KARACHI: It takes immense courage to tell your story of sexual abuse, and after 14 years Fouzia Saeed has told the world.
“I realised that if I wanted other women to speak up, I first had to speak for myself,” the social activist said at the launch of her book “Working with Sharks” in Karachi on Friday.
As she briefly spoke about her struggle and the harassment she faced in her professional life, the women in the audience listened intently, nodded in agreement as if her story was their own.
“I used to think I had gone beyond what happened, but while writing this book I went through a lot. There were times when I would sit alone and cry and did not know why I was crying… When you talk about yourself, you realise how vulnerable you are.”
There were 100 men and 16 women at the UNDP office in Islamabad where I worked and of those 16, 15 had been sexually harassed, she said. “All of the women had similar stories, the same things had been said to them, the same phone calls had been made… all of us suffered for years only because we did not talk.”
It was when one of the women came to talk to Saeed about her suffering that she realised that something now needed to be done. “But once a woman talks it’s as if she becomes a leper, people do not want to be near her… She is the witch and then begins the hunt.” The stand Saeed took on December 22, 1997 by filing a complaint against the harassment, finally culminated in legislation passed in March 2010, which makes sexual harassment a crime.
With no speech prepared, Sharmila Faruqi, adviser to the chief minister, spoke passionately about the issue. “Every woman can relate to this book. I am advised by cabinet members on how I should wear my dupatta and what the length of my sleeves should be,” she said.
It takes a lot of courage to stand up and tell your story. By telling society what she went through, Fouzia has opened herself to public scrutiny, she said. “Please stand up for yourself, it’s time we do so, it’s time to stand up against the sharks,” she said emphatically.
Farooqi, director Sahira Kazmi and singer Tina Sani reiterated the need for the media to highlight social injustices in society and follow up the cases. “In this country we remain silent half the time. We are silenced before we can talk,” Sani said.
Hosting the show, Adnan Malik said that at an auction to raise funds to increase awareness for sexual harassment, the first copy of the book was bought for Rs125,000 by women in different countries working for the United Nations. The second copy was auctioned at Rs110,000, while the third copy was purchased for Rs100,000. A copy of the book will be sent to the UN Secretary-General in New York. As is inevitable, a man stood up after the floor was opened for questions and said: “What about the harassment men face? I’ll write a book on that.” A roar of laughter followed his comment and Saeed’s expressions grew stern. It was obvious that she had heard such things often enough and would not let the comment pass. “This laughter is my motivation. We have to cut through this laughter for people to take this issue seriously. People need to understand that this is not a bloody, trivial joke.”
Published in The Express Tribune, December 24th, 2011.