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Workplace blues

November 24, 2011

Pakistan is experiencing a rapid increase in the number of women joining its workforce. But the country is grappling with physical, psychological and sexual harassment of women in the workplace.

Woman in a man's world: Kazmi is Pakistan's first female cabbieImage: Hasan Faizi

Afsheen*, an air hostess with the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), recalls when she was selected to work with the airline company. She was briefed on how to keep passengers satisfied, but the introductory training did not include any clues on how to keep the pilots "happy."

A few months later, the pilots called her and her colleagues to go to the cockpit. "They would touch us on the back and the chest intentionally, and pretend it was a mistake," she remembers. Things got worse when pilots started demanding sexual favours during flights and on the ground, and managed to get some too.

On October 9, Captain Riffat Haee took the matter to his own hands and filed a case at the Lahore High Court. He claimed that female workers faced problems like the withholding of promotion and even demotion if they refused to fulfil the "demands" of officers.

'Respectable' equals suffering

Every year, thousands of women in Pakistan are harassed by their male colleagues. Most women from the so-called "respectable families" are forced to remain silent. Official data suggests that more than 70 percent of women are harassed at their workplaces everyday, although the ‘Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace Bill 2010’ was signed by President Asif Ali Zardari as soon as he came to power.

Hostessen Casting in Peking
Air hostesses in Pakistan are often harassed by their male colleaguesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"Harassment exists and we cannot ignore that. But we have to remain silent, otherwise our fathers and brothers wouldn’t let us continue working, and we cannot afford that," Sara, a 25-year-old banker, says. For her, losing her job means that she would not be able to afford branded clothes, bags and accessories to keep up with the latest trends, like her ‘rich’ friends and colleagues.

In Germany, however, sexual harassment at the workplace is rare, though not absent. Dr Bettina Burkhardt, representative for gender equality at the Deutsche Welle, Bonn, says some women co-workers seek advice from her on how to deal with harassment at the office.

"There were complaints about male colleagues who just can’t keep their hands to themselves. But once brought up, there was an immediate end to that," she says, adding that "Too many men or too many women will always affect the balance. This why we make sure there is gender equality at workplace," she said.

More representation at the workplace

German women are more qualified than men, says Burkhardt, but when it comes to work, women still earn an average of 23 percent less than their male counterparts. Women here also face the famous glass ceiling when it comes to promotions - the ones who do get to the top are few.

According to Burkhardt, several companies are now working actively with universities to attract more female students towards technical jobs, traditionally dominated by males. Several German companies have set goals to achieve at least a 30 percent female employee ratio in top positions with an aim of making it 50 per cent in the near future.

In Pakistan the number of working women is still very low and women are paid only half of what their male counterparts earn. However, Pakistani companies might see more working women in the near future. According to a 2010 Higher Education Commission report, more than 42 percent of Pakistan’s 2.6 million high school students in 2010 were girls, up from 30 per cent 18 years ago. In universities, women made up 47 per cent of Pakistan’s 1.1 million university students, up from 23 per cent in 1993.

Zahida Kazmi stands next to her taxi in Islamabad
Kazmi dresses conservatively for her jobImage: Hasan Faizi

According to a February 2011 report on Women in the Boardrooms, women now make up 4.6 per cent of board members of Pakistani companies and women members hold 78 seats out of the 342 seats in the National Assembly in Islamabad. Pakistan's foreign minister, Hina Rabbani, the speaker of the National Assembly, Fehmida Malik and the country's new ambassador to the United States, Sherry Rehman are all women.

Encroaching upon 'male territory'

Women have also embraced traditionally male-dominated professions such as taxi-driving, although they need to take some precautions to keep men off. Zahida Kazim, a widow in her 50s, drives her leased taxi in the capital Islamabad. Passengers are kind, respectful and friendly.

But this might be because of her old age and the big shawl that covers her head all the time. In Pakistan, working women who do not properly cover their head and chests with a shawl are considered "easy to approach" and "broadminded," a male prejudice which will still take decades to change.

Author: Ayesha Hasan
Editor: Manasi Gopalakrishnan

* Names have been changed to protect identity