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‘Desi Harassers’ And The Holes In Pakistan’s Harassment Laws

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The two female owners, as they claimed to be, of this modest café in Islamabad (which, by the way, serves average food) mocked their manager in glaring public view for his English.  As they mocked Owais, they also filmed him and shared with the world their friendly “banter”. Their idea of fun did not quite get the reception they thought it would. And so, they are “saddened” and “appalled” with the reaction of the masses. Their apology certainly surpasses that of Socrates. The faux-pas of the desis has created quite a wave – thankfully taking our attention away from wailing Murad Saeed and his incoherent press conferences.

Gulliver’s Travels is instructive on so many life lessons. For instance, Jonathan Swift suggests in the book that vanity should be taxed. But such a tax alone may not be enough to put a check on our self-important desis with their inconsistent affected accents. They should probably be sent to finishing school too – and perhaps also taught some manners and a lesson or two on self-awareness. But no school can teach you how to kill boredom – you need to measure up, to some extent at least, on intelligence quotient. But then, Yuval Noah Harari would argue, that too depends on the stage of evolution for homo rudolfensis, homo erectus, homo neanderthalensis and homo sapiens.

Was it harassment what the women were doing to their employee? Yes. Do we have a law that penalises the actions of two desis as harassment? No. The only law to cater for workplace harassment in Pakistan is The Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, 2010 (there are other regimes under Pakistan Penal Code, 1860 and The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 – but they are not relevant here). With time, we have learned that the restrictive scope of the protection needs to be reviewed. The title, to begin with, should remove reference to one gender only.

The definition of “harassment” should be broadened to include all kinds of harassment that make the workplace “hostile” or “offensive”, and should not be limited to those instances only that have a sexual undertone.  Under the Act, a complainant could be both, a woman or a man. However, the law needs to clarify that a complainant does not have to be an employee at a workplace – and, in so doing, not leave it for the judges to plug holes left open by legislators.  It’s important to bring greater clarity on the issue of the complainant. We have seen a lot of students facing issues of harassment in schools and universities but they are not employees at a workplace. And not every judge would take a liberal view of the complainant under the Act.

The definition of “workplace”, therefore, too needs to be redrafted to liberalise its scope of application. Presently, the law notes that “workplace” means “a place of work” or “where an organisation or employer operates”. The definition, at the very least, should clarify that it should be a place of work – of an organisation or an employer or any natural or juristic person – but it does not need to be the workplace of the complainant.

In addition, greater powers should be given to the Ombudsperson (and not “Ombudsman” as written in the law). While the Federal Ombudsmen Institutional Reforms Act, 2013, granted additional powers to the Ombudsperson to issue temporary injunctions, there is no express provision in the enabling law that allows the Ombudsperson to issue orders such as suspending the services of the accused till the final outcome of the decision or till the conclusion of inquiry; or power that allows, as major penalty, closure of business establishments in case of private parties. In addition to the fine, the Ombudsperson should be given powers to impose (exemplary) damages on the accused as a greater punitive measure.

Unless we tighten our laws and ensure that our courts and tribunals deliver timely justice, we cannot hold desis with their misplaced superiority complex to account. Owais probably knows that choosing to enforce his rights would not get him any relief from the office of the Ombudsperson, labour courts, or civil courts of ordinary jurisdiction. So here we have a man, who reticently and knowingly, opts to be a clown for the desis in authority to ridicule. They can crush his ego, make a hash of his self-esteem and mention that he is paid well for being their clown – and still go away scot-free. Oh, but they are “saddened” and “appalled” by the response from people. Well, I wish them speedy recovery from their “sadness”, and I hope they take this occasion to build some empathy too – for people not as privileged as them, in general, and their own employees of many years, in particular.

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Naya Daur