Despite Pakistan being the first country in South Asia to make sexual harassment a legally punishable crime in 2010, patriarchal social ideals of ‘proper feminine behaviour’—predetermined for women—actively discourage the victims from seeking justice.
The ‘Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act 2010’ defines sexual 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 to such a request or is made a condition for employment”. Sexual harassment has three significant manifestations: abuse of authority, creating a hostile environment, and retaliation. It is punishable by fine up to 500,000 rupees, or imprisonment up to three years, or both.
According to the Law, it is mandatory for public and private organisations to develop self-regulatory mechanisms, to deal internally with instances of sexual harassment, by establishing three-member inquiry committees to carry out due process. Responsibilities of organisations also include adopting the ‘Code of Conduct for Gender Justice’ (devised by International Labour Organisation, government officials and non-governmental organisations), educating employees regarding harassment and creating zero tolerance.
Political parties being among most important kinds of organisations in society, it is their duty to implement the sexual harassment law and Code. Yet, even though political parties draw membership from people, public is not aware if any party has eliminated harassment from its rank and file, through implementation of the legislation.
In this regard, a glaring case is that of ex-Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) parliamentarian, Ayesha Gulalai Wazir. It is important to note all components of sexual harassment defined in Law, are present in her allegations against PTI chief, Imran Khan. However, had PTI a mechanism in place to handle Wazir’s complaint internally—as required by law—she may not have held a press conference.
Further, Pakistani Constitution guarantees equality before law and non-discrimination on basis of sex in Article 25, and “full participation of women in national life” in Article 34, along with numerous international conventions Pakistan has ratified that emphasise these. Despite this, a virtual storm of misogyny has been witnessed ever since Wazir held her press conference.
PTI and its supporters have publicly pronounced judgments on merit of her allegations, and her character and even her family’s values, before due process, which runs contrary to national laws and international conventions. The most common objection levelled in order to discredit Wazir is, ‘why didn’t she speak out earlier?’. In fact, the Code of Conduct for Gender Justice clearly states: “not reporting immediately should not affect the merit of the case”.
Interestingly, PTI’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government — which in four years could not implement the Law and Code in its offices — has also retaliated against Wazir. It has launched a corruption case against her in the same provincial accountability institution which has otherwise been rendered dysfunctional, while threatening to invoke the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) and decide Wazir’s fate through tribal jirga depriving her of due process, in violation of Federal Law.
Importantly, ‘Pashtun honour’ has been widely invoked, as if one Pashtun woman’s complaint has somehow destroyed all national honour Pashtuns possessed, just until her press conference. Interestingly, this ‘honour’ is hardly invoked for men accused of serious crimes, rather it is a tool to force women into silence and submission by reminding them of their respective patriarchal backgrounds.
Women who publicly demand justice, or expose injustice, like Mukhtar Mai, Malala Yousafzai and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, are subjected to ‘shaming trials’ as ‘dishonourable’ women. This indeed discourages other women who aspire to join public sphere, where they are already under-represented. This situation explains Pakistan’s low ranking on Gender Inequality Index 2016 at 121 out of 155 countries according to United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
It is helpful to analyse prevailing harassment and cultural double standards through Marxist-humanist approach. John Berger expounded this, in a 1972 programme for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), titled, “Ways of Seeing”. His approach, summarised as, “men act and women appear”, boils down to the notion of ‘ideal femininity’. This means in order to possess a socially acceptable, ‘ladylike’ character, a woman is supposed to be a passive object, rather than an active subject in charge of her affairs.
Thus, according to societal norms of ‘propriety’, a woman is not supposed to act authoritatively as men do, rather she is better off only appearing like a ‘modest’ woman in any situation. As a corollary, any woman who refuses to conform to such standards of passivity, and insists on raising her voice against injustice, such as sexual harassment, can be ‘taught a lesson’. She should be ready to face hostile retaliation, in the form of character assassination and acid attack/death threats, for daring to adopt the ‘mirror opposite’, ‘masculine’ gender role.
Thus, a harassment victim can be expectedly re-harassed and re-victimised until she may submit and re-adopt a narrow, self-policing character mould set by patriarchy for her. To this end, the same PTI lawmakers who promised ‘change’ and ‘new Pakistan’ campaigned against Wazir, only to have her adopt traditionally masculine clothing, challenging her detractors anew.
This backlash against assertive women is exactly why women do not report sexual harassment, according to 2010 research by social activist, Dr Fouzia Saeed. Some of the reasons highlighted are women “scared of losing their reputation”, “fear that people would blame them”, and “the perpetrator, if in authority, would retaliate and make their life hell”.
Women want change in the societal mindset that blames women for harassment, labels them ‘immoral’, and depicts the reporting of harassment as a question of ‘honour’.
It is hoped that justice prevails and Wazir’s accusation, if proven, is addressed by parliamentary committee constituted by the Prime Minister. Fairness of investigation and outcome of Wazir’s case will have far-reaching implications for women of Pakistan, whom gendered norms force to put a lot at stake, just to report sexual harassment.