Way before MeToo movement, a Pakistani activist challenged the UN system for sexual harassment
Long before the MeToo came into being as one of the most powerful movements of the 21st century, one Pakistan woman had already started to raise her voice against mistreatment and sexual harassment women face, especially in the workplaces, in Pakistan.
Pakistani author and social activist Fouzia Saeed spoke against exploitation of women when not many dared to. In a recently published post on Facebook, she wrote about how she faced sexual harassment while working at the United Nations’ office in Islamabad.
On occasion of the International Human Rights Day on December 10, Fouzia shared her story of courage. Below is what she said via her Facebook profile:
“It was the 10th of December, Human Rights Day, 1997. I had come back from participating in various programs highlighting human rights violations. I sat in my room quietly and reflected upon why I was not speaking out about the violation of my own dignity, about the sexual harassment I was tolerating for the last three years.
I had tried to deal with it in different ways, but could not stop it. I asked myself, on this day what will Fouzia Saeed do about her own violation of human rights and how would she stand up for herself. It was that evening when i took the decision of reporting my superior officer to the management in the UN system.
It was that evening of 10th of December when i realized that not reporting was disrespecting myself and my own dignity. I had to take a stand for myself.
Other women got courage from my decision and 11 of us put together our formal complaint and filed it on 22 December, 1997. That day in Pakistan has been declared as the Working Women’s Day.
A day to mark the struggle, contributions and dignity of working women. Both the Human Rights Day and the Working Women’s Day are very important for me personally. These are times for self reflection and reminding us to take brave step and claim our rights regardless of risks involved.”
In an attempt to inspire other women to speak up against harassment and mistreatment, Fouzia also shared her story via a book titled ‘Working with Sharks: Countering Sexual Harassment in Our Lives’.
The book, which was published in 2011, shares how Fouzia herself and 11 other women working in the same office decided to put an end to silence and exploitation and speak against the ‘sharks’.
The 12 women filed a complaint against the perpetrator according to the rules of the organization but faced resistance in form of the managers of the UN office who attempted to crush their case.
This case sparked a national movement in 2001 that eventually was discussed in the Pakistani Parliament in 2010, and sexual harassment was legislated as a crime. It also led to changes in the UN system itself.
The book is not just story of Fouzia and 11 other women, rather it is a message to millions of others around the world that speaking up for their rights and against exploitation of any kind is absolutely vital.
About Fouzia Saeed
Fouzia Saeed is a social activist, a gender expert, television commentator and author. She has authored two books included ‘TABOO!: The Hidden Culture of a Red Light District’ and ‘Working with Sharks: Countering Sexual Harassment in our Lives’.
She is a known human rights activist, and has worked on women’s issues for over two decades, including violence against women and sexual harassment. She is also the founder of Bedari, Pakistani’s first women’s crisis center.
Saeed served as one of the 15 members of the National Commission on the Status of Women during Yousuf Raza Gillani’s premiership, whereas she was appointed as the Chairperson of the Sexual Harassment Legislation Implementation Watch Committee from May 2010 to May 2012.