Understanding harassment

A few weeks ago I wrote about the issue of Harvey Weinstein. In many, many columns before that, I have written on issues pertaining to women rights and issues. I am a very proud and adamant feminist. 

Okay, now that this is out of the way, let me speak about our Oscar hero Sharmeen.

But, wait. I can see pitch forks being sharpened already. How can a man discuss the issue of harassment? How can he explain it?

The resentment and anger are understandable; however, it falls far away from being the truth. You see, harassment is not a one-way street. There is a victim and an aggressor. In order to best understand the definition of harassment, both the parties need to recognise what it limits and what it doesn’t. One party cannot and must not dictate the terms of this exchange.

I can see tempers flaring up. Please, let me continue.

There can be no better venue for defining sexual harassment than the one given in the UN woman website. There, sexual harassment is explained as: ‘Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature’. The ‘Unwelcome’ is the keyword (as stated by the document itself). 

Going through the definition one gets the idea what behavior must be seen as harassment and yet, it is not as simple as that. The problem at hand is the different social and cultural dynamics of our global existence. For example, flirtation is not a sin in the alien lands. Infact, it is a healthy engagement and leads to instances of life the people value. Flirtation are important part of romantic relationships and the whole culture of seeking a partner involves going up to a stranger and engaging in a conversation with them.

Now, let’s jump to our country. Here in Pakistan, everything is a taboo. Even a good-natured smile is seen to come with malicious intent. Honor is a delicate matter here and excuses to protect it are innumerable and ridiculous. Given that, if a woman who receives a good-natured smile takes it as an ‘unwelcome sexual advance’, should it be considered as harassment?

I will vehemently insist that the answer is No. And this is where the two-party engagement comes. I, as a man, do not want to be insecure on how I act. I truly appreciate how difficult it is to be a woman in Pakistan and that I cannot truly experience the torture of living the lives that many of my brave fellow female Pakistanis live. I fully recognise that the problem is wide spread and effects all classes and systems. And yet, even as we try to bring this problem to a timely and much needed end, I expect myself to be involved in the process. I need to have the confidence in myself to not be blamed for something I never even set of to do. I need a system that is incredibly (and indeed violently) strict towards those who harass and yet, are is also smart enough to see if the accusations are true or not.

I think the way forward has to be the cumulation of a socially triggered definition of what harassment is and how a behavior that is inappropriate is not necessarily a form of harassment. Let us now come to the case of Sharmeen’s sister. I belong to the camp that insists that adding on facebook is not a form of harassment. Yes, given the patient-doctor dynamics, the act is inappropriate. However, unless he PM’d a sleazy private message, I really do not understand how the add affected the person in question. Does Sharmeen and her brigade now want to establish that adding acquaintances on social media should be taken as harassment? I hope not. 

My feelings for the #metoo campaign rest on the same foundations. While it is absolutely harrowing to see the spread of harassment in the society, I still don’t know what my colleagues recognized as harassment when they uploaded their statuses. I think, they should have gone a step further and described the situations. Giving everyone a freehand to define experiences in their lives as harassment, on their own terms, is far from fair. In other words, I don’t feel an iota of sorry for a girl who is incredibly conservative and considers everything under the sun as a sexually motivated action. If she feels harassed, I do believe she has to be less stringent. 

Yet again, let me emphasize again how I see how big of a problem harassment is. However, the only way we can pry it away from our society is when all genders sit down and express their interpretations. Then, a mutually agreed set of rules have tobe recognized and followed by everyone. But, no single gender can alone dictate what harassment is. That’s really not how this works.

The writer is a Dissertation Researcher based in Finland. He conducts research on political, regional and societal changes with special focus on religious minorities in Europe.

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