“Harassment is never the victim’s fault”

RJ Tehreem Muneeba talks about her ordeal of workplace harassment

A radio and TV host, Tehreem Muneeba has been a voice for many TV and radio shows. Muneeba’s 15-year professional career as a voiceover actor came to a halt after she raised her voice against sexual harassment at her workplace.In an interview with The News on Sunday, she recounts her ordeal at her office and the subsequent legal case she eventually won.

The News on Sunday (TNS): When did you feel that enough was enough and you had to speak against the harassment?

Tehreem Muneeba (TM): I resigned from my job on September 3, 2018. Harassment had been a routine for nearly five years. It was a fact of life. However, on August 23, things became really ugly and I realized that there was no point in tolerating this and that it was only going to get worse. If there is an occasional cat-call or a demeaning comment, many of us women try to ignore it. But it is on your mind all the time and it is disturbing. In my case, out of a total staff of 15 at the office, seven people, including the bosses, were involved in this. So, there was no place to go. When I made a formal complaint, the company chose to ignore it and did not take any action. No investigation took place. Those perverts are still working there while I have been unemployed for nearly two years.

TNS: Why did you not consider joining another organization?

TM: My radio show was doing well: it had the most listeners in the slot in Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore. I have not been switching organizations. I believe in loyalty to an organisation and to one’s work. My stay at the last organization that I worked for, was for four years. Then I went to US where I worked for an American radio station. During this ordeal, I was always hoping that things would get better. One can’t start from the scratch over and over again.

TNS: What sort of attitude did you face at the workplace?

TM: There were many things. Usually, no food is allowed in the studios. [This makes for good hygiene.] These IT guys had left their shoes and socks in the studio. I asked them to please take them out as I wouldn’t be able to record the show due to the smell. Instead, they took offence and started abusing me. From then on, it got worse by the day.

TNS: Do you think it was something that you did that provoked them to gang up against you?

TM: Sick people don’t need a reason to harass women.

TNS: What do you think of the laws that are in place to stop this from happening?

TM: I registered a formal complaint under the Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2010. It was the first thing that gave me hope that there could be justice.

TNS: Were you afraid when your organization sued you for Rs 500 million?

TM: Most of the women who have been harassed don’t want to speak about their ordeals publicly. They can’t stand being humiliated everyday by having to repeat the same sordid story over and over again. I was already depressed and unemployed. Then when they sued me, I decided to prove the truth.

TNS: What was your experience in court like?

TM: Court proceedings are formal. The court heard both sides at length. I recorded all my grievances. Only I had proof to substantiate my case and the other side failed to come up with evidence. They just kept denying they had done anything wrong.

TNS: What made you argue your case on your own?

TM: I had a somewhat uncomfortable experience with my previous lawyer. He dropped the case less than two weeks before the hearing. That is when I decided to take it in my own hands. Also, I was unemployed and had no savings. I read up on case law as much as I could. That was my preparations.

TNS: You aren’t a professional lawyer?

TM: I am not.

TNS: So how did you prepare for the case?

TM: I had one independent witness, who was a former employee. I had a lot of evidence and I am a finance graduate and have studied chartered accountancy. I believe all this helped me understand the legal terms.

TNS: How did your family respond to your decisions?

TM: They are very supportive. After I resigned, my bosses sent me a legal notice, alleging defamation. My mother and brother received it. They didn’t panic. They asked me what I wanted to do? I told them that I had decided to face them and fight for truth.

TNS: Rs 500million is a huge amount. Have you sued them as well?

TM: No. I have been busy defending myself and proving what was right. This is what happens to a lay person. I was not out as they wanted me to be. So when my lawyer dropped the case, I decided to speak for myself. In the court, they were very considerate towards me knowing that I was on my own.

TNS: Why don’t we call verbal abuse harassment? Also, what is feminism to you?

TM: There are too many factors. I don’t know why it happens. It depends upon one’s upbringing, environment and the way of thinking and understanding things.

As far as feminism is concerned, I think that some women misrepresent it. It is sad that we are still talking about such basic things. There are so many other points. I stand against injustice regardless of gender. A lot of women journalists wanted me to be the torchbearer of feminism. I requested them not to misquote me. I have a family who support me. That is enough.

TNS: You have won the case?

TM: Yes. That is the first stage. They will appeal against the judgment. I have won here. If I win the appeal, they will take it further up, to the high court and then to the Supreme Court. These troubles will continue for me for a while.

TNS: And you will fight?

TM: Yes, I will.

TNS: What do you think was the reason the employer sued you?

TM: They were not ready to accept the fact. I wasn’t ready back then to speak about it publicly. I had just filed a complaint because I wanted them to handle this. But they didn’t listen to me and sent me a defamation notice a day after my resignation. They should have listened to me, held an investigation and sorted this out there and then. But they chose to protect them [the harassers] because they were the heads of various departments.

TNS: Has any of your female colleagues had a similar experience?

TM: I don’t know. If it has happened, they have preferred to keep quite. Some people put up with more insults than others. It was a male-dominated environment and I was the only female in that shift.

TNS: None of the female colleagues came out to support you?

TM: Two female RJs came to record their statements against me. They had different timings. So, their claims were ignored by the court because they were never there when it happened.

TNS: Have you been threatened?

TM: What I have gone through is threat enough. They have ruined my career. I won’t say I was a star then and I am nothing now. I am doing some freelance work. I do not have a regular job, but I have a good reputation. They will be stupid if they do something directly against me as everything is public now. At least, this is what I am hoping the way it is.

TNS: What should be done to stop harassment?

TM: There are laws there. One has to seek enforcement. We have a constitution; we can do things in its light. If a woman is suffering, we can make a law and give her relief. Then why don’t we take a stand and use this constitution and improve things.

“Harassment is never the victim’s fault”