Lawmaker Ayesha Gulalai made a desperate attempt to overshadow the political drama that followed the ouster of Nawaz Sharif as the country’s prime minister late last month. After striking Imran Khan on what she presumed was his Achilles’ heel, Ms Gulalai probably thought she could portray herself as a victim of sexual harassment and gain sympathy on account of her being a woman from conservative Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Her accusation that PTI Chairman Imran Khan sent her inappropriate text messages makes little sense without her making those public. It must be pointed out that that her version of ‘convincing evidence’ is inadmissible as the medium is deemed objectionable under the law of evidence or the Qanoon-e-Shahadat, 1984.
Of course, Ms Gulalai did not stop there as she hurled a flurry of allegations against the PTI and its chief, claiming to have more than one grievance. It turns out that a day earlier Ms Gulalai had been refused a party ticket for the upcoming election. Seasoned media persons saw through her shenanigans and cried foul almost immediately.
So why did Ms Gulalai choose to go for boisterous media propaganda and not a legal trial? There is a perfectly good law available that enforces the rights of working women against harassment. Assuming her grievance is real, why would a person not settle for legal recourse. If her stance was maintainable in the courts, she would not only get relief from the court, it would have also given her exposure in the media.
Harassment at the workplace is a reality for scores of women. It is the main hurdle for many women who pursue a full or part-time career. In 2001, an alliance of Pakistani NGOs “AASHA” was formed to work towards eradicating anti-sexual behaviour for working women. A legislative framework against harassment of working women was finally passed in the National Assembly in 2010 titled “Protection Against Harassment of Women at Work Place” (Act of 2010). Veteran PPP leader Sherry Rehman had spearheaded the initiative.
The law is self-explanatory and the processes are easy to follow as a complainant does not even require a lawyer to file the case. However, it is a law that is misunderstood. The mindset of both men and women due to cultural orientation on social interaction and lack of guidance on tabooed, unwanted advances has led to subjective interpretation of the definition of “harassment” as mentioned in the Act of 2010 and thus susceptible to misuse.
While a lot of working women got relief under the Act of 2010, there are some who misused it to settle scores. Recently, a sexual harassment case surfaced amongst the teaching faculty of Comsats, a public sector university in Islamabad. Four young women lecturers, led by their chairperson, falsely accused a senior male colleague of harassment. The federal ombudsman dismissed the case filed by the women. One of the women confessed later that they had made this complaint at the behest of a senior Comsats official who wanted to fire the male faculty member to settle personal scores and could not find any other grounds to do so. The falsely accused gentleman has filed a writ petition against the Comsats official and the women lecturers in the high court. Unfortunately, the young women lecturers were misguided and used by their senior Comsats colleague and are facing a legal battle as a result. Ms Gulalai’s case is perhaps similar.
Even genuine cases are facing problems especially when the courts pass favourable verdicts. In the case, Gun & Country Club vs Shahnaz (2015), seven women workers filed a complaint against their male supervisor who harassed them. The federal ombudsman for women decided the case in favour of the seven women complainants. In this case, the implementing agency was the administrator of the club who was appointed by the President of Pakistan. The administrator evaded implementation of the court order in toto. To date the aggressor is at large and a constant threat to the complainants.
With such a callous approach, people like Ms Gulalai and contemptuous employers undermine the sanctity of the law and jeopardise the future of genuine cases of harassment. Ms Gulalai did not think through the legal, social and professional ramifications. The media will continue her trial on air. Hackers are now being invited on talk shows to demonstrate the vulnerability of mobile phone systems and established hacking technology. They demonstrated how back dated fake messages can be generated.
The National Assembly has announced that its committee will probe the matter of which the PTI is also part and parcel. The proceedings will be in camera. Ms Gulalai will also face a trial by the jirga of her area and if she is unable to bring convincing evidence to substantiate her claims, her family will be banished from the tribe and region. She probably underestimated the consequences as do all those who misuse the law.
This act has had a profound impact on the entire political landscape. When Nawaz Sharif was disqualified by the Supreme Court on July 28, 2017, the PML-N had a fair chance to gain sympathy votes. However, his media-hungry cronies goaded the party into playing immature games which will hurt the party’s interests in the long run.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 11th, 2017.