A graveyard of lessons

We are all headed towards oblivion — there is a good chance that no one will ever know who we were and, therefore, some may choose to hasten the inevitable end. It makes no sense to do this though if you are 17, a girl and in a profession that has the glamour and spunk that is equivalent to that of a fighter pilot. No sense at all that you would end both your fast in the holy month and your life by drinking a bottle of acid. Halima Rafiq did just that early last week. She was a cricketer from the city of Multan who was both talented and feisty by the accounts of her peers.
Halima’s choices are fraught with the harassment endemic that Pakistan is for women of all ages, regions and backgrounds. A human rights watchdog estimates that about 68 percent of women are sexually harassed in a country that is first to boast its religious credentials — probably a product of it. The official definition of sexual harassment is: any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favour or other verbal or written communication or physical conduct of a sexual nature or sexually demeaning attitudes, causing interference with work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment, or the attempt to punish the complainant for refusal to comply to such a request or if the request is made a condition for employment.
Women are so routinely subjected to harassment — even if it is not of a sexual nature — that it has become an acceptable currency in the workplace and in homes where female workers seek employment. However, clearly, as Dr Fouzia Saeed’s book, Swimming With the Sharks outlines, women face harassment at even the top echelons of international development/donor organisations that are supposedly tasked to emulate international best practices. It exists then from the public to the private sector and everywhere in between.
It was a good day in Pakistan when, on January 30, 2010, a bill was signed into law for women on protection against harassment in Pakistan. Parliament also amended section 509 of the Pakistan Penal Code to make sexual harassment illegal not only in the workplace but also in all public places and in private homes. However, just as tax evasion laws in the country do nothing to help our fiscal space, harassment laws have not resulted in assisting women who are victimised by those in powerful positions. The problem is that there is no mechanism for them to survive though the retribution they face after they come out and report the crime. As if the turmoil is not enough, they are more often than not faced with severe arm-twisting tactics for them to either withdraw their claim or better yet disappear. People who abuse their power are never shy of doing it again. With no deterrence, they are emboldened and double vengeful.
Though much of the credit for the laws in place for harassment go to excellent organisations like Alliance against Sexual Harassment (AASHA), there needs to be tireless more work that goes into institutionalising victim protection programmes. Had such programmes been in place, or at the least some counselling done for now departed Halima Rafiq, we would probably see her win us the world cup.
Halima was coerced into subservience with a 20 million lawsuit when she went forward and named the perpetrator. She was not the only one who complained. Many others did too. What transpired was the usual: a hasty committee, halfhearted inquiries, a shelving of the file — all under the garb of our cultural addiction of victim blaming. When our culture supports eve teasing, harassment only festers in such conditions. It stems from the notion that any woman who embraces the open sky is fair game for sexualising. Halima Rafiq was allegedly asked to perform sexual favours in exchange for a spot on the team during camp training over a year ago. Those who assume that she made this up must know that they have first assumed that the accused did not do it. They should ask themselves why they have an inherent bias against someone weaker.
The Harassment Act of 2010, in clause four, requires a written response against accusations made and major penalties include terminations and fines, none of which were executed. A woman who is alive and breathing is like the act of boldness itself. She has fought all odds. From feticide, to malnutrition, to lack of vaccination, denial of education, denial of mobility, employment and freedom of making life choices on matters of her sexuality. Why oppress her further? The perpetrators need to be brought to justice. The Halima Rafiqs of Pakistan, who we have asked for too large a sacrifice, deserve it. They deserve to beat oblivion.

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