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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 5 May 2018, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Female Workplace Harassment and Responses in Pakistan


By Marria Qibtia S Nagra

May 5, 2018

IS demanding respect, a privilege and entails asking just too much? Is the provision of a safe, secure workplace environment for women not a basic right but a considerable favour to grant? Is it something that they need to prove themselves worthy of and consequently attract? These questions instantly cross one’s mind considering the inapt vitriolic responses being subjected to singer Meesha Shafi, following her claims of alleged sexual harassment at the hands of singer, colleague Ali Zafar in a twitter post. It is disheartening to see how Ms Shafi’s claims are casually swept away with the general contention that in the Media and Entertainment industry, such episodes are a given, and participatory posturing in such a field mandates signing up for such abominable responses, when in reality what Ms Shafi experiences is not a rarity in Pakistan. Instead it is the story of every other working woman who publicly vocalizes her harassment, seeking action against the perpetrators of vile advances.

This brings to fore the cognitive incongruity of the Pakistani society, where on one hand reportage of such incidents is encouraged while on the other hand when they do tend to surface, a critical backlash awaits the victim’s audacity at reporting the abuse. Hailed by many as a battle of ego and libellous motives, aimed at capitalizing on the #MeToo movement, Ms Shafi’s fearlessness at coming forth and speaking her heart out, and the surfacing of claims by several other women in support of her stance, in fact signals towards a graver issue at hand, that of female workplace harassment in Pakistan, a reality callously overlooked, and conveniently shoved under the covers to the brim of denial.

 On a microcosmic level, the pervasiveness of female harassment boils down to the general perception of women being considered as “damsels in distress”, lacking not only the ability to think in clear coherent cognitive patterns, but also devoid of the agency to vocalize their concerns, thereby incapable of the potency to propel action , when wronged. It is this inane declaration coupled with the long held social narrative in the subcontinent that “good women” do not participate in professional domains conventionally demarcated for men, that potentially stands the blame for episodes of sexual harassment of Pakistani women at workplaces.

Generating a culture of psychological violence that manifests itself in the cyclical silence and acceptance of such harassment, since when such an incident does take place, reportage is never made a priority for the fear of victim blaming and shaming, female harassment does much harm than meets the eye. Psychologically proven, inactivity and helplessness in the face of such harassment leads to “self-blame”, a position whereby the victim considers herself to be responsible for the harassment when in reality, it is the perpetrator who is to be blamed, thereby propelling a flawed self-image and broken self- esteem. It only ends up discouraging women from qualifying as active participants of the country’s workforce, but also repudiates the weighty claims made in the name of gender equality, in an age where inclusivity and provision of equal opportunities is heralded to be the norm.

When someone reports abuse, it surely is not something to be downplayed through comical memes and morally degrading posts. The victims of abuse are not the laughing stock of social media moral brigade. In reporting abuse, they do not sign up for such a trajectory. In an obnoxiously judgmental society, when a woman claims to be sexually abused, by a co-worker or an associate it is not only courage that materializes in her decision to speak up. It takes something more than that.

 It is quite a solicitous decision rendered, mediated by several premonitions, for it entails unsheathing the most vulnerable parts of her personal life by proceeding beyond the precincts of socially imposed comfortability in her voicing up. It is an act that generally invites scathing criticism converse to desired understanding and empathy, where she is condemned to a life of perpetual castigation.

Unless pushed to the brink, no woman calls upon for such judgments and criticism and lives a labelled life, when she can very well go without doing so. This is by no means to deny the absence of cases where claims of sexual harassment have been at times motivated by malicious intents, aimed at defaming the alleged perpetrator for pursuance of nefarious motives. But instead it is to assert the fact that viewing such grave claims with dubious intent downplays the seriousness of this crime, qualifying it to mere farce, when all that we should focus our attention towards is the acceptance of its pervasion for timely consequent address.

 It needs to be realized that for women in Pakistan, non-participation in workplaces should be a conscious personal choice. It should not be something propelled by a fear of workplace harassment, since there is no greater injustice than denying them the right to actualize their potentials all because of the society’s convenient derogation of women who report abuse as opposed to maintaining an aura of austere silence. It is high time, such vitriolism towards abuse reportage is done away with , for in its pervasion lies the pervasiveness of abuse, somewhere succumbing an abuse victim to a life of muteness and travail, all for the fear of being condemned for something she never invited.