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Waking Up and Taking Action: Addressing Sexual Harassment in Pakistan

“I knew if the incidents weren’t on school grounds, the school wouldn’t take it seriously.”

A Pakistani college student I’ll call “Eman,” who wishes to remain anonymous, told me that she kept quiet, suppressed her emotions, and tried to pretend that a gang of male classmates hadn’t been harassing her in school for days on end.

“He was uncomfortably close. My head was down. He surrounded me. I felt claustrophobic. Moments passed. He made a comment, kissed my forehead and walked away. After several incidents of harassment, I got severe depression, and I had to be put on anti-depressants; I had to have one pill every two hours. My grades started slipping. The boys who harassed me were still in school and I would see them everyday—in the hallways, in the classes and in the common areas.”

Eman is not alone. She is like another student in another Pakistani school, and another, and another. According to my own observations, students, especially female, though male as well, continue to be sexually harassed. Their cases go unreported, and they say their academic institutions look the other way. According to a 2017 news report, 93% of Pakistani women experience ‘some form of sexual violence in public places in their lifetime.’

Growing up in Pakistan, I seldom thought about the way institutions handled cases of sexual harassment. When a rumor of a case would surface, students would talk, but ultimately, we all tended to consider a sexual assault case to be a personal matter outside the school’s jurisdiction. I started questioning why this was the case when I went to college, where I saw how people rightfully sought out their educational institution to defend and guide them in such cases.

Why was the same not expected from Pakistani high schools? Why were young women suppressing their complaints? How were schools handling such issues when they arose? What were they doing to create a safer environment for students? So I began to conduct anecdotal research, speaking with students and reflecting on my own experiences in order to analyze the situation in Karachi in 2018.

Earlier this year, Marium Saad, a student from Cedar College in Karachi, Pakistan, decided to take a stand and speak out after she was publicly groped by a male student in her school’s cafeteria. After recovering from her initial shock, she found herself questioning her own conduct: Was this somehow her fault?

Still, she told the boy off and then reported the incident to her parents, who reported the case to the school. The school asked for proof Marium didn’t have, and ultimately decided that the matter was out of the administration’s control. To Marium, though, it felt like her school was telling her to pretend that nothing had happened, she said.

Life went on as usual, but not for Marium.

She would never be able to forget the discomfort she felt in that moment, she told The Politic; the shame she faced when the boy’s friends later bullied her was unforgettable. She said she accepted that it was her fate to be shamed, and she kept quiet. But with time, she came to believe that it was time to take action.

It started with a casual comment on a Facebook status where Marium publicly tagged her harasser. Soon, she exposed his name and actions fully. The hashtag #HamzaZaeemExposed began trending on social media.

And across Pakistan, another similar hashtag became popular: #TimesUp.

Times Up Pakistan is a Facebook page where girls may submit stories about their experiences with harassment. The page took inspiration from the American Time’s Up campaign and from Pakistani icons, such as Nadia Jamil, Frieha Altaf, and Meesha Shafi, who recently became vocal about their encounters with sexual harassment via social media. In May, young girls and women of all ages began to complain and report incidents of harassment on the Times Up page. People suddenly found their Facebook feeds flooded with reports of sexual harassment.

For centuries, the word “female” has held negative associations in the Pakistani vocabulary. It is used to refer to a sexual object which deserves to be glared at or catcalled, to reprimand the “feminine” display of emotion, and to remind a woman of her conventional role and responsibilities as a caretaker (be it as a mother, sister or daughter). With the rise of the #MeToo movement in Pakistan, the definition of a “woman” slowly has begun to transform. Women have begun to realize that their voices matter.

One of Times Up’s main concerns was the way schools handle complaints of sexual assault. Many academic institutions across Pakistan have no rigorous policy when it comes to investigating cases of sexual harassment. Moreover, Pakistani schools lack adequate systems for  prevention, punishment, and rehabilitation, and few Pakistani schools have extensive sexual education curricula.

But when it comes to prevention, sexual education is extremely helpful, argues Nicole Cushman, Executive Director of ‘Answer,’ a nonprofit dedicated to sexual education. “Comprehensive sex education [allows] us not to just equip young people with knowledge and definitions, but the ability to recognize sexual harassment and assault and actually create culture change around this issue.”

One example of success following consent education comes from Nairobi, Kenya. No Means No Worldwide is an NGO which conducts classes aimed not only at discussing sexual consent but also issues around “toxic masculinity.” An article analyzing the success of the program found that “following these classes, there has been an average of 51% decrease in the incidents of rape. Also, the percentage of boys who intervened in an incident of harassment increased from 26% to 74%.”

While consent education could help decrease instances of sexual assault, it would be hard to implement such curricula in Pakistan, as conservative factions would likely oppose such a measure.

Perhaps a more agreeable solution would be to institute guidance counselling as part of the academic structure. Currently, most schools have counsellors, but their roles are restricted to providing academic guidance to students. It has been widely acknowledged that most are not typically trained to have social-emotional competencies or to prioritize mental health. In conversation with The Politic, Eman said, “counselors are overworked since they’re dealing with college admissions. There is no concept of a school therapist, or a person whom you can sit down with and talk to.” There needs to be a renewed focus on counselor training to provide students with an avenue and a trusted adult to turn to in order to discuss personal problems and experiences. The lack of sexual education and the taboo around talking about sex creates a toxic environment where sexual harassment goes undiscussed.

Ultimately, many young children lack the necessary tools to articulate their feelings and experiences if they are sexually harassed or assaulted. Eman told The Politic that without discussions surrounding sexual assault, students are forced to rationalize and normalize their experiences.

Next, Pakistani schools need a uniform policy to punish sexual offenders. Policies vary from school to school, and institutions administer punishments to the offenders based on the degree of harm caused to the victim. This is hotly contested, with families threatening the school with lawsuits or defamation cases and placing immense pressure on all parties involved.

According to Eman, schools often place the burden of proof on the victim, making the process of “coming forward” an excruciatingly stressful one. To this end, the collective efforts of lawyers, activists, and other students have led to a team of students devising a policy to delineate punishments against sexual harassment. Students from various Karachi schools—Elsa Sajjad, Areeba Fatima, Hadi Khatri, and Mohazzab Abdulla—are pushing for a policy which establishes a separate committee to handle concerns related to sexual assault at Pakistani schools. They have made progress with Karachi schools such as Cedar College, Nixor, and Karachi Grammar School. The impact has been far-reaching, with schools in other Pakistani cities taking note of sexual assault complaints on #TimesUp and firing teachers.

Lastly, Pakistani institutions lack adequate rehabilitation programs. In this regard, the aforementioned guidance counselling policy has proven helpful where implemented, but holding mental health awareness campaigns at schools and instituting academic psychiatrists could be useful as well. In a recent study, researchers found that ‘‘psychiatrists may be well positioned to help the student to process what happened and to inform and empower the student to manage the emotional, psychological, and physical consequences of the experience.” Psychiatrists can also offer specific treatments for trauma, such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy and supportive group therapy.

However, perhaps the most pervasive problem is the lack of conversation in Pakistan about sexual misconduct. In Pakistan, patriarchal attitudes are rampant, and many fail to acknowledge that sexual harassment is a widespread problem. A particular misunderstanding or ignorance around the issue of sexual harassment in Pakistan was reflected in people’s comments on the #TimesUp page. When victims presented their cases of reported abuse, people asked problematic questions: why weren’t cases reported earlier? How could the girls not have retaliated? Why did they keep quiet and accept such behavior? Or they passed comments: she shouldn’t have worn that, she shouldn’t have responded to that text.

Such questions are nearly impossible to answer. In a society where women have historically not had a voice, women are scared to speak up and escape. Most of all they are scared about the dishonor that will be brought to them or their families. Although sexism is a global problem—perhaps even a larger one in other countries—Pakistan has ranked amongst the “top ten worst countries for women” by the Business Insider and The New Economy, alongside other countries such as Saudi Arabia and India.

In Pakistan, a child’s experience or action is considered to be a direct reflection on their family, so it carries immense weight. Most Pakistani girls find the prospect of informing their parents  about an incident of sexual harassment terrifying; most parents believe that it stains the girl’s reputation for life and brings dishonor and shame to the family. Sharmeen-Obaid Chinoy’s infamous 2015 documentary, ‘A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness,’ exposed the outrageous practice of honor killings in Pakistan. Two years later, a report found honor killings to still be a rampant phenomenon in Pakistan—in spite of the laws against them: 650 honor killings have taken place in the last decade alone. Hence, in cases where harassment occurs within the bounds of a romantic relationship that has been forbidden by conservative parents, one can safely assume that the circumstances are even scarier.

Perhaps the first step to reform is to recognize the institutions that limit Pakistani females from reporting harassment and recovering from their trauma. Only then can we begin to focus on the three aspects of prevention, punishment, and rehabilitation. To prevent harassment is to uphold basic human dignity; to administer punishment is to provide justice; to rehabilitate victims is to protect the health of innocents. Pakistan has been sleeping on this issue for far too long, but now we too have woken up, and we refuse to stop our advocacy until we see reform.