April issue 2012
Book Review: Working with Sharks
It is not often that people have the courage to speak up against injustice and malfeasance in a society like ours, which is prone to sweeping important issues under the rug. One of the exceptions is Dr Fouzia Saeed, a social activist who has repeatedly drawn attention to several causes at a time when they were considered unmentionable. Her latest book,Working with Sharks: Countering Sexual Harassment in our Lives, is a personal account of the sexual harassment faced by her and her co-workers while working at the United Nations, and their struggle to challenge the offenders as well as a patriarchal system that perpetuates misogyny and male chauvinism. Sexual harassment is a widespread problem, but in Pakistan, until 2010 it wasn’t even a crime punishable by law. Saeed’s book is a remarkable attempt to bring the issue to light by making it accessible and relatable to the masses.
Working with Sharks is an account of how the author and 10 other women filed a case of sexual harassment in the UNDP, Pakistan, in 1997, and the events that led to that action. The book reads like a novel in the way it recounts Saeed’s experiences as she first encountered sexual harassment and details her struggle to deal with the appalling incidents and her decision to confront the problem head-on, instead of ignoring it. It is filled with colourful characters, some supportive and others infuriatingly detached from Saeed’s experiences. Their passivity and refusal to stop the harassment is almost as frustrating as the harassment itself. The events Saeed describes, ranging from the subtle disregard for women’s dignity shown by her male co-workers through their gestures, tone of voice and body language, to the more blatant incidents of sexual harassment, will ring a bell with many women in our society. Saeed gives a voice to women who face similar problems but have been unable to speak out.
A committed activist, Saeed has a unique insight into the problems faced by women at the workplace, and she writes both as a Pakistani woman experiencing sexual harassment, as well as a social scientist who understands the complex social structures which enable such behaviour in the first place. Her description of events gives the reader sharp insight into the attitudes held by most when it comes to sexual harassment — most of the people she confides in either laugh it off or try to blame her for the incidents, reactions which are all too common in our society. Saeed rightly points out at several places in the book that it is not enough just to hold specific offenders accountable — although that, too, is extremely important — but to strive to change the system itself, to create a society in which women would feel secure enough to speak out against harassment, without fear of being ridiculed and shamed.
The book could do with better editing as it often goes off on a tangent on subjects quite unrelated to sexual harassment, and leaves readers wanting to get back to the story. However, the story is one which needed to be told and the author must be applauded for her courage and tenacity as she recounts her experiences in such painful detail. The simple language Saeed uses and the way she describes events, along with her sentiments and feelings, makes the reader feel her anguish during the ordeal, as well as celebrate her triumph. Two years after filing the case, the offender was finally fired from the organisation. The case sparked a national movement in 2001 that culminated in Pakistan’s National Assembly passing the Protection against Harassment of Women Act as well as an amendment to Section 509 of the Pakistan Penal Code, making sexual harassment a punishable crime. Working with Sharks, in effect, chronicles an important part of the history of the women’s rights movement in Pakistan. What works in its favour is that it is not bogged down by textbook rhetoric, but rooted in the everyday lives of ordinary women searching for respect in their workplace.
This book review was originally published in the April 2012 issue of Newsline under the headline “Exposing the Sharks.”
Nudrat Kamal teaches comparative literature at university level, and writes on literature, film and culture.