I was in a hotel in Islamabad invited by a friend whose friend had a farewell. It was Ramzan of last year. We were opening our fasts at the sit-down dinner so I chatted to the person next to me who turned out to be a sitting minister of an important development field in K-P. Glad to be in the company of someone who was a decision-maker of a key province, I brought up women, how could I not — how well they are doing there; why you don’t see them on the streets when I recently visited Peshawar; why that is an indication of what agency they hold in all other realms of decision-making and what role they have in the electoral process. After my passionate questions and mini monologue, I realised I was being sort of ridiculed by the men on the round table. All I did was ask for his thoughts — why were they finding it amusing instead of feeling an acute sense of responsibility.
It took me a while to figure out that the minister and his cronies, who also happened to be his relatives, and also interestingly, happened to hold high positions in the K-P government, were openly mocking me and sharing familiar glances, arched eyebrows and all. When I probed, the sitting minister’s cousin said and I paraphrase: These “NGO women” know nothing about the realities of our culture. All they do is sit in five-star hotels and theorise. I’ll tell you a story. A similar woman came to my office to talk about women’s rights and such, I made her eat her words, and I told her: “you need to have a broom handed to you and you also need your tongue cut off. That is your place. Don’t forget that.”
Laughter from them. Out of sheer shock, I smile. Half confused, half eating dust.
A heated argument ensued. Others chipped in. We were told that we need to watch it because we are talking to ministers, not servants. To which we reminded them, they are actually servants to the people they are under contract to protect and to be answerable to. Not running a monarchy. After much ado, we left with the first five minutes of the conversation that went going south at the speed of breeding rabbits. Like all other aggressions, this one too was buried away. What could be done? A few tweets of outrage and then what — some more silence?
Until now, when I learned that there is a petition filed by an NGO person, God bless, Khurseed Bano who runs an aptly named organisation called Da Hawwa Lur (Daughter of Eve). The Peshawar High Court has issued a notice to the K-P Government after his petition, to immediately appoint a suitable person to the position of the anti harassment ombudsperson. This position has remained vacant in K-P for years even when the Protection Against Harassment of Women in the Workplace Act enacted in 2010 stipulates that this is to be done as a priority.
Sindh and Punjab understood that this was imperative. They appointed people to the post. The petition stated that the refusal to appoint someone to this position only spells out an “ulterior motive” on K-P’s part.
K-P’s government, right from its head honchos down to its staff seemingly want to either stay secure in their privilege by keeping women indoors, hidden from public space and civic engagement or certainly modified to have no voice. It’s terribly inconvenient if the status quo is changed. This petition, for instance, is terribly inconvenient.
K-P is abuzz with harassment complaints from women at hospitals, government institutions, and particularly at its universities. Take the University of Peshawar and the Khyber Medical College for instance and track only the harassment cases that make it to the news alone. It’s appalling. A travesty. The way these cases have been patched up is even more unbelievably — completely bereft of due process and justice for the women who dared to come forward. Currently there is no mechanism to address a grievance against men who choose to abuse their power even despite the milestone act protecting women from harassment. What good will acts do if there is zero political will to work towards an equality of all genders.
The women of K-P with the exception of several power-houses who break barriers, have been largely disenfranchised and remained a quietly whimpering group. Maternal mortality; lack of women in the workforce; nutrition deficiencies of the girl child; lack of education opportunities; domestic violence; non-financial inclusion and mobility restrictions are all definitive attributes of most households.
The requirements stipulated in the hiring of the anti-harassment ombudsperson have now been further eased. Now the requirements are loosely defined to include “any woman with 10 years of experience in matters relating to the protection of women against harassment.”
I am sure if you ask the K-P government why they couldn’t find a single woman in the entire province to take that position on all these years, they’ll say because she held a pen instead of a broom and had a sharp tongue instead of a spongy noiseless one. These ombudsperson positions can be lethal to a misogynist government. It is time to ask the K-P government to now finally obey the court order and start the interviewing process and get the person who can expose them for what they are.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 5th, 2017.