Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

By Areej Siddiqui

A forgotten but important issue—out of the limelight.

Sexual harassment at the workplace holds little credibility as a socio-political phenomenon in Pakistan and even less as a criminal offence. Only recently has a legislative framework been put in place to address cases of sexual harassment specifically and this movement too has been spearheaded not by government, but by AASHA (Alliance Against Sexual Harassment), a group of NGOs organized around eliminating harassment, especially against women, from Pakistani society.

Sexual harassment at the workplace is not unrelated to sexual harassment at other venues, in malls, melas, or on the street in general. The right to appear in public spaces as an independent citizen of the state is routinely compromised by eve teasers. Workplace harassment however is complicated by professional relationships and, quite simply, money. Women earning money i.e. enough to live independently, is considered a social dilemma. Fears of “vulgarity” and “promiscuity” spring up and the irony of it all is that such fears are dealt with through unwanted sexual advances, through sexual propositions, through sexual harassment, underscoring the very female sexuality that most quickens prohibitory impulses.

It is estimated that at least 70% of the women in Pakistan’s present workforce have faced some form of sexual harassment at the workplace. This includes women at “progressive” or “modern” offices, and women in fields, factories, domestic spaces and other labour-intensive jobs. There are, however, class differences at play. Sexual harassment in the upper classes seems to stem from a conflation of the ideas “modern working woman” and “sexually liberated woman” and of course, what sexually liberated woman would not want to sleep with that smouldering (sic) hunk of a guy that constantly propositions her? Harassment in lower classes stems mostly from a desire for control and subjugation of women, making their sexuality available to their employers regardless of marital status.

Sexual harassment is, however, not a women-specific issue; children in the work force and perceivably queer individuals also face harassment and exploitation. To a lesser extent, men in subordinate positions also face harassment. If you are in a management position at an organization, implement the code of conduct found here: http://www.aasha.org.pk/CompInstructions.php. If you or someone you know is being harassed at work, contact your organization’s Inquiry Comittee or the local Ombudsman (as appointed by government). To have to compromise one’s integrity through harassment in any form is unacceptable. To interfere with one’s right to earn a living in a crushingly capitalistic economic system makes it doubly so.

Click here to participate in a voluntary sexual harassment survey. All responses are anonymous.

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