by Dr. Fouzia Saeed
I would like to congratulate all the women in Pakistan on the passage of two significant pieces of legislation. The issue of sexual harassment had pained us for just too long. I learnt from my mother and other elders, and I am sure all the other Pakistani women learnt it from their mothers that, Ghar se bahir niklo gi to aiesa to ho ga” (If you will go out of the home you are bound to face it). Sexual harassment, every time we went out anywhere, was taken as a given phenomenon, a constant in our lives. The burden was always on us to devise ways to handle it. Of course, these ways only restricted our own lives. No one in my life ever said that it was wrong and should not happen. The focus was how I can dress properly, not go out alone, not go out in the dark, take my brother along or even better not go out at all. Thus, the bottom line being that this teasing, intimidation and humiliation is there to stay. It was not until later in my life that I started to wonder if there could be a possibility that men could be prevented from harassing me. I am sure many other women have thought about this and, at least on some occasions, have challenged this humiliation.
I want to express heartiest congratulations to those women who took a stand of refusing to accept humiliation as standard behavior and fought back. I know that most of them faced even more humiliation in society because of their stand, but they flagged the issue and stood their ground. It is always the brave ones who open the doors for new thoughts, new ways and new mind sets.
My heartiest congratulations to all women, those who work in the fields, in people’s homes, in offices, in the parliament and all those who live their lives doing the normal activities of going to school, to the market and other public places and suffer everyday in the face of this degrading behavior. My heartiest congratulations to the young girls of the new generation who will not grow up thinking that if you leave home you have to face sexual harassment as a standard part of life. Now they will learn that this behavior is a crime. It is not they who are doing something wrong. It is the behavior that is insensitive, distasteful, cruel and, now, criminal.
My heartiest congratulations to the government for making this historic shift in our mindset by declaring this behavior to be a crime when for so long it had been accepted by our society as a natural, and permanent, nuisance that was unchangeable. Such a historic shift could never have occurred without the commitment from the senior leadership. I thank the President and the Prime Minister for making this contribution to the long struggle of the women of Pakistan to be accepted as full members of our society.
My heartiest congratulations to the Parliamentarians, both in the Senate and the National Assembly, especially to those who stood up and spoke with their hearts in favour of women’s dignity and their rights as a human being. We are very proud of all those men and women. Sitting in the galleries, we had tears in our eyes when they spoke for us. We were praying for their well being and praying that our country has more of such leaders who are willing to protect the masses from suppression, humiliation and indignity. They will certainly see the fruits of their brave stance within their families and in the society as women becoming braver and venture into new realms. The women Parliamentarians particularly made us proud. Their support and ownership of the legislation and their willingness to take the risk of even, at times, defying their party line to support these laws will always be remembered by their sisters among the masses. We are proud to have our women representatives sitting in the two Houses to represent our interests and we should never allow anyone to take that away from us.
It is only the pessimists who keep scaring the women that these laws will not be implemented properly and that men will humiliate them more if they try to use it to report indecent actions. Those who speak this way are cowards who, until yesterday, were trying to convince us that men are men and it is women who have to learn how to deal with it. Those are the people, women included, who do not want to allow other women to take their destiny in their own hands and fight for their rights. If we can bring such laws that were unthinkable a decade ago what is to stop us from getting them implemented?
The good news is that the implementation has already been started. Today the women of Pakistan are braver than yesterday. There are hundreds of business organizations who have already followed the Code of Conduct stipulated in the bill: “Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace”. The Chamber of Commerce of Karachi and some other cities are fully committed and geared up to get their members in line with the law. Several government organizations are in the process of incorporating the prescribed code in their policies. The Higher Education Commission is in the process of finalizing an anti sexual harassment policy for all the universities and colleges of Pakistan. The Police have completed their exercise of developing their own anti sexual harassment policy to control the actions of the men and women on their own staff. The Motorway and Highway Police, the Railway Police and the regular Police Service in NWFP and Gilgit Baltistan have already adopted it formally; while Sindh, Punjab and Baluchistan are expected to follow soon. The Establishment Division, Planning and Development and many other Ministries have initiated the process of sensitizing their staff on the issue and are forming their internal committees.
These bills were already being implemented before they were turned into law. What more evidence do we need that the attitudinal and behavioural shift is going to happen regardless of any resistance? Pakistan is a vibrant society that is always seeking ways of improving itself. Let’s not listen to those who want to keep us timid and afraid. Let’s move forward.
Dr. Fouzia Saeed