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Harassment Over Weak English Skills: An Isolated Incident Or A Widespread Malaise?

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Yesterday, my younger brother forwarded me a video, which showed two women, owners of the famous high-end Café Soul in Islamabad, mocking their manager over his lack of English-speaking skills.

In the video, the women ask the café’s manager about the duration of his employment with the cafe, to which he replies, “Nine Years”.

“How many courses have you taken in English”, one of the owners asks in a mocking manner and a manufactured accent.

The employee, whose face unlike those of his bosses is covered in a mask in compliance with present SOPs, replies, “Three.”

“Like three years?”

“No, Six months, one class.”

“So could you please speak one sentence in English, introducing yourself?” one of the owners then asks, with the same “sophisticated” accent and a smirk on her face.

The manager tells his name in broken English. The owners openly laugh in response and make fun of the manager, oblivious even to the possibility that they may be causing offense. One of them then remarks how, despite his poor English, they are so magnanimous as to give him “a very good salary, mind you.”

The video has gone viral and is getting a severe backlash on social media. Normally, I do not support the passing of verdicts by people on Twitter, as they can often be ill-informed. In this case, however, I feel that the two women are getting what they truly deserve. Mind you, this was not a video in which they were filmed unawares. They made this video deliberately to humiliate their employee while knowing that he could not speak English and belonged to much lower-income strata of the society as compared with them. Then they uploaded the video on social media. Anyone can see that it is not only what they said but also how they said it which truly deserves condemnation. There was a constant mocking and degrading expression on their faces as they humiliated their employee who obviously couldn’t say anything back to his bosses. His mask probably concealed his pain at being humiliated like this. The worst part of the video was when they bragged about paying him a high salary despite his poor English.

The attitude of these women was wrong on too many counts. It easily falls under “workplace harassment”. What the elite women completely overlooked was that they owe the greater part of their café’s success to the hard work of their employees. Humiliating these employees (which by the way has not impeded the success of their restaurant in any way) is crass and inhumane. Although Café Soul has issued an apology after the severe backlash from social media, it has tried to shrug its owners’ behaviour off as mere “banter”.

Their apology notwithstanding, it is worth recalling that both owners belong to Pakistan’s cocooned westernised elite, who it seems have inherited the mindset of their former colonial masters. One regularly finds members belonging to this “elite” group acting contemptuously towards the more “common” people and treating them as social outcasts. These ladies’ attitude toward their employee is but one example of a widespread problem.

In fact, this mindset of over-privileging English is not restricted to the westernised privileged class anymore. In recent decades, it has permeated all of Pakistan’s educated urban middle classes as well. It is ironic that right now, most of the backlash against the two ladies on social media is coming from members of urban middle classes, even as many of the same people have in the past made fun of the poor English skills of actress Meera, cricketer Sarfraz Ahmed and many other public figures. Of course, there is a contextual difference in that Meera and Sarfraz are celebrities whereas the manager in the video is an employee belonging to a lower income group. However, the point remains that the mindset of equating one’s ability to speak English with personal “competence” is as prevalent in the middle classes as it is among the elites in Pakistan.

English is no longer merely a status symbol in our society. It has, unfortunately, become necessary for personal and professional success as well. Two of the major reasons for this are the way our education system is structured and the way the corporate job market operates. Our education system at the school level is divided into English- and Urdu-medium – a division reflective of the broader social divide in the country. We normally find that English-medium schools are private and much more resourceful compared to state-funded Urdu-medium schools. Moreover, all of higher education is in English. Many universities’ entry tests are held entirely in English, which severely restricts the options of further education for Urdu-medium schools’ students. The story doesn’t end here, as even after students graduate from universities, they have to demonstrate proficiency in English to get jobs both in the private and public sectors. A lot of times the actual nature of a job does not even require proficiency in English. One of my cousins was interviewed in English for a job in a large corporation, only to find later that his work actually required proficiency in spoken Punjabi and not in English at all!

Discrimination in education and the job market greatly reinforces the privileged status of the English language, and has severe cultural repercussions for the younger generation, many of whom (particularly those belonging to urban middle class) actually feel shame in speaking their local languages. This problem is the most pronounced in urban Punjab, where speaking in Punjabi is considered “paindu” and “unsophisticated” while speaking English is considered “stylish”. These facts should serve to remind us that rage as we may at the video from Café Soul, we need to recognise that the problem runs much deeper and asks to be addressed by all of us together.

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Naya Daur