No country for young women – 10 Jul 2022

I have been meaning to put down these thoughts for almost a year but somehow kept delaying it. However, I have come to realize that just because I lack the rigour of the theoretical underpinnings and academic vocabulary on this important issue, which affects every woman in this country of 230 million, that should not keep me – or anyone else – from speaking out.

The news of the NAB chairperson finally being seriously investigated for what the country saw in leaked videos a few years ago is the impetus that finally pushed me to do this – though the timing of this sudden renewed interest in the case seems to be motivated by political necessity rather than doing what is right. Just like that, the inaction by the PTI government on this case is easily explained by its overriding interest to use the evidence that publicly emerged to compromise the NAB chair and keep him under its thumb rather than walk its own talk and push for swift justice on a case involving corruption, moral depravity, harassment of women, and negligence of missing persons’ cases. The fact that the PTI government was supporting someone who is alleged to be involved in all of these while publicly pushing for ‘Riyasat-e-Madina’ is a twist of irony.

I am at a stage in my career where, as a woman, I have seen a good number of young women struggle to find their feet while fending off advances and harassment as they enter their working lives. For years at home, long before they start working, many girls and young women are conditioned to refrain from laughing and even smiling too much in public lest they attract unwanted attention. Do not make any waves, for anything that happens to you is always explained as a reaction to how you acted, dressed in public. Best to never smile, wear a permanent scowl on your face and float through life unnoticed, preferably while remaining invisible.

Before I go on and some men start objecting that men are also victims of harassment at the hands of women, let me say this: harassment incidents are underreported in Pakistan – yet, those that are reported heavily feature men harassing women. For that reason, I refuse to acknowledge the Johnny Depp/ Amber Heard caveat anyone demands of me.

Most parents shy away from having frank conversations that could somewhat prepare their children, especially their daughters, for the real-world workplace. Most schools, colleges and universities are also of little help because just broaching such a subject can invite public backlash from parents and the public. That means no guest speakers, no workshops, no training, no mock practice sessions, no nothing to give students the life skills necessary to know the bounds of acceptable behavior and deal with anything from obnoxious behaviour to predators and everything in between without second guessing oneself.

In the rest of the world, the bounds of civilized behaviour, especially with other sexes, are learnt growing up, dealing with friends and peers at school. In our country, where most schools remain segregated, many graduates start their first job with this handicap. Even coeducational institutions are often subject to strict moral and dress policing, sometimes by gangs of thugs and at other times by the administration itself.

Inappropriate language and behaviour, harassment, and predatory behaviour (mostly by men) remains rampant and mostly unaddressed in workplaces. All the gender frameworks in the world to bring more women into education and the workforce do not mean much if workplaces remain as hostile to women and devoid of accountability for men as they are today. Clearly, the trauma of harassment in the workplace has a psychological cost, but unsafe, unwelcoming workplaces also exact an economic cost. For example, while close to two-thirds of medical students in Pakistan today are women, that is not reflected in the number of women that go on to practice medicine and a big reason for that is the hostile work environment they encounter.

For example, a young woman I worked with called me and asked if the WhatsApp messages she received from a very senior bureaucrat were typical of the way he talks to everyone. Without being asked, he had been telling her about his gym routine, commenting on her display picture, and asking if the baby in the photo was hers, perhaps as a crude attempt to elicit her marital status. It is very easy to see how such behaviour from a man occupying a high public office, especially towards a young woman, would leave her split between feeling highly uncomfortable and asking herself whether she should react to put a stop to it lest it may cause issues for her employer on whose behalf she was working with that official.

In another instance, an owner of a private school told me about her interaction with a public official who, after interacting with her for official business, sent her a disappearing WhatsApp message inviting her to meet him outside of work. Since the message was fleeting, she could not even take a screenshot of it.

Another woman received LinkedIn messages from a very senior bureaucrat she had once officially interacted with, telling her that the colour of her dress in her display picture was ‘becoming on her’.

On numerous other occasions, women I have worked with had to regularly endure comments on their dressing, were told that they look pretty, were asked their age, marital status, received unsolicited and irrelevant late night WhatsApp messages or inappropriate memes or songs when their relationship could not even be characterized as friendly colleagues. It is inconceivable that in this day and age such people still need to be told that this constitutes unprofessional and inappropriate behaviour. While I remain reluctant to apply this litmus test, I have no doubt that such men would immediately recognize their own behaviour as crossing the line if someone else was inflicting it on women of their own family.

What to do? A few days ago, my kid started her first summer job in retail. One of the things she was taught as part of her training was how to use the store’s ladder, which irked her a little (“Do they think I am an idiot?”). I had to explain that training her to climb a ladder was as much for her benefit as for the store’s – if, God forbid, she ever gets into an accident while using the ladder, it absolves the business of blame (“The employee was properly trained in the safe use of the ladder in her orientation”).

Pakistan’s ‘Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act’ and its implementation is still far from perfect and still leaves several questions and gray areas. However, one thing that it does is give employers, both public and private, responsibility for the workplace environment they create.

The route to legal restitution remains a difficult one. As some recent high-profile public cases have shown us, even after recent legislation, it can involve years of court appearances, counter challenges of defamation, etc. Only a small segment of society enjoys the resources and family support necessary to see such legal challenges through. Furthermore, legal challenges of workplace harassment are dueled out between the harasser and the harassed – the employer who created the work environment often remains out of the fight.

We need to raise the financial and reputational cost of inaction of institutions and private organizations high enough that employers start weeding out toxic employees long before an incident occurs. I am not aware of any significant number of cases that have worked their way through the legal system yet in which survivors of (workplace) harassment have been able to hold their employers responsible for their part in creating a hostile work environment. One hopes that it will only be a matter of time that sufficient legal precedents are established which will make it too expensive for employers to ignore or sweep such incidents under the rug. For this reason, employers would do well to get ahead of the curve.

As a first step, employers could institute mandatory training for employees that explicitly informs employees on the bounds of acceptable office behaviour and a common understanding of what constitutes harassment and inappropriate behaviour, something that has been common practice around the world for decades. In that regard, to my understanding, employers are not restricted to narrow definitions of bad conduct laid down in the law but may demand adherence to a higher standard of their employees, one that is in line with the employer’s stated principles.

Men harassing women know full well what they are doing. However, such workplace training disposes of the plea of innocence by way of ignorance. If your workplace does not have workplace harassment training yet, demand them; if you are in a position of influence, institute them.

The writer (she/her) has a PhD in Education.

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