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No Sir, I am not here to please you!

Oho! You look very nice today,” said my male boss while giving me a long detailed gaze starting from top to bottom. I felt as if I was standing naked in front of him. Disgusted, yet afraid to show off my real feelings, I managed a smile and rushed out of the room. I bet he had fun scanning my rear view.

This was not the first time my boss passed a remark on me neither he was the only one at my work place who had taken the advantage of belonging to the superior sex. Truth is many women like me, become a victim of this form of male chauvinism daily, if not at work place, then on the streets, in bazaars, educational institutes and even at their homes. Once, one of my co-workers bumped into me while passing by in the corridor. Though he apologized for it, the pathetic knowing grin on his face clearly showed that he was not at all sorry, rather very pleased by the accident. I have seen him making unnecessary physical contact with the receptionist like holding her hand or patting her back. Poor thing cannot defend her as she is on a junior post and really needs the job. Also, who will tend to her even if she raises her voice.

While it is sickening to see that men render this as their right by default to demean women, it is way disturbing to observe that men and women both, do not comprehend such remarks or actions as offensive. Most people think that such verbal/ physical advances are mere teasing or being friendly or at most innocent flirting. We need to understand that when such comments are not welcome, they come under the umbrella of sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is any form of unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favors or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that, in context to work place, interferes with the victim’s job and creates a hostile, intimidating or offensive work environment for him/ her. Yes, it is not limited to women only neither involves only male-female scenario. Sometimes the victim may be a man being harassed by a woman, a man by a man or a woman by a woman. The victim is usually a person on an inferior post; male bosses harassing female subordinates is the most common observation since the former has power over the latter and also the latter being of the weaker sex is easy to intimidate. The unwelcome sexual advances may be abuse, subtle pressure for sexual activities, speaking or showing content of sexual nature, unnecessary touching, patting, or pinching, passing lewd comments or jokes, forced physical intimacy and in severe cases even rape. The key words to focus on are “unwelcome” and “forced” because this is where the line between a friendly/ innocent tease and sexual harassment is drawn. I have many male and female colleagues with whom I share good understanding and a few of them are very good friends. They would never comment on the way I dress up and even when they complement me, I know there is no hidden agenda behind that as they would also criticize me equally and genuinely. We pull each other’s leg and crack jokes at each other but never cross the line of decency and personal respect.

In Pakistan, where women are already suffering at the hands of the society, may it be domestic violence, rape, acid attacks, illiteracy, health problems, etc. the so called “empowered” and employed women are also facing the same resistance. The prevalence of sexual harassment at work place is very common in our part of the world but unfortunately is not duly reported. Between 2008-2010, 24,119 cases of violence against women were reported, out of which only 520 of them were of workplace sexual harassment (Munir Moosa, JMS Vol. VII No.1). The main reason for the victims maintaining silence over such acts is the fear of losing the job or serious threats from the employer/ offender. Other contributing factors include fear of society, the insensitive behavior of colleagues, friends and family in such cases and more importantly lack of legal actions taken against such offences. Looking at the problem from a broader perspective, it seems that sexual harassment is not only a personal attack on the victim rather it is more of a barrier to the professional progress of the employee. The harassment itself results in a profound physical and mental trauma on the victim and this not only affects the work performance but also creates difficulty for the victim to achieve career aims without any fear or threat to his/her wellbeing. The type of sexual harassment quid pro quo (employee’s career growth dependent upon him providing sexual favors) is an example that may hinder women from pursuing their professional careers.

But it’s not as if nothing is being done. A positive advancement in this regard is the passage of two bills from the National Assembly unanimously in 2010 and both successfully became the Act of law. The Anti Sexual Harassment Policy called Protection from Harassment at Workplace 2008 requires every organization to form a three member standing committee to take notice of any complaint reported by an employee with reference to sexual harassment and take punitive actions against the offender with the consensus of the employer. In case of the owner or a senior manager being the harasser, the victim may have the choice of seeking legal help from an outside Ombudsperson whose office is specifically working for such complaints. The other bill implied the Amendment in Pakistan Penal Code 1860 (Act XLV of 1860) and the Code of Criminal Procedure 1898 (Act V of 1898) Section 509 that provides constitutional protection to a victim of work place sexual harassment with assigned penalties for the offender from the Court of Law. Unfortunately, this law exists on paper only and fails to provide any practical protection to the victims. Right from the offender, throughout the legal frame work to the justice provider, we encounter a male dominant system. When men are the authority to judge and punish men as is the case most of the time, partiality and biasness in judgment is inevitable. Actions must be taken to ensure a fool proof system that takes a culprit into account without any discrimination on the basis of his/ her gender, power or status.

Though, the law has provided a door for those seeking help, knocking on it still rests with the victim. Where there is need to encourage reporting and legally trying such offenses, we also need to condemn the act itself. Providing training to employees is one way to address the issue, especially women should be counseled on how to identify an event of work place harassment, how to cope up with such a situation and how women can help and empower other female colleagues in such cases. This also points out to the dire need of a specific authority within the organization that can identify such acts or could be approached for help by the victim. The human resource department or legal affairs may be assigned with duties to ensure that their work place is free from such forms of gender exploitation and are self-sufficient in taking disciplinary actions in case of violation.

Besides the state and the corporate sector, the society itself needs to change its attitude towards women. Respecting women and treating them as equals are one of the basic lessons that should be taught to our children so that they do not grow up to be oblivious to the idea of a woman being an equal counterpart in their homes, institutes as well as work places. Their politeness or silence should not be mistaken for being fine with what they are told, shown or subjected to. Women have their right of personal space and are capable of progressing on the professional forums just like the opposite gender and therefore shall not be treated as mere objects of pleasure.

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