Friday January 27, 2023

It’s not funny

August 12, 2017

Ever since Ayesha Gulalai accused Imran Khan of sexually harassing her through phone messages, the social media has been ablaze with jokes and double entendres. I have seen – with amusement – grown-up relatives, who have daughters and sisters in the workforce, siding with Imran Khan without even giving Gulalai a chance.

This piece is not an attempt to vindicate anyone of the frustrating political conspiracies, declare someone guilty or propose that women can’t lie.

Sexual harassment is so common in Pakistan that it is hardly a laughing matter. The Pakistani male is exceptionally privileged in this legal system and our society when it comes to sexual crimes against women. He is also free from the notions of shame and honour that bog women down.

When the PPP passed the Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace in 2010 people in my office laughed saying it was just token legislation because in a country where the conviction rate for rape is almost zero why would anyone get into hot waters for just sexual harassment. And as is visible from the way Gulalai has been maligned and threatened, coming out about harassment is difficult.

I have come across several colleagues and friends who were harassed for years, and the harasser played the winning stroke every time. The librarian of my school had to take a six-month leave from her government job, a friend had to forgo many months of her pay and quit, and another worked hard to get transferred from the Lahore bureau to the Karachi one because her co-host wouldn’t understand that she wasn’t interested. All these women had earned their independence against the odds – combating a brother who didn’t want them to study, in-laws who didn’t want them to work, husbands who wanted their money and a general sense of insecurity that follows them outside the house.

These women who are finally out to earn some money, maintain careers and independence they can’t afford to leave immediately. The notion that women can abandon the job is problematic. Though this is what they commonly do, give up projects, transfers, promotions, and internships because of powerful bosses or colleagues who wouldn’t stop asking for dinner dates or trips to other cities. Jobs are hard to find and retaining one becomes more necessary. The fraternity you work in is even smaller. Gulalai can probably fight the slander, being a powerful political voice under the media glare, but a school teacher in Shahdara or a nurse in Hafizabad cannot. Victims sometimes take years to report because they wait for the storm to subside – or become extreme enough for them to leave. And of course, some victims accept the advances (which doesn’t mean it ceases to be harassment).

In academia, professors and heads of departments have the final say in grades, thesis topics, defence dates and issuing of transcripts etc. Some universities require you to repeat grades as high as a ‘C’. This means you cannot escape your faculty if you are a student. Not surprisingly, harassment cases have been reported at LUMS, IBA, Karachi, Faisalabad, Punjab and Islamia University, among others. In 2010, a professor of Punjab University was accused of harassing his female colleagues in a bedroom next to his office. The Punjab government then removed ‘beds’ from government offices.

Every profession that promises fame, money, and power, which at times electronic media does provide- is a minefield for women. Some of the well-known anchors give their juniors a tough time with their friendly gestures and expectations.

Though young entrants are worse off, every woman is exposed.

Pakistan is in a transitional stage, from being an agrarian/rural society to becoming an industrialised/urban one. More women are now studying at universities, entering into government service, medical, legal and academic professions than ever before. The establishment in these occupations, mid-career professionals, owners, bosses and ‘seniors’ remain men. These men are not used to working with women, and often come with the idea that women outside of the home, unlike their mothers, wives, and sisters, are of a compromised character.

There should be specialised cells and committees that women can approach in educational institutes, in parliament, political parties, media organisations and even non-profits. Our society needs to create empathy for the victim and not hound her with vilifications. But these are nuanced ideas that the Pakistani public is, unfortunately, unaware of and therefore Ayesha Gulalai is accepted as a liar by the public which isn’t used to high-profile sexual harassment cases.

I am not sure what everyone is laughing about here. Women in your family will enter the workforce one day and face such monsters. And it will not become any easier for them unless there is an understanding in the public that taking advantage of women at your workplace is criminal.

The writer is based in Lahore and tweets as @ammarawrites. Her work can be found on