Harassment and its bitter truth

By Qurat Mudasar
Tue, 07, 24

Harassment manifests itself in various forms in our society, including physical, visual, and verbal harassment. This week You! takes a look at different stories from the victim’s perspective…

Harassment and its bitter truth

For the past decade, the ominous word ‘harassment’ has loomed over our surroundings, commanding attention with its resounding presence. It’s as if it emerges suddenly, with a forceful ring, seizing the consciousness of all within earshot. Yes, it echoes everywhere - in the corridors of workplaces, the sanctity of households, and even amidst the casual banter among friends. ‘Are you harassing me?’ - a phrase so common, yet laden with profound implications. Despite the fervent efforts of institutions to enact policies safeguarding against it, harassment persists, permeating our societal fabric like blood coursing through veins.

Sexual harassment is a widespread and global problem that affects both women and men. However, it is more commonly experienced by women and girls across all levels of society worldwide. The global #MeToo movement, which gained momentum in October 2017, started as a social media hashtag in response to sexual harassment allegations. Movements like these have garnered attention and helped raise awareness regarding harassment.

In 2018, the ‘16 Days of Activism’ focused on the theme ‘Orange the World.’ The hashtag #HearMeToo was widely used online, allowing women and girls to unite their voices against violence, whether as survivors or activists. While sexual harassment is seen as pervasive, there is still limited data on its prevalence across countries and regions, making it challenging to define the scale and scope of the problem adequately.

In January 2022, the Pakistani parliament ratified the Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Amendment) Act, 2022, expanding the definition of workplace harassment. This amendment provides protection to informal workers, students, freelancers, and redefines the workplace, among other provisions.

However, harassment manifests itself in various forms in our society, including physical, visual, and verbal harassment. Verbal harassment can occur in any type of relationship: romantic, parent-child, familial, or co-worker relationships.

In Pakistan, as many as 725 cases were registered with the Federal Ombudsman Secretariat for Protection against Harassment at Workplace (FOSPAH) last year. Despite the government’s measures to mitigate harassment against women, most of the cases remain unregistered due to family pressure and belonging to specific communities and cultures. Women are scared to lodge complaints to avoid facing consequences, such as losing support from their immediate family. In this context, various women have shared their experiences of facing different forms of harassment...

Harassment and its bitter truth

Unveiling the silent stories of suffering

Personal narratives reveal the harsh realities faced by many individuals affected by harassment. Laxmi, for instance, shared her daily ordeal of verbal and physical abuse from her husband. When she complained to her mother, she advised her to silently bear it, considering it normal. According to her mother, a day will come when her husband’s behaviour will change, and he will realise his mistake. However, due to continuous forgetfulness, he was encouraged and started beating her in front of his family. Slaps became normal, and when she resisted, they would send her out of the house. She spent time on the roads and in markets, only to return home in the evening. Her family didn’t allow her to complain. She used to work as a house support, and her Baji always advised her to report it as the law supported her. She encouraged and supported Laxmi to file for divorce, and now she spends a happy life with a sensitive person.

Rukhsana’s family lives in Dadu district, where they endured a devastating flood. With four children to feed, none of whom could go to school due to their circumstances, Rukhsana worked tirelessly. Despite her efforts, her husband didn’t support them financially and would even resort to violence, even in the temporary shelter they had during the flood. But reporting him seemed impossible; Rukhsana feared the consequences and doubted any help would come. She felt trapped, with no support from her community or the government. So, despite the suffering, she stayed with her husband, clinging to the only stability she knew, no matter how flawed it was. Rukhsana expressed her frustration and desperation, questioning why the government failed to support women like her who sought assistance against such harassment. She pleaded for understanding, asking why they couldn’t offer any livelihood opportunities or assistance. Feeling abandoned by the very institutions meant to protect them, Rukhsana and others like her felt they had no choice but to endure the harassment they faced.

Harassment and its bitter truth

Nafeesa’s story pierces through the veil of silence, offering a raw and deeply emotional glimpse into the harsh realities faced by countless women. As a social worker, she embodied strength and resilience, yet behind closed doors, she was shackled by the suffocating constraints of societal norms. She visited a Safe House managed by the Sindh Government, where she saw the Station House Officer (SHO) sitting inside with his three officers. She wondered why he was sitting there and if it was indeed a safe house. When she humbly asked him the reason, the SHO shared that he visited every day to check their security because the government lacked women officers. This was criminal negligence by the institution for not appointing a lady officer for the security of the safe house. She dropped the idea of taking shelter there and convinced herself to bear this humiliation for the sake of her husband’s shelter in her head. Countless women silently bear all the harassment just for the sake of shelter - a shelter in their husband’s name and presence in society. According to UNFPA, sexual harassment culture is shrouded due to the culture of silence.

Harassment in the workplace is another prevalent issue. Women often face harassment in workplaces, but awareness about harassment remains low. Most of the harassment takes place unknowingly, and women remain silent due to fear of consequences. Workplace harassment is a serious concern requiring immediate attention for better outcomes. Victims choose silence to secure their jobs and avoid further ramifications. Dr Fouzia Saeed, in her book ‘Working with Sharks’ defined workplace harassment well. She highlighted encountering sexual harassment in our lives, describing events in the Islamabad office of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in the late 1990s. The administrator and human resources chief exploited women staff in the office. Complaints about harassment ended up at the desk of the culprit. Rashida recounted her distressing experiences at her workplace, where her female boss constantly wielded the threat of termination over her head. Despite her diligent efforts in a private organisation, she endured frequent humiliation and degradation at the hands of her superior, often in full view of her colleagues. Her boss routinely assigned tasks well beyond her job description, even from areas far outside her designated responsibilities.

When Rashida dared to speak up and challenge the unjust nature of these tasks, her boss responded with further threats of dismissal, compelling the entire team to comply unquestioningly. This toxic environment forced employees to prioritise job security over their own well-being, as those who dared to resist faced severe repercussions without any avenue for recourse through the HR department’s complaint resolution process. A serious question arises here - harassment is not only perpetrated by males; women bosses also harass their employees and face more serious side effects because of them. In our society, we often forget to discuss verbal harassment, which can victimise every second woman regardless of their professionalism and education level.

From illiterate home-based workers to children, they are easily targeted by verbal harassment. One of the most insidious forms of harassment is verbal abuse, often overlooked compared to physical harassment yet equally damaging. Verbal abuse leaves scars on the soul and tears at the heart, affecting almost every woman at some point in her life. Women face life-altering harassment, especially after marriage. There’s an old saying that a mother-in-law is always a mother-in-law, no matter if she is a queen. We are fairies of our father’s house, where we are born with love, and then we accept a new life with a new house and family, where a new life begins with power games. And harassment is a part of the winning game - they harass, humiliate, and bully with the name of her family, her mother, and her upbringing. Men are silent umpires who stand and watch the game, sometimes giving decisions in favour of their mothers or making decisions that cause serious effects in the form of divorce and sometimes they stand beside their wives and wear a crown of ‘joru k ghulam’.

Harassment and its bitter truth

Bibi Khadija’s story begins with the promise of love and bright dreams in her marriage. Yet, as she navigated the complexities of married life, she encountered both joy and heartache. While the companionship and shared dreams brought moments of bliss, the shadows of verbal abuse cast a pall over her happiness. The hurtful words of her husband, “Be thankful we didn’t throw you out of the house by grabbing your hair,” deeply wounded her soul. She reflected on how, in their college days, her long hair had been romanticised. Oh God, these words became daggers that pierced her soul. “I asked myself, in our college life, my long hair were tresses and ringlets for him. He wanted to see beautiful dreams of life in their shadow, but now it was used against her. But suddenly it turned into hair you hold and use to throw me out of your house. Despite my husband eventually supporting my decisions, I still carry the scars of those hurtful moments. But whenever I brush my curls; they become a target of ridicule, a painful reminder of past indignities. I have been carrying the broken pieces of my heart till today,” she recounts. This harassment happens behind closed doors. On a daily basis, females are victimised but no law would provide justice and security with gracefully.

Harassment during traveling can be a significant concern for women, as Rehana experienced first-hand. She shared her harrowing experience when she took a ride from home to university. The driver deviated from the safest route despite her request, displaying harsh and rude behaviour. Fearing for her safety, she demanded the driver stop the car, but he ignored her pleas. Threatening to call the police, she finally leaped from the car when it slowed down. However, due to the absence of a helpline number, she was unable to file a complaint against the driver.

Cyber harassment poses another grave threat in the modern world, especially concerning the unauthorised use of women’s pictures on social networking sites. Despite the Pakistani Government’s stringent policies and severe punishments against such offenses, these crimes persist. Recently, a colleague shared her ordeal of lodging a complaint regarding the misuse of her picture by an unknown individual. After a year-long wait, she received a call from the concerned department, urging her to visit their office urgently. However, upon arrival, she was met with indifference. The officer nonchalantly informed her of the backlog of complaints and suggested closing hers due to her delayed response. Disheartened by the lack of urgency, my colleague reluctantly agreed, recognising that justice delayed is indeed justice denied.

This incident underscores the urgent need for institutions to respond promptly and diligently to cases of harassment. Without swift and vigilant action, such crimes will continue unabated, perpetuating a cycle of injustice and impunity.

If we aim to halt harassment and mitigate its prevalence in our society, we must begin by providing a clear definition of harassment, fostering constructive conversations about it, and training our institutions and professionals to respond vigilantly. A robust justice system is indispensable for delivering swift justice and effectively punishing perpetrators. It’s imperative that action speak louder than words in our pursuit to eradicate all forms of harassment, with the state assuming a nurturing role, akin to that of a mother, to support and empower its women and daughters.

*Names of storytellers have been changed to protect their identity.

The writer is a development professional.

She can be reached at