Talking about sexual harassment remains a taboo in Pakistani society, where women usually choose to stay silent for fear of repercussions. But now, there is one woman with the courage to speak out.
It took her three years to report and ten years to write about the sexual harassment she had faced at work.
Dr. Fouzia Saeed, author of "Taboo," a story about the culture of prostitution in Pakistan, has recently launched her second book, "Working with the Sharks: Countering Sexual Harassment in Our Lives" in Pakistan.
The book was officially launched in Islamabad on December 22 to coincide with the National Day for Working Women.
It is an account of the author's personal experience of sexual harassment by a senior male colleague when she was working at a senior administrative position at the UN Gender Program in Pakistan and how she and her eleven female colleagues took up the case against him.
She recalled how, in 1997, one of her subordinates came to her seeking help in a case of sexual harassment, not knowing that she had been experiencing the same dilemma for three years. It was then that she and 11 other women decided to file a report against the man harassing them.
"It was shocking when we tallied our accounts. All of us had been harassed the same way, by the same person. Even the words used by the harasser were the same," she said.
She writes, "Resigning was an option that came to my mind several times…(but) I had to show myself that I could handle difficult situations."
She said there was a need to prepare the younger generation for "what might lie ahead of them at workplace," to teach them where to draw the line between themselves and their male co-workers and to teach them to speak out against harassment, as keeping silent is tantamount to aiding and abetting harassment.
"Once women understand the trap that some men set around them, they will be safer at work," she said, adding, "It is unfortunate that the new employees are the easiest prey."
Abdur Rauf, a television host in a national channel, Geo TV, attended the launch as one of the guest speakers. He commended Saeed's efforts at voicing her case and that of her eleven colleagues. "In a society like ours, reporting sexual harassment is a daring thing to do," he said.
His comments and sneak-peaks of various chapters of the book whetted the audience's interest in Saeed's story. He talked about the author's first encounter with harassment at the age of eleven, when her early tactics to protect herself included walking with her elbows out to avoid physical contact in public and sometimes also carrying thumb tacks in her hands.
Rauf pointed out the inequality between men and women, saying that male small talk usually involves topics like careers, goals and challenges in life, whereas women are usually asked about their children, husband and fashion.
In a society like Pakistan, women must constantly work to prove themselves, and consequently have to make a much greater effort than their male counterparts. Despite all efforts, women face more harassment from colleagues and friends if they speak out against harassment. If they do and choose to keep their job as well, which is unlikely, they become the subject of ridicule among colleagues. If they decide to change jobs, stories from the old place of work tend to get there before they do, and often provoke unfriendly welcomes and biased judgments.
Eight out of the eleven women who filed the case with Saeed asked to be given different names in the story for fear of damaging their reputation.
But regardless of stereotypes, Saeed said that telling the world her story relieved her of a huge burden she had carried for years.
A young Pakistani actor and director, Sarmad Khoosat, also spoke at the occasion of her book release. He praised her on her book, saying: "The author's skilful interlacing of her experiences and facts makes the book an easy read – something we can easily make films on."
Saeed's expertly written and captivating story is being translated into Urdu by Pakistani poet Fehmida Riaz and will be available on the market in a few months. To show solidarity with the author and the topic, the first copy of the book was bought at 1,388 US dollars (125,000 rupees) collectively by a group of women working at the United Nations.
Saeed has a PhD from the University of Minnesota. After working with the UN for years, she set up an NGO, the Alliance against Sexual Harassment (AASHA), in Pakistan together with her sister Maliha. It was her efforts that led to the passing of the Anti Harassment Bill by the National Assembly of Pakistan this year.
Author: Ayesha Hasan
Editor: Sarah Berning