed that the more sexist men in Pakistan are, the more they tend to claim that ‘working women’ are like daughters or sisters to them. What they will never say is that they respect them as colleagues or equals.

As it turned out she was wrong: nothing changed except that the complainants were effectively driven out. But the sort of harassment she describes — sexual innuendo, personal remarks about women’s bodies and appearance, sleazy attempts at physical contact, the use of work assignments as reward or punishment — should surely have been cause for concern for the state broadcaster, and by extension for the government. Apparently it was not.

I also spoke to PTV chairman Ataul Haq Qasmi about whether he viewed the matter as worrying, but as he told me it had all been investigated by the enquiry committee and the committee’s decision was surely sound. He also made the point that the concerned federal minister was a woman and that the head of the committee had been a woman, implying that it was women who were responsible and no element of chauvinism or sexism had played any part in the final decision. Mazhar claims that the composition of the committee was changed in a prejudicial manner and that the alleged harasser had the patronage not just of senior officials at the state broadcaster but also senior politicians within PML-N. Qasmi dismissed the suggestion.

When speaking about the enquiry Qasmi also said of the complainants that ‘they were like daughters to him.’ I don’t know if this applies to the PTV chairman or not but I have noticed that the more sexist men in Pakistan are, the more they tend to claim that ‘working women’ are like daughters or sisters to them. What they will never say is that they respect them as colleagues or equals.

What is truly worrying about this case is what it reveals about how women are still treated in the workplace. And of course there are collaborators: this harassment and exploitation is enabled by those women who acquiesce and use sexual manipulation as a way to advance and gain favours within the workplace. It is really unfortunate that although legislation exists to help correct this situation, this law is not being implemented and the harassment of women in the workplace remains the norm rather than the exception.

Best wishes,

Umber Khairi

The author is a former BBC broadcaster and producer, and one of the founding editors of Newsline.

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