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Culture pop

August 6, 2017

Culture pop: Message in a mobile


August 6, 2017

At some time or the other in our careers many of us who are strong, confident women have come across a degree of gender-based intimidation or sexual harassment, either thinly veiled or blatant, be it aimed at ourselves or at women we work with. And yes, we have kept silent.

There are complex psychological considerations at play. When a woman claims to be a victim of harassment, she is doubly vilified for keeping silent – and for breaking her silence. Ayesha Gulalai Wazir, the PTI parliamentarian who accused party Chairman Imran Khan of lewd trespasses via mobile messaging has been subjected to widespread character assassination, called a liar and accused of consent. Twitter trolls have suggested throwing acid in her face. PTI spokesperson Fawad Chaudhry, who makes Sean Spicer look like a Teddy bear, launched a scathing attack on Wazir and her sister, squash player Maria Toorpakai (which Khan later retracted) for playing in shorts. Another reason why women don’t call out sexual harassers: their families will also be trampled upon.

Why indeed would any woman want to face the prospect of such open condemnation and public hatred? It’s essentially a no-win situation. She could, like the rest of us, keep silent and keep her job and reputation. “Harassment victims remain quiet for years,” comments Senator Sherry Rehman who proposed the Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace Bill in parliament in 2010. “It is not just about courage there’s the prospect of shame, the fear of being doubted.” The PTI has alleged that Wazir has been paid Rs50 crores for putting Khan’s political career in jeopardy – though it would be a pittance for the ruination of her own.

The detractors came from all sides including vitriolic female PTI workers demanding a jirga sentencing; even veteran activist Tahira Abdullah argued Wazir did no work for women’s empowerment and chastising her for not complaining earlier. VJ Anushey Ashraf equally disparaged the PTI defector on Twitter: “When you get harassed on text by a man in 2013 you don’t report his crime in 2017 ALL the while supporting/working for him. It’s disgraceful.”

In actuality all these women along with a social media furore displayed not just misplaced disgust but also little understanding of the fear and emotional distress that surrounds sexual harassment by a male boss of a subordinate female worker. If Wazir did indeed face gender-based harassment and kept quiet about it for many years she is not alone. A survey in an American magazine revealed that even in the US, 71percent of women who experienced sexual harassment at work didn’t report it. In a UN-backed report on female politicians in South Asia from 2014, it was revealed that most victims of sexual harassment in Pakistan, Nepal and India were young girls targeted by colleagues expecting sexual favours – for example, in return for being selected as a candidate for election. A recent study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (2016) found that 80 percent of female politicians in parliamentary democracies around the world have experienced some form of psychological or sexual harassment. Sixty-five percent of the women interviewed said they had been the targeted with sexual language and imagery. This was more often the case when political leaders dealt directly with junior female colleagues. Taylor Hirth rejected racy text messages from American Senator Paul LeVota inviting her to drinks. LeVota shunned her in the office afterwards, denying her assignments. When Wazir alleged misconduct, the PTI’s Asad Umar warned her she was attacking the man who had “made her an MNA”, making out she had no real merit for the role.

Rehman reveals that she witnessed the bullying of female parliamentarians consistently during her MNA days. “You hear objectionable terms about women used by senior ministers in parliamentary debates. Really denigrating women, making light of their opinions. Sexist allegations and sniggers and the kind of put downs that can send women scurrying into the back benches forever.” The senator has noticed that female parliamentarians are now spotlighting male colleagues and demanding apologies.

In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review Johnson, Kirk and Keplinger detail why women delay or almost never speak up. For one, there is immense fear of retaliation or being trivialised by organisations. Journalist Marvi Sirmed recalls she was sexually harassed by a colleague twice her age at a very early stage in her career. “He has been with us for 40 years, they said. I was labelled a neurotic woman, totally shunned and had to leave my job.”

Since 2010, when the Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Bill became law, it is a criminal offence in Pakistan. All organisations are now legally obliged to have a code of conduct with an investigation procedure in place. Yet no political party in Pakistan currently has appointed an inquiry committee. Neither in fact do both houses of parliament. What then becomes of a law when the parliament that legislated it itself doesn’t follow it?

I have no idea whether Wazir is speaking truth to power when accusing her former party of fostering a sexist work culture or its chief Imran Khan of a close relationship with his Blackberry’s message functions. Unlike Hamid Mir, I’m not privy to the contents of Wazir’s mobile and even if there are whisperings in Islamabad of other such texts received by female journalists and politicians no one has actually come forward.

But political women should not have to feel they must keep silent to remain in the game. They should have access to complaint procedures without being slut shamed. Nor should they be expected to be sanguine about proposals from senior colleagues double their age. On Friday, it surfaced that apart from Khan another PTI leader may have sent texts to Wazir. Tweets from Naeemul Haque’s account suggested he “discussed marriage” with her. “To propose to a subordinate and disinterested political colleague is not about giving her izzat, it is harassment,” Sirmed asserts. Later, Shafqat Mahmood claimed Naeemul Haque’s account was hacked. If not, this suggests a deeper culture of harassment within the party.

On Friday, parliament constituted a committee to investigate Wazir’s allegations. “I don’t want to accuse a political leader but I can’t dismiss Gulalai. She has to be given a due hearing, says Sherry Rehman. Seemingly hinting at more such cases, the PML-N’s Marvi Memon said that Wazir had given a “voice to those who have remained silent”. Khan welcomed the formation of the committee but said the PML-N was behind the whole affair. The PTI has already issued show-cause and legal notices to the defiant MNA. Sirmed feels that, contrary to rumours, Wazir is unlikely to be welcomed into most parties. “Like President Trump disparaging Hillary Clinton, Ayesha Gulalai Wazir is now considered a nasty woman.”

The writer is a journalist based in London and works with the BBC World Service as a broadcaster. Twitter: @fifiharoon

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