By Rafia Zakaria
December 27, 2017
IT has been a year full of revelations. Some of them have been shocking: the corrupt dealings of some political leaders and the lewd habits of other Hollywood producers all have been exposed on the pages of newspapers. The #MeToo Hashtag that began a few months ago gave women who had access to the internet a venue in which to share the alarming extent and breadth of workplace harassment.
For women, particularly those who work or study outside the home, the stories that have been told are painfully familiar: bosses who demand illicit relationships, superiors who fire women who do not return their advances, the promotions denied, the pay reduced, all making up the horrific landscape of harassment.
What the stories have told, statistics have backed up. According to UN Women, 120 million girls around the world have experienced forced sexual acts. According to a 2015 survey completed by the charity Action Aid, huge percentages of women — 57pc in Bangladesh, 79pc in India and 87pc in Vietnam — report having faced sexual harassment. The misery begins even before they get to work; over half reported that they experienced harassment by the operators of public transportation that they had to take to get there. If it wasn’t the operators, it was the men they encountered on the way to work, men who perceived them as morally loose or available simply because they were on their way to work.
According to the NGO What Works to Prevent Violence against Women, the harassment is particularly bad in South Asia because there is massive ‘sexual entitlement’ in the region. This means that men believe they have a greater right to occupy public places than women. The attitude carries over into the workplace, where even educated men believe they have a greater right to a job than women.
Often, when a male boss is supervising a team of men and women, he is more likely to give men the opportunity to lead projects and avail themselves of promotion opportunities. In their turn, women are considered rude or intractable if they are not acting like ‘pleasers’ and not conforming to the gender stereotypes that are attached to them.
These attitudes translate into wage differentials that are, like sexual harassment itself, a global problem. Research conducted by Pew in the United States revealed that at least a quarter of the women surveyed were paid less than their male counterparts for doing the same job and that pay differentials were the most common form of workpace
discrimination. A similar percentage reported being treated as less competent and many more complained about being subjected to constant slights in office conversations, meetings and other work-related discussions.
In sum, the workplace is a battlefield for women; if they are lucky enough to never face actual sexual assault, unwanted physical touching, groping, etc they are still going to be subject to lower pay and to the perception that their commitment to work is not as serious as that of their male counterparts.
In South Asia, the misery follows women back to their homes. In many cases, women have to undertake complex negotiations with fathers, husbands and brothers to even be able to work. In many cases, women will choose to wear the Hijab or Burqa and hand over their entire pay check to their male guardians just to be able to continue to work. The money that they do make and the economic power that they do get by participating in the workforce is hence rendered somewhat superficial because the ‘permission’ to work continues to rest with the men of the household.
Recent research focusing on working women in Bangladesh substantiates this; women in that country were found to be more vulnerable to domestic violence if they worked outside the home. One possible explanation for this is that while their husbands want them to continue earning, they feel that their masculinity is somehow impacted by the fact that their wife works outside the home.
Jealousy and accusations of infidelity or immorality abound and regularly erupt into violence. The situation then is a two-sided hell, harassment by bosses at work and abuse by husbands at home.
Socially and culturally, Pakistan is not that different from Bangladesh. In recent decades, rural-to-urban migration and rising education levels of women have meant that many of them are participating in the workforce.
While legislation protecting women is being passed, it is rarely enforced and informal surveys of Pakistani working women have revealed that very few of them believe that reporting harassment will actually lead to repercussions for the harassers. In the few high-profile cases involving Pakistani women working in NGOs and in academia, results have not been particularly promising.
None of this is particularly surprising. Cultural values that constantly establish male superiority make it almost impossible for legal actions or even internal disciplinary actions against harassers to succeed. Men cover up for other men, believing that if their friend, or colleague or brother is disciplined, then they too could be next. Other women, raised in a culture of male superiority, also cover up for men by routinely blaming the women involved. With everyone covering up for them, it is no surprise at all that no men are punished.
Perhaps a number of men reading this article feel its okay to harass women who cross the thresholds of their home and enter the public space. Some of them may rationalise their behaviour as just being friendly, as jokes, as good fun. Others may believe that when they pay women to do a certain job, they are automatically entitled to their affection, to their friendship and to their attention.
Still others may imagine that what no one sees, what happens behind office doors or in stairwells or corridors or online, doesn’t hurt or doesn’t matter. Those who think this way are wrong; their mindset would reflect the thinking of sexual harassers who, it can be guaranteed, are detested by the women around them.