What is sexual harassment ?

By: Muhammad Ismail

Is it the definition that is the problem or do men and women comprehend sexual harassment differently?

If the debate and discussion over the past few weeks has taught us anything, it is harassment is of various kinds and that context matters.
We also saw how widespread the idea is as women who became part of the #MeToo campaign came out. In blogs and articles women and men relived their experiences, asking questions that have plagued such incidents for decades now: Did I ask for it? Did I encourage it?
Harassment, simply put, is persistent unwanted attention; sexual harassment entails a sexual context to this attention when a person asks for sexual favours. Verbal communication, inappropriate touching, leering or showing someone content of a sexual nature are some of the things that fall under this.

That man who wolf whistles as you pass by or tells you to wear a dupatta is sexual harassment on the street. It is unwanted attention and a comment on your physical appearance. More often, when we discuss harassment in the context of unwanted attention at workplace or elsewhere, what we are referring to is sexual harassment.
For Pakistanis, it was a long struggle to get to the point where now they can, at least, have a debate on what constitutes harassment and what doesn’t, as has been happening on social media over the past few weeks after Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s tweets.
This journey started on December 22, 1997 when a group of 11 women working at the UNDP’s Pakistan office filed a sexual harassment claim against a senior employee. Dr Fouzia Saeed was the one who first decided to pursue a case against him and was later joined by other women. This was a time when the word ‘harassment’ was not part of popular vernacular in Pakistan, let alone calling out sexual harassment at workplace. December 22 was declared the national day for working women in Pakistan by the then Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani in 2010.
After winning the case, Saeed formed Alliance Against Sexual Harassment (Aasha), a network to create awareness and push for legislation on the issue of harassment. They involved labour unions, civil society organisations, celebrities, and politicians and brought them on board.

The case and the movement that followed was the beginning of a discussion on harassment at different levels in the country, and it took Pakistan longer than a decade to slowly become comfortable using the word, especially in the context of sexual harassment.
“I remember we had organised a seminar and had our motto at the time, ‘Zero Tolerance for Sexual Harassment’, printed on a banner and put up on stage. Sahira Kazmi and Sania Saeed who were attending the event were surprised and thought it very daring.”
Dr Fouzia Saeed remembers the taboo around the term; when they went to the bureaucracy to talk about it, they were immediately labelled as ‘loose women’.
To talk about harassment without uttering the word, they would use phrases like “gender justice”. As part of the movement they also coined “harasani” a term for harassment in Urdu.
It took them 10 years to normalise the term, she says. Once the law was passed in 2010, not only harassment but also the term sexual harassment was used by politicians in speeches to discuss the phenomenon.
The word harassment in English comes from a 17th century French word which, interestingly, means to set a dog on someone. “The Urdu word, coined later by writers like Fehmida Riaz and Kishwar Naheed who were part of Aasha, comes from Persian,” says Wajahat Masood, a senior journalist.
While there is little debate about the etymology or the origin of the word, its meaning is often contested. Is harassment different from sexual harassment? What constitutes harassment and when do you add the taboo word “sexual” to it?
A gaze that lingers too long, a comment from someone passing by or a slight touch that makes you uncomfortable — women navigate different scenarios every day. Where on the spectrum does everything fall?
Saeed says the law is clear in how it defines and perceives harassment at the workplace and in the public as well, since section 509 of the PPC addresses it.
Apart from legal terminology, debates often happen online, showing a vast difference between how men and women understand harassment.
“Men often think a nice gesture even if it is unwanted does not constitute harassment,” says Farida Shaheed, CEO of Shirkat Gah. She gives a simple example: someone sends you flowers, you tell them you don’t want the flowers but they send you flowers again. Shaheed says most men would not consider this harassment but women would.
Saeed agrees with this, saying that initially when they started conducting seminars and speaking to people, women instinctively understood what it meant. “We would never have to explain it to women. I would joke with them that God has given us four eyes, two at the back and two at the front so we know when a gaze has lingered too long,” she says. In Aasha’s seminars and working groups with women, Saeed says they taught women to articulate and explain harassment to others.
Men resisted, she says. “It’s not easy to let go of that power. They often try finding grey areas by saying, ‘oh my personality is like this, where I’m just a happy-go-lucky sort of person’.”
Wajahat Masood doesn’t believe there is a problem in definition but rather a reluctance to understand it. “It is simple. Any attention, analysis or signal that is unwanted and for which there is no immediate apology is harassment.”
If there is one thing the past few months have taught us, it is that harassment is prevalent throughout the world. Although it is not limited to men; men in positions of power have historically and widely taken advantage of it. The Weinsteins have existed for decades in this world.
Farida Shaheed says the discussion on sexual harassment is relatively new across the world. “In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, no one talked about it. Not only are women becoming more vocal about it now and taking strength from each other, but have also become more articulate. Laws play an important role here. When there is no law or policy on something, the idea is that it is considered normal in society.”
Masood believes the problem is even more rampant and requires serious thought in Pakistan because women already face more discrimination at all levels than in developed countries. “This segregation and lack of access to the wider world makes it more difficult for women to point out harassment.”
He gives the example of the bill on domestic violence pointing to its fierce opposition by politicians like Fazal ur Rehman and Siraj-ul-Haq. He thinks it shows how our society fails to recognise women’s rights.
Similarly, he says, when it comes to harassment, “More often than not men know what they are doing. People need to accept it and realise how seriously it impinges on the economic and social development of women.”

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