Conspiracy of silence on sexual harassment in Pakistan
04 September 2009
Unwelcoming sexual advances, intimidating remarks and lack of protection policies in media make it difficult for women journalists to carry on with their jobs. Maheen Usmani, in a rare display of courage, has taken up the fight for a safe and gender friendly workplace.
Karachi, Pakistan: When is a telephone call considered sexual harassment?
Nabeela Aslam, journalist with Meri Awaz Suno, in Hyderabad, Sindh/ Photo credit: WUNRN
For Pakistani journalist Maheen Usmani, it is when her superior calls her late at night and launches into “suggestive talk” and lots of “innuendoes”.
At around 10 pm on May 11, Usmani received a call from her boss at the time – the managing director of the private television channel Dunya News, Yusuf Baig Mirza.
According to Usmani, Mirza talked to her about her looks and about giving her special favours such as reimbursements for a pay cut, fuel and cell phone bills, and told her to give him a call any time of the day or night.
The conversation was not only “detestable” but was also a case of sexual harassment, maintains the former bureau reporter at Dunya News. “He counted the expected benefits that a less important bureau reporter can get in return for a direct contact with him,” Usmani wrote in her resignation letter dated June 15.
She added that she was forced to resign after a series of incidents that she said were attempts “to sabotage” her career. She lodged a formal complaint against Mirza a couple of months ago and now wants a “written apology” from him.
After the May phone call, Usmani said, harassment at work took the form of Mirza dumping her special report and removing her without valid reason from a weekly programme where she was in charge of production. A couple of times, her programme’s repeat slot was taken away and replaced by a documentary, she added.
“You will not even begin to imagine the kind of dirt that has been thrown on me since I resigned,” Usmani said in a telephone interview from Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.
“And my colleagues, especially the females, who I thought would support me, have all but disappeared. I feel betrayed, as there seems to be a social boycott of me.”
Mirza called Usmani’s claims “an exaggeration”. In a phone interview, he said: “She’s blown this one-time phone call out of proportion. She had some issues and I just wanted to talk to her. The other staff felt she was getting preferential treatment from (the) director (of) news ...and bypassing her immediate supervisor, the bureau chief.”
“I never asked her to meet me, never sent her text messages on her cell phone, never even called her after that!” said Mirza. It was not clear, however, why he chose to call her late in the night, after work.
The Dunya News management has set up an enquiry committee. But doubting its impartiality, Usmani approached the National Press Club to seek recourse. Mirza has meantime slapped two defamation suits against Usmani.
Women resorting to legal aid
The Alliance Against Sexual Harassment (AASH) describes sexual harassment as “any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favours or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, when it interferes with work, is made a condition of employment or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment”.
"Women are often hesitant to go on record. Workshops are needed so that female journalists know how to deal with sexual harassment in workplace"
Although there have been similar sexual harassment cases reported in Pakistan, this may well be the first one where a female journalist has gone public, said Zebunissa Burki, coordinator for the South Asian Women in Media (SAWM)-Pakistan, a network of women media professionals.
Since October 2008, SAWM-P has received four or five similar complaints.
Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) president Pervaiz Shaukat said he does not think a telephone conversation can be termed sexual harassment. “A decent woman would just put the phone down, if she found the conversation insufferable,” he said, refusing to talk further.
The majority of Usmani’s colleagues at the channel, she said, advised her to stay put. Some said that if Mirza was making “life comfortable for her”, what was there to grumble about one phone conversation?
Mirza has also frowned upon Usmani’s going public with her accusations. “If there was the issue of sexual harassment that she is alleging, women usually make a complaint quietly,” he said.
In her resignation letter, Usmani said she was firm in her decision “not to fall prey to this conspiracy of silence”, adding that she would “take a public stand to expose such shady individuals plaguing the media”.
Indeed, women are often hesitant to go on record, Burki explained. She added that workshops are needed so that female journalists know how to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace.
Failure to protect women
However, there is a lack of policies protecting employees from harassment, explained PFUJ secretary-general ShamsulIslamNaz. “None of the newspapers or broadcast houses have any gender policy for its employees,” Naz said.
“If such a policy exists on paper, it often remains unimplemented,” he added. Even the union does not have a gender policy for its own members, he said.
“A lot of women are afraid of reprisals,” pointed out Maria Ahmad, correspondent and associate producer at Geo, another private channel.
“When I was in (state-owned) Pakistan Television (PTV), one of my colleagues was being outright abrasive. When I countered him, he reacted by making the camera angle impolite,” recalled Ahmad.
“It’s happening around,” talk show host Huma Shah said of sexual harassment. She recalled that working in PTV, she once complained about a senior person's “despicable overtures” to the managing director, but “all he did with the sleazy character was transfer him....”
“There is a very fine line between being friendly and being a harasser, and many cannot distinguish (between them),” added Shah.
The problem is aggravated by what Ahmad described as “ambitious females (who) accept a lot of unsavoury behaviour from male bosses to get to the top”.
For Shah, sexual harassment exists because it is tolerated. “Some women don't know when to say no,” she said.
Seasoned television and theatre artist Samina Ahmed suggested a profile of potential victims. “These are usually from disadvantaged backgrounds, not very wealthy, do not have connections and need work badly,” she said.
“Most know they are being exploited but they remain quiet. If they make a fuss, out they go,” added Ahmed.
"It’s time professional women get treated like professionals"
AASHA head Fouzia Saeed said the alliance is determined to raise sexual harassment an issue, seek policy and legislative protection and “turn the tables on harassers and put them under the spotlight, rather than the women getting the stigma”.
“It’s time professional women get treated like professionals,” she added.
It is a long struggle for many, said Ahmad. “Remember, women have to compete for beats as well. Men can develop contacts by hanging out after work, but for women this is not acceptable. Thus, oftentimes hard news remains a man’s domain and they (women) suffer professionally as well.”