December Issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Published 14 years ago

Whether it’s in a fancy, centrally air-conditioned office in the bustling metropolitan city of Lahore, or in the sugarcane fields of interior Sindh, Pakistani women have been the subject of harassment — both mental and physical — at the workplace for decades.

It’s not that this happens only in Pakistan. I’m sure many a lord was enthralled by the sight of a maid’s petticoats in the Victorian era, but in our fair country, there is a stunning disregard for women’s rights in the constitution, along with a general belief in society that women are an inferior class.

One would think that 20 years or so after General Zia-ul-Haq signed off on the infamous Hudood Ordinance, there would be attempts by political parties to correct those mistakes. In 2006, after protests by members in the ruling party PML-Q and their coalition partners, notably Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s JUI-F, a watered down version of the Women’s Protection Bill was passed in the National Assembly, and became part of the constitution.

Since the PPP stepped up as captain of HMS Pakistan in 2008, party members have issued statements leading one to believe that they would soon introduce various bills protecting women and their rights in the country. And one should give them credit for introducing amendments to the constitution by passing The Criminal Law Amendment Act 2009 in the National Assembly, which presents a new definition of harassment and imposes a stricter punishment against offenders. Introduced as an amendment in the Pakistan Penal Code, 1860 and the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898, the bill has now been approved by the NA and is awaiting approval from the Senate.

According to the previous law:

“Whoever, intending to insult the modesty of any woman, utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or that such gesture or object shall be seen, by such woman, or intrudes upon the privacy of such woman, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.”

The new bill now broadens the definition of harassment and has extended the fine for violators of the order to Rs 500,000 with an imprisonment term of up to three years.

But before we fall over ourselves thanking the ruling government, let’s take a look at the fine print of the changes in the law.

“Insulting modesty or causing sexual harassment: Whoever intending to insult the modesty of any woman, utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or that such gesture or object shall be seen, by such woman, or intrudes upon the privacy of such woman.”

The new law now states that a man caught, for example, whistling ‘Tu Cheez Bari Hai Mast Mast’ or any other song for that matter, aimed at a woman in earshot, can be hauled off to jail, a stipulation that was already present in the Pakistan Penal Code. The question is: who’s going to enforce this and how will this work? What if there isn’t a policeman standing close by when the incident occurs? Or if one goes to the police station to complain, how many witnesses will be required? By that time, wouldn’t the offender already have moved on to a newer target? And from personal experience, what does one do if the policeman is the one leering at a girl?

According to the explanation given with Section 509-ii, the definition of workplace has now been broadened and includes everything from fields (“large geographical areas”) to offices. This helps women all over the country, whether they’re working on a field or as an executive, to seek justice under the bill.

Another plus point of the bill is that it specifically cites “verbal or non-verbal communication” as a means of harassment. This should be of great help to women who are threatened or sexually harassed via letters, SMS or email, who will now be able to seek justice under the law.

The amendment, while having been passed in the National Assembly amid much fanfare, is now pending in the Senate. Without being approved by the Upper House, it will not be part of the constitution.

According to human rights lawyer Zia Awan, the amendment in the Pakistan Penal Code with regards to harassment is a good induction, but the situation will remain unchanged if there is no implementation and if the amended law is still pending with the Senate. “With the exception of laws like the Hudood Ordinance, we do have some existing laws on the statute books which are very progressive, but the problems that we face as lawyers and human rights activists, is that these laws are not implemented since there is no political will.”

Awan says the amendment is akin to a public relations exercise for the government. “In international conventions, like the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, countries come and show that they have introduced progressive laws like this one, but in reality they are hardly implemented.”

Awan also points out that similar laws have been floated in the past, but have vanished from the cabinet’s agenda. “When Zafrullah Jamali was prime minister, the ministry of social welfare and women [which was one ministry at the time], had initiated work on a code of conduct, which was called gender justice. Members from trade unions, NGOs, the ministry and civil society had worked on it and finalised it. The code was sent to the cabinet, but it was returned to the ministry on the grounds that it required more work on it. It’s been nearly nine years and I haven’t heard anything about it since. That code of conduct is very important since it would be implemented in both government and private offices. The government just doesn’t have the political will.”

Federal Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Senator Babar Awan says that the amendment will not be presented to the Upper House soon, since the Senate is not in session. “We have been focusing on the Balochistan package, a more important issue, and a joint session of the Houses has been called on December 7 to discuss the package.”

First of all, the amendment makes no provisions for how the legislation will actually be enforced, and the existing Pakistan Penal Code does not have a guideline for it either. Second, the government has done little to create awareness about the bill so that women all over the country, especially in the rural areas, can understand what their rights are and what steps to take if they are sexually harassed at home or in the workplace. Third, there is a dire need for gender-sensitivity training to take place at all levels, i.e. offices, factories and agricultural lands, and through all public mediums, such as TV, radio and print, so that citizens from all walks of life not only understand what harassment is, but also know how they can deal with it, and not be relegated to life as a victim.

Finally, the amendment is still just a piece of paper. There is hope that the ruling party, which claims to spearhead the cause of women in the country, quickly ensures that this bill doesn’t meet the fate of many of its predecessors. Far too often in Pakistan’s tumultuous history, well-meant legislation has met the cruel fate of being shoved into a dark abyss, known as the trash can. It would be a travesty of justice, if history is to be repeated again.

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