Slut shaming sexual harassment victims doesn’t work anywhere, be it India or Pakistan

A high-profile sexual harassment case in Pakistan just showed how unsympathetic the public is towards those that report them

ByAmmara Ahmad
Slut shaming sexual harassment victims doesn’t work anywhere, be it India or Pakistan

Almost a fortnight ago, Pakistani ace cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan was accused of sexual harassment by a Member of the National Assembly from his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI). Ayesha Gulalai Wazir is 28, the first woman from Pakistan’s conservative Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to reach the National Assembly and also currently its youngest member.

Wazir’s statements were followed by a lot of ‘slut-shaming’. Her character and ambitions were questioned.

PTI’s spokesperson Fawad Chaudhry accused her of taking 50 million rupees for defaming Khan. He also went a step further by pointing out that Wazir’s sister, Maria Toorpakai, who is an internationally renowned squash player, wears “nikkar” (shorts) while playing.

Despite the ridiculousness of the statement, social media users heaped much abuse on her- so much so that Khan tweeted (though two days too late) that Toorpkai should not be targeted.

These sexual harassments accusations followed the dismissal of Nawaz Sharif’s premiership at the hands of Pakistan’s Apex Courts. PTI portrayed Wazir’s accusations as an attempt by Sharif or his followers to sabotage Khan. They were suspicious of the timing of the allegations which followed their arch-rival’s biggest political defeat so far.

Soon after the allegations, Wazir was interviewed by a prime-time anchor who casually quipped if she wanted to marry Khan and other such shaming questions with a smirk. The Youtube video for the show Off The Record is called “Did Ayesha offer Imran Khan for marriage?”

Wazir accused another PTI leader, Naeem ul Haq of harassing her. In a tweet that was subsequently deleted Haq asked if discussing marriage with Wazir was so wrong? His party claimed that his account had been hacked.

Women members of PTI approached Ayesha Ahad, a young woman who had accused Nawaz Sharif’s nephew Hamza Shahbaz of marrying her but not accepting her openly as his wife in 2010. Ahad held a press conference a few days ago to establish that the Sharif family isn’t as pious as they appear.

Pakistan’s constitution requires its elected officials to be “Saadiq aur Ameen (truthful and honest)” and anyone who falls short of this criteria enforced by Article 62/63 – is unelectable.

As problematic as domestic discord is, Ahad’s unacceptance by her in-laws is not the equivalent of sexual harassment which is a criminal charge. Additionally, this is hardly sexual harassment but a family discord that the High Court has already given a decision on.

However, Wazir’s challenges are not unique- many women parliamentarians complain of this form of harassment.

“The issue is not if the accusations are politically motivated,” said Farzana Bari, a leading feminist, human rights activist and former Director of the Gender Studies Department at Quaid-e-Azam University.

“An investigation will be conducted, and the accused can file a defamation case if Ayesha Gulalai fails to provide evidence. But this case represents a phenomenon that many women parliamentarians from all the parties complained about. All the women parliamentarians considered sexual harassment a major challenge. “

Bari co-authored a research paper “Unmaking political patriarchy through gender quotas” in 2016 that included interviews of several sitting parliamentarians from almost every mainstream political party.

Sexual harassment is common in Pakistan  – in fact, it is one of the biggest challenges Pakistani women face in the workforce.

As the country is swiftly transitioning from a rural/agrarian country to an urban/industrialised one, the number of women in colleges and schools has proliferated. Many colleges and universities have a majority of women–More women now are entering medicine, law, engineering, civil service, and journalism than earlier. All these professions are middle-aged, male establishments that are unused to dealing with women outside the home. The notion that women who work have a compromised character is deeply-rooted and encourages them to make advances.

Journalism, a field I have ample experience in, is marred with sexual harassment accusations. This is more true for new media partly because it promises money and fame. However, it is a tough place for women, particularly the younger lot. Many anchors and producers have a reputation for being on the lookout for women and attempting to coerce new employees into favours.

Tanzeela Mazhar is a TV journalist who was an employee of Pakistan Television PTV. In January this year, Mazhar complained of being harassed by PTV’s Current Affairs Director Agha Masood Shorish and when she approached the inquiry committee to seek help, they asked her to leave. She quit but was appalled by the treatment she met.

“I didn’t sue PTV, but we filed a case against the director in internal harassment committee,” said Mazhar. “After seeing the evidence, Minister for information Maryam Aurangzeb was initially very supportive. But then the committee started trying to malign us. The committee had no idea what harassment was and asked obnoxious questions.” She said the committee was biased and unable to hold an investigation.

Mazhar was stopped from entering PTV premises, her harasser returned from leave and made a fresh start. When Mazhar protested against this, she was told that there was immense political pressure on the committee to not make a decision. Despite digital and audio evidence- the decision was given in favour of the harasser. Mazhar’s resignation was accepted a few months later. Shorish is currently suspended over other charges.

Ironically, Aurangzeb is a Pakistan Muslim League minister, and it is clear that the ruling party wasn’t as concerned about sexual harassment in January as it is now.

One other profession where harassment has been reported is sports. In 2014, a teenager woman cricketer, Haleema Rafique from Multan (south Punjab) committed suicide alleging that club officials were harassing her.

A year before this, she and four of her colleagues were banned for six months for falsely accusing their club officials of harassment.

The Pakistan Cricket Board investigated these charges.

“The inquiry proved that the allegations by five cricketers were untrue,” says Faizan Lakhani, a sports reporter for one of Pakistan’s leading channels.

“I cover women cricket and sports very often. No woman player has ever informed me of any sexual harassment on record or personally. There are disciplinary committees and separate women wings they can go to for help. But no such incident has emerged so far.”

In academia, professors and heads of the departments control grades, thesis topics, defense dates and issuing of transcripts and what not. Their signatures are required, and their say is often final. Female students, once caught in this web, find it difficult to escape.

Not surprising that harassment cases have been publicly reported at LUMS, IBA, Karachi, Faisalabad, Punjab and Islamia University in Islamabad and faculty members have been removed from service.

In 2011, a professor at of the Punjab University was accused of harassing his female colleagues in a bedroom next to his office. He was thankfully fired and the Punjab Government then removed “beds” from government offices.

Similarly in Chandigarh, 29-year-old Varnika Kundu, took the BJP Haryana President’s son to task by reporting that he harassed her and attempted kidnapping when she was out after midnight a few days ago. The 23-year-old Vikas Barala and his accomplice Ashish are now behind bars. Thanks to the immense public and media pressure- their accusers’ bail was canceled.

However, the difference in response came when the BJP tried slut-shaming the victim. She refused to hide or mince her words and very accurately responded that “it is none of the anyone’s business” why she was outside of her home past midnight and had it not been for men like Barala, women would be “safe” outside.

Just like in Wazir’s case, a BJP representative tried to shame Kundu but had to withdraw the tweet due to public pressure and came up with the same explanation – her account was hacked.

The Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act requires that committees be formed to investigate such charges. There is a need for specialised cells and committees that the women can approach in educational institutes, political parties, media organisations, Parliament, assemblies and even non-profits. However, Mazhar said the committee she took her case to was influenced by powerful politicians, asked her crude questions and requested her to resign. Therefore, simply making a body for the women to go to isn’t enough as who in the committee is also important. Ideally, specialised helplines and departments should deal with it like those investigative departments that monitor corruption.

Bari recommends that “there should be restrictions and criminal procedures against those who indulge in the character assassination of the victims just like there is a provision of “contempt of court” for sub-judicious matters.”

Ever since Gulalai accused Khan of sexually harassing her through phone messages, social media is ablaze with jokes like “Katrina Kaif is messaging me, please check her cell-phone” or a double entendre like “Bilawal will soon cry that Khan has sent him obscene messages.” Unless the Pakistani public understands how common this problem is and stops shaming the victim- this problem will persist, and women will find it difficult to report it.

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