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A trailblazer for women’s rights

On March 8, International Women’s Day, renowned Pakistani women’s rights activist Dr. Fouzia Saeed released the US edition of her popular book Working with Sharks, a unique and compelling account of sexual harassment against women at the work place in Pakistan. Dr. Saeed, who is currently a Visiting Fellow in Washington DC’s National Endowment for Democracy (NED), campaigned tirelessly in Pakistan to pass the landmark Anti-harassment Bill in 2010. spoke exclusively with Dr. Saeed about her book and its impact on working Pakistani women.

How do you feel about having your book published in the USA?

I am totally thrilled. I really wanted it published in the USA. We get to read their stories but they rarely connect with ours. It was re-edited for an international audience and the title of the book was changed. People are so appreciative of women’s struggle in Pakistan and Parliament’s response in 2010.

Why did you choose to write a book on the issue of sexual harassment at the workplace?

I always believed that it is unfair to ask women to speak up unless I speak out myself. So, I decided to publish this book in order to encourage other women to come forward and become a part of our campaign to end sexual harassment at the workplace.

I had been working on my book since 1999 but more as a healing process for myself. We wanted to earnestly address the issue of sexual harassment at the workplace. Once, after a ten-year struggle, our parliament passed laws against sexual harassment, we paid more attention to implementing the mechanism. But after so many years, I see society and the management still continue to stigmatize women. That is when I started a campaign called Speaking Out!

What goals did you have in mind while writing your book?

My goal was to convince our society that sexual harassment is a serious issue which also has dire implications for our lives. It is not a mere joke. I do take the reader with me so that they can experience what a woman experiences in her daily life. The book is about women’s mixed feelings of pain, the feeling of helplessness, rage, yearning for justice, persistence and resolve.

These problems exist in our society because we simply tolerate it. Such practices will end when women in our society stand up and say it is enough and they are not going to tolerate it any more.

In Pakistan, most laws are not implemented in reality. How hopeful are you with regards to the implementation of anti-harassment laws in Pakistan?

Many members of our society and the government are taking the law seriously. However, there are many who are still trying to put hurdles in its path. Banks, for examples, are helping with significant progress; the members of Pakistan Business Council have all complied. Government institutions have pretty much fully complied with the legislation. The sectors that are lagging are the media, universities, medium businesses and the military.

The provinces have set up implementing committees but bureaucrats are trying their best not to let them work – they are not taking the lead the way they should. We need regular meetings of these committees so that we can see progress. The results are mixed but considering that it has only been two years, I think the progress is remarkable. Over one thousand cases have been resolved in the formal sector and over a hundred cases are in the courts.

What was the United Nations’ reaction to your book since it mainly addressed the issue of sexual harassment within the United Nations?

The UN’s response was nothing but absolute silence. I have been writing letters to the United Nations to introduce policy changes. They have made some changes but the work environment has not changed much in the last 12 years. Some organisations like the World Food Program have developed better mechanisms to deal with it. As far as our case is concerned, senior people at the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) never completed the case and we still feel bruised. I did not even get an acknowledgement of the book I sent to the Secretary General.

How much do you think your book has helped in encouraging Pakistani women to speak up against sexual harassment?

In the first two months of its publication inside Pakistan, the book sold 2000 copies. In a society where very few people read, the sales showed that the book was well received. Now, we are translating it in Urdu and I am sure it will be received very positively by the Urdu readers.

Would you support more sex and gender education among our students at school and college to educate boys and girls about such negative practices in practical life?

Absolutely. Those working on reform of our educational curriculum should include this issue and the awareness of the legislation in the school books.

Do you think the urban-rural divide, economic status and level of education play any kind of role in encouraging women in speaking out against sexual harassment?

Every woman in our country faces sexual harassment at different levels. Social and economic class division hardly makes a big difference. We all experience it from time to time and we are very tired of it.

Why did you decide to publish your book in the United States?

In the United States, people generally have negative perceptions about Pakistan. The people here normally get news of violence and they stereotype us. I feel they know our issues but they know very little about the struggle of Pakistani women. I want them to understand that the Pakistani women regularly and bravely struggle against injustices. I feel very proud of our Parliament that they passed two laws against sexual harassment. I have mentioned that in the epilogue of the book so that they know that my country finally did acknowledged the existence of the problem. Now, we are struggling for a shift in mindset and implementation of the passed laws. I want my American readers to know Pakistani women’s stories and understand us at a human level.

How different is sexual harassment in the United States as compared to Pakistan?

Sexual harassment is also common in the States. Women here might not experience it on a daily basis but they also face it at different stages in their lives. However, the stigma for women who report these cases is still high in the United States. In the military and sports sectors, there are often complaints of sexual harassment and many cases that are filed every year.

Do you think the internet, social media and blogs have helped in reducing or increasing sexual harassment against women?

The social media has had both positive and negative outcomes. In some cases, there have been cases when girls had to commit suicide after their pictures were photo-shopped and circulated online. Many countries in the world are working on Internet regulation and legislation and we should also learn from them as to how to eradicate cyber bullying.

Malik Siraj Akbar, based in Washington D.C, is the editor-in-chief of The Baloch Hal and a regular contributor to the Huffington Post. The interview first published in DAWN.

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