PAKISTAN: Backlash Rises against Bill on Sexual Harassment

  • by Zofeen Ebrahim (karachi, pakistan)
  • Thursday, February 18, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

These groups are having last-minute jitters given that the first part of these legal measures to counter sexual harassment -- Criminal Law Amendment Act 2010 -- was signed into law by President Asif Ali Zardari on Jan. 29. This amendment, the result of two years of unswerving struggle by civil society, especially women activists, is aimed at protecting both men and women against harassment at workplace.

But the backlash from critics is rising now that the second part of the amendment — a specific law on the protection against harassment of women at the workplace — has been approved by the lower House of Parliament and is awaiting passage in the Senate.

'It is against shariah (Islamic law)' is how Sen. Gul Naseeb Khan of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazlur Rehman Group) views this second part of the bill. He was also the sole voice of dissent in the Senate when the first part of the sexual harassment bill was being debated.

In a television talk show, he said the bill protecting women from sexual harassment would only lead to the spread of vulgarity. 'There is no need for women to seek employment because the responsibility for their upkeep lies on the shoulder of men,' he said.

The only two professions women can take up, he argued, are teaching and medicine -- and those are only if it is absolutely necessary.

Jamshed Dasti, a parliamentarian belonging to the ruling Pakistan People’s Party that tabled the twin bill, went against his party’s line to oppose their passage and vowed to put forward a bill that would protect men’s rights. He also termed the sexual harassment bills an insult to Islamic society.

'He’s just being stupid,' Nilofar Bakhtiar, a senator belonging to the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaide-Azam group) countered, dismissing her colleague. 'We don’t need such bills in an already male-dominated society like ours and laws are not made for exceptions!' she told IPS.

'It’s laughable, what he’s said,' agreed a jubilant Dr Fouzia Saeed, a rights activist who termed the positive steps taken by the present government 'historic'.

'The first step has been taken,' said Saeed, who is director of the rights advocacy organisation Mehergarh and the real force behind the sexual harassment bill.

If the second part of the bill, which is more women-specific, passes Parliament and is signed into law, it will mean a major victory for Pakistani working women who regularly experience harassment and quietly take it in stride.

This usually starts at home, where they are given less importance, are regularly belittled and their work trivialised. For some women, violence is routinely inflicted on them at home.

In public spaces like streets, or in public transport, many women have to face catcalls, touching and intimidation. At the workplace, they can be leered and started at. Sexual innuendoes, most common being personal comments on dress or physical appearance, are regular fare. In rare cases, authority is abused to gain sexual favours.

The new enactment that became law in January replaces the text of Section 509 of the Pakistan Penal Law with a more comprehensive definition of sexual harassment and raises penalties to imprisonment of up to three years or a fine of up to 500,000 (5,892 U.S. dollars) Pakistani rupees or both.

Rights activists found the old law too weak, among others because the punishment was light at just one year’s imprisonment or a fine, or both, for perpetrators.

Thus, the coming into law of the first part of the bill last month is encouraging, said Ali Dayan Hasan, senior South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. 'It’s half-way to becoming a law and shows the government means business,' he told IPS.

But Saeed refuses to be complacent in the meantime. 'We don’t want it (the second part of the bill) to meet the same fate as the domestic violence bill,' she said.

This bill, although unanimously passed in the National Assembly on Aug. 4, 2009, lapsed when the Senate failed to affirm it within the stipulated 90-day period. In order to become law, the bill has to get passed by both legislative houses — all over again. Explaining why the second sexual harassment bill, a more women-specific one, is needed when the first one covers both men and women, Saeed said: 'The first one is an umbrella bill and has a wider ambit and defines crime. It is more for the protection of those working in agriculture, industry and marketplace. The second one is reformatory, where a woman’s grievances can be addressed out of court and quickly.'

This part of the twin bill also aims to bring organisations to adopt a code of ethics at the workplace.

Since October 2009, the Alliance Against Sexual Harassment or Aasha, of which Saeed is a founding member, had ensured that there would be a consistent media campaign in all television channels around the issue of harassment at the workplace.

During debates on the first bill on sexual harassment, all the mainstream parties rejected the amendment proposed by religious parties for women to observe an 'Islamic dress code' at workplaces to claim protection of their modesty.

But pushing for Parliament to pass bills on women’s rights is far from easy.

Bakhtiar, who was minister for women development, social welfare and special education from 2004-2007 and campaigned for bills against honour killing, amendments to the blasphemy law and rights to inheritance, says that male parliamentary colleagues themselves have been quite insensitive and make ugly comments about women.

She recalls the jeers they made to her three years ago, after the publication by a newspaper of photographs showing her embracing her male parachute instructor in France as part of a campaign to generate funds for earthquake victims. In 2007, Bakhtiar was forced to step down as federal minister for tourism after a vicious attack by the religious lobby that issued a ‘fatwa’ or religious decree against her.

After years in Parliament, Bakhtiar says of being among her male colleagues: 'It’s as bad as being a nurse in a hospital (nurses are routinely harassed by male colleagues, their seniors as well as patients).' She insisted, 'There should be a code of ethics for Parliament.'

'The kind of atmosphere that is prevalent inside the National Assembly is the same that exists outside,' Bushra Gohar, a female member of Parliament, added. 'It is representative of the Pakistani people’s mindset.'

Gohar said all progressive bills that aim at empowering women are opposed in the legislature. She said there are many parliamentarians like Dasti in the assemblies. 'They (male members) fear we are encroaching on their space. I tell them we are creating a space for ourselves.'

'The fear probably stems from the fact the mindset of the men in the assembly is the same that extremists enjoy,' said Anis Haroon, chairwoman of the National Commission on the Status of Women, an independent statutory body.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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