Pakistan Opinion Blog

A New Social Reformer on the Block

Entries may be a little edited for clarity or brevity. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of PakPositive.

By Vidya

Bucking the trend of 24-hour news channels that choose to highlight only the scandals of the day, programmes such as Geo Hina Ke Saath on Geo TV tackle the hard issues in a more inclusive manner with that all-important ingredient for a conversation – time. Let the over-the-top, drawing room setting of the studio not distract you from the issues ranging from divorce, Down’s syndrome, alcoholism and most recently, sexual harassment in the workplace.

In the annals of Pakistan’s history – 25th February 2010 – will probably go unnoticed. However one of the more significant pieces of legislation was passed by the Senate of Pakistan, namely the Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace Bill. I chose to begin with this date rather than the date of March 9th 2010, on which this bill entered the realm of law with President Asif Ali Zardari giving his official seal of approval. The significance of the legislation would have been drowned out by Zardari bashing (a cultural phenomenon only surpassed by Bush bashing).

Hina Khwaja Bayat, the hostess with Buddha-like demeanour, was interviewing a victim of sexual harassment at the workplace and alongside the victim were two human resources’ professionals. The conversation skillfully guided by the hostess touched upon all the aspects of this most under-reported of crimes in the corporate world. Was the victim unduly aggressive? Did she know her rights? Were other women in the office sympathetic? And so on.

In the light of the recent Fatwa by the Deobandis in India restricting Muslim women from interacting with their male colleagues, the initiative by the Pakistani Senate takes on added significance. Critics (and yes there are many of them as evident in the blogosphere) will diminish the importance of the bill against sexual harassment in the workplace saying that Pakistan has yet to legislate against domestic violence and the infamous Hudood ordinances remain in place.

You need to pick your battles. Women’s groups and the Pakistani senate have done just that and picked the battle least cluttered with religious precedent. Is this knocking on the back door of wide-ranging emancipation and empowerment of women? I think so.

The Faisal Shahzads of the world and high-profile honour killings in India have exploded one myth – education is not the instant recipe for enlightened thought. Education and more specifically exposure to liberal Western philosophy galvanised social reform in the 18th and 19th centuries. For the arm-chair pundit of the 21st century, philosophy is no longer a call to action. It is only a call to intellectualise everything from 9/11 to ‘why Intikhab Alam said what he said about the Pakistani cricket team’. The only element that will jolt this generation to action is economics.

As more women enter the workforce, it will lead to attitudinal shifts among both men and women – a phenomenon that will undoubtedly influence gender relationships at home and elsewhere. Social reform through the back door, if you will, interspersed with knee-jerk reactions such as the one from the Deobandis in India.

Hina on her website says – “To me hope itself is life and there are people who live meaningful lives giving hope to others – we do have such role models in society, we are just not aware of them.” And true to her words, when the victim of sexual harassment was asked as to what her plans were – the woman admitted to feeling completely demoralised by the process of fighting her cause and said that she would not work again. To this Hina reminded her that by coming on the show, she had shown great courage and had probably inspired women to assert themselves in the workplace. “The workplace needs you,” the hostess concluded.