Countering harassment: My eyes are up here

Published: January 15, 2011

Innocuous gestures can sometimes be misinterpreted

Not long ago, at an informal get-together of friends in Karachi our conversation turned to harassment in the workplace. One of my friends mentioned a recurring problem she was having with a male colleague, who seemed to always keep his eyes at a particular location on her body instead of looking her in the eye when talking to her. She could not avoid it as their respective job roles required a lot of communication between the two.

This was particularly uncomfortable yet she was unable to raise this either directly with the person in question or with anyone else at work. She felt this would be laughed at, causing further embarrassment. Her self-esteem was suffering and despite being happy with everything else at her workplace, she was looking for another job.

In another incident, a new recruit in my company came up to me within a week of being hired to have an informal, confidential discussion about harassment. When asked to elaborate, she said a male colleague had a habit of singing Indian songs, which she felt were targeted towards her. A confidential investigation showed the person in question, a generally well-respected guy, had always hummed songs while being engrossed at work, entirely oblivious to anyone else around. Most co-workers in his team were quite used to this habit.

What exactly is harassment?

While the term harassment itself is a wide one, sexual harassment in particular, as defined in the Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace Bill 2009 is

“any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favours or other verbal and written communication or physical conduct of a sexual nature or sexually demeaning attitudes, causing interference with the work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment, or the attempt to punish the complainant for refusal to comply to such a request or is made condition for employment.” (Though the title states Women, the Bill covers sexual harassment for both men and women at the workplace.)

It is important to remember that sexual harassment is not what an alleged harasser considers to be appropriate behaviour but whether the alleged harasser could have reasonably expected his/her behaviour to cause offence, humiliation or intimidation.

Harassment comes in all shapes and sizes

In many cases, and especially in Pakistan where there is no formal method of education on such a topic, certain behaviours and attitudes are at times unconscious or considered ‘normal’. For instance, leering, or unwelcome touching when passing a glass or other object, or even staring as in the case of my friend, can sometimes be an unconscious behaviour. This is not to excuse it, but knowing that it could be unconscious may allow us to deal with it better. When a group of guys at work exchange sexual or suggestive material, snickering over it and when asked what they are laughing at, to shrug it off saying nothing, just “normal guy stuff” is considered acceptable workplace behaviour by some.

Many serious sexual harassment incidents often go unreported and unpunished – from ‘supposedly harmless’ suggestive comments or jokes to repeated SMS friendship messaging to actual physical contact or requests for such contact. The Bill may have been passed, but for an effective implementation it is critical that people – employees who work in any kind of organisation in Pakistan – understand harassment and what it encompasses, and are up-to-date on how to go about safeguarding their right to a dignified working environment.

The Bill provides a Code of Conduct to be followed by organisations as well as a guideline for the procedure of lodging and conducting inquiries for complaints. It is mandatory for organisations to implement this Code of Conduct in their HR policies and to adequately educate staff about it.

Has your organisation complied yet?


Aruna Hussain

A former CEO of a Fortune 200 Denmark-based logistics company operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan. She blogs at

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Ghausia

    Harassment is a problem at universities as well, from IBA to Szabist to Bahria, to name a few, when the problem isn’t tackled there, obviously such behaviour will continue on in the workplace as well. I thought my uni was just well, not that good so maybe I was the only one in my group of friends facing this problem, but even my friends that go to posh unis complained of boys constantly staring, deliberately squeezing past, speaking inappropriately, etc.Recommend

  • Jun

    the best way to encounter is to speak against any such act.If women will not raise any act of harassment it will continue to happen .Recommend

  • Freedom of Heresy

    Good article..
    It is one’s loosening of self-grip that makes these actions possible. I am an ardent fan of romantic movies but does that mean every time I meet a woman I should insist her to become Juliet? Certainly No!
    It is psychological. Necessary enactments can regulate public relations but at the end of the day I’ll have to barricade myself internally.Recommend

  • Deen Sheikh

    Very well written article, you have made a few very important points. You have managed to point out an issue in harrasment concerns, which many individuals including many females to take into consideration, such as what truly constitutes harassment, are we genuinly being harrassed, is there actual sinister intention involved? Like you quoted the example of a guy who habitually hummed hindi film song, imagine if that girl who felt she was being targetted went on and filed a sexual harrasment charge against that chap, it could have needlesly ruined that chaps career and demonised him in the eyes of many. I feel that before we take action, we should be fully sure and not you know come to conclusions based on assumptions and take pre emptive actions. One thing I would to add is that our personal bias and opinions towards and against other individuals can affect how we percieve their behaviour. If we see people in positive light, we will take it as friendly social gestures, however if we dont see that person with a positive light it will make us suspicious to their intentions.Recommend

  • parvez

    Nicely written article on an uncommon but important subject. Recommend

  • Yousuf

    A very well written and informative piece, and I am completely in favor of the implementation anti-(sexual) harassment policies at the workplace and their proper enforcement. However, in the light of this topic, I would like to make an accession. I wouldn’t exactly call it a counter argument, rather a particular case within this topic.

    Women (specially in Pakistan…. infact, only in Pakistan) are just too wakeful and self conscious. Now I’m not saying being aware of your actions and your surroundings is a bad thing, infact, women should be vigilant about those things, but most of the ‘Pakistani women’ (no matter how confident or bold they may claim themselves to be) when they find themselves in male infested territory, their paranoia gland kicks in. Because of this feeling, they become too defensive and are easily intimidated at work. Their rational thought process become affected by it and they become extremely judgmental. They automatically profile a not so close person, as a ‘predator’ and behave with him accordingly. Some become too timid or reserved, while others develop a certain ‘attitude problem’. This leads to hostility and misunderstanding at the workplace.
    Women need to be confident, rational and neutral towards their colleges. It is an established fact that men are stupid and needy. Therefore women need not give any kind of openings, like unintentional provocative gestures or unconditional smiles. If one senses that a college is mis-behaving or making her feel uncomfortable, first and foremost, please, Phlehehehase, give that person, the benefit of of the doubt. It could be just your imagination or a simple misunderstanding. If he continues, then she needs to speak out loud and make things very clear to that particular person, instead of enduring it. If he still persists, she needs to report him to the higher authority (her boss or his boss or someone in the HR).
    Before I make this into a ‘battle of the sexes’ debate, I want to make one thing very clear, I am a feminist. I believe in the equal rights of both the genders and that both hold an obligation towards each other, in the form of respect. If one can learn to respect others, only then one can find true respect for themselves.


    Yousuf Ali.

    P.S. Yes, I use a lot of ‘Shatner commas’, and I can’t help it. =)Recommend

  • Karachiete

    You know what doesnt help is that a working women immediately jump to conclusions about percieved harassment, as opposed to using rationale and thinking all this could be a big mis understanding. I say communication can break down such mis perceptions.Recommend

  • Sabih

    Although I feel that every employee should be entitled to fair working conditions, regardless of their gender, a sexual harassment policy that does not infringe upon a person’s freedom of speech may be framed and enacted. Women are already objectified in our patriarchal society and therefore feel ‘shame’. A simple, “keep your eyes off my certain parts” should suffice in the incident alluded to. Should that not resolve the issue, logical steps must follow while eventually all unwanted physical advances, threat or use of force should be strongly prosecuted under the law.

    As long as the sociocultural values dictate that a good girl is an abstinent girl before marriage (and even afterwards she is the property of her husband) while a man’s sexual plunders are celebrated across the board; we will have a problem. As long as the woman is encouraged to see herself as a sexual object, we will have a problem. There is a need to abandon the grip of the phallic symbol on the conservative minds and we shall be set free!Recommend

  • Meeral

    Very Sad to see the organizational environment where People not sincere to work instead such activities that disturb others. No doubt physiological need is there but not force some one to do so. Its a mutual consent to go on. I don’t know why people trying to replicate the exeternalities in our culture. No one respect the inbound culture and always overlapping the westerns. Westerns set out their own values but not we do the same as happening. We respect the all and prioritize the work. That is why productivity is low in all spheres of life.Recommend

  • Aruna

    Thank you for your comments.
    – Ghausia, personally I think this law should very much be a subject matter in universities, however it doesn’t change the fact that such issues, if prevalent at uni level, should very much be taken up with relevant admin desk – all unis have a code of conduct. Everyone is responsible for implementation.
    – Yousuf: On one hand you say paranoia gland kicks in even though you also say “it is an established fact that men are stupid and needy” ? If you believe that then that’s where the problem needs to be fixed instead of expecting women to just accept that and change their behaviour accordingly.
    – HR Guy, correct. The intention has been to cover both dimensions.Recommend

  • Khurram Zahid

    Indecent exposures at workplace by female colleagues is also a major cause of harassment… Recommend

  • Aisha Khan

    I myself has faced many times this. Guys are awful. but girls also take undue advantage of this word “Harassment” Recommend

  • Karachiete

    Women should think it through before accusing some one of harrassment, a false accusation from them could ruin someones life.Recommend

  • Maddy

    A nice article, well written, hit the right cords. I would just like to add one thing here. Sometimes, rather most of the times it is the ‘Lack of communication’ between the genders at work / educational institutes that ended up in this predicament. I am not giving a counter argument, just trying to highlight some thing which I had encountered at work and believe you me it was very much perturbing (Just like the example of guy humming songs). One has to be open and since our society is kinda where gender inequality prevails since inception, it is very difficult to define boundaries of harassment. So the bottom line is “Communicate” to remove any doubts and to further warn the other person if found guilty.Recommend

  • Karachiete

    CommuNication is really important. A lot of percieved harrasment is due to misunderstanding and poor communication.Recommend

  • Tyrone

    Interesting and thanks for mentioning men can be harassed too! Yes this is one advantage of having a patriarchial society women who harass men can do it without facing serious action.

    Imagine a man whose being harassed at work who will he turn to? His male boss? his male colleagues or even female? his wife?

    There’ve been quite a few Hollywood movies on the subject but we fail to reaise that if the % of males being harassed is very low their support system is also tiny too!

    On another note great ,women can work free of tension and fear of sexual harassment but what about outside the office and in public transport?

    These spheres are full of profanity and vulgar language and even worse behaviour by men that ranges from irritating -sitting in the ladies compartment to alarming as we all know.Recommend