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Tolerance for sexual harassment must stop


Image of sexual harassment victim Maherwar Ishaq during happier times.

As the people the world over chime in with their #MeToo handle Maherwar Ishaq has been left in the lurch waiting to hear what the Pakistani Embassy will do about their official who used his post in Bangkok to sexually harass her. Victims standing up to sexual abuse are often shunned by the Pakistani community while deviant sexual predators are welcomed back even after being convicted of egregious crimes and those who abuse their power are treated as if they are above the law. Though the high tolerance for targeted harassment of women from religious minorities is seen again and again across Pakistan, (click here)

The general expectation for Pakistani women, even in the Muslim majority, is to suffer in silence because the negative consequences come to the target of abuse and not the perpetrator. (click here) However some brave women of Pakistani descent are standing up to the status quo that tells them to comply with the social contract to hold onto the shame that rightfully lands with the abuser.

The words of British-Pakistani Ruzwhana Bashir, a survivor of sexual abuse within her local ethic community, reflect Maherwar’s hope that her complaint would make a difference for other vulnerable woman despite the backlash and apparent shame projected onto her by those who would rather tolerate sexual harassment and abuse than admit it exists. (click here)

"I’m coming forward to publicly share my own story in the hope that I can encourage others to do the same and help tear down the wall of silence that perpetuates further abuse." (click here)      

Earlier this year Nusrat Sahar Abbasi, a Pakistani MP threatened to self-immolate after being sexually harassed before receiving an apology. Why would a woman of her caliber and a leader in her community take such desperate measures to communicate the grief caused by her treatment? Abbasi said of the laws that are currently on the books, "Their implementation is still a dream. Even parliamentarians are not safe from gender bias and harassment." (click here)

As recently as September yet another Pakistani MP, Ayesha Gulalai Wazir has fared much worse after complaining that the leader of her own party has since 2013 been sending her harassing text messages with sexual innuendo and solicitations that she has repeated asked him to stop. Wazir has not only been denounced, but severely fined by her party for "damage to reputation" and "mental torture", been mocked by the media and the wide backlash on social media includes threats of acid attack.

Wazir said, "They have have sent a message to the women of Pakistan, that if you speak out against the misuse of authority, you will face this kind of attitude...And this from he PTI who [say they] stand for change in Pakistan... because of this culture many women will keep mum" (click here)

"Break the Silence" pictured here is a painting created by Artist Jenny McConnell for the Canadian campaign to raise awareness about Maherwar's plight and foster support for a refugee sponsorship to Canada.  Copies of this image can be bought from the BPCA for £15.00 each.  All profits will go towards the relocation efforts for Maherwar and her mother.

Sadly, it has been over a month since Maherwar Ishaq stepped through their doors with her lawyer to attempt to bring the passport official to justice.

The man who is, to our knowledge, still gainfully employed by the Pakistani Embassy in Bangkok abused his authority to try garnering sexual favours from Ms. Ishaq in exchange for renewing her documents. She has not been able to speak to media nor report what occurred behind those walls and it seems like the Pakistani Embassy is in no hurry to rule on the matter. In an audio recording of the incident Maherwar is heard desperately texting her chaperone who had lost sight of her, while “Ayaz” repeatedly reminds her that he was doing her "a special favour" by helping her with her paperwork; solicitations of “friendship” pepper the conversation with jealous interjections asking if the person she is texting is a man. Even without a knowledge of Urdu you can hear Ms. Ishaq re-iterate that she is only interested in renewing her passport. She asks him to stop the car so she can get out but he proceeds, the paperwork he says in upstairs and not to worry, but sensibly she is worried - very worried. Later you hear the struggle, as he strikes her and tries to kiss her, fleeing footsteps and her terrified scream.

The fear and intimidation employed by those in authority in such circumstances are not unknown to other expatriot Pakistani women. In 2012 a Pakistani Canadian woman alleged a sexual assault at the Pakistani Consulate in Toronto. The official was recalled after an investigation, but the incident was framed by the High Commissioner as a conversation where the official tried lure the woman into a enclosed room and this use of language is telling. During the alleged assault that man, who like Maherwar’s attacker also worked in the passport office, made inappropriate comments about the Pak-Canadian woman being “liberal" and "a model”. This is particularly strange as these words about being "a model" reflect the smear campaign we had removed from Facebook that was launched against Ms. Ishaq's character seemingly to inundate the hearing proceedings with conjecture because she has sometimes modeled clothes to make ends meet. Murder and kidnapping threats from the perpetrator and his associates did not stop her from attending the hearing in the faint hope she could prevent someone else from having the same experience. The personal courage of this young woman through her terrifying ordeal should not not go unnoticed or unappreciated.

Maherwar was lured to a meeting outside the boundaries of the embassy and intercepted in a vehicle at the public meeting place by the official, driven to several locations, angrily pressured to drink a suspicious beverage, and manhandled, before fleeing from a locked room! Hearing this was not enough evidence for them to do something about the incident - they needed to assert their dominance by forcing her to walk into their lions den instead of taking up the UNHCR's offer of a neutral location. Delaying justice on this incident does not bode well to clear the Pakistani Embassy of their pattern of male chauvinism. It is normal for governments who want economic trade with the democracies to want to appear just and upright, but this is problematic when allowing public servants to abuse their authority. How can they expect to be considered just and upright? Yet surprisingly they do expect exactly this, while continuing in the same manner as before. They have a choice to either stop tolerating sexual predatory behaviour, correct the situation and make amends, or alternately they can repeatedly sweep it under the carpet. This pattern of choosing the later approach is not in the cause of justice, but it sadly seems the normative response that these couragous woman must challenge at every turn.

Woman like Ruzwhan Bashir, the Pakistani MP's, Maherwar Ishaq and all those who lodge a complaint are inspiring catalysts for change despite the great personal risk and social costs they face. These courageous women are the ones who are breaking the pattern of silent compliance that tells them abusers can act with impunity. They are naming this as unacceptable and calling it for what it is: a crime in a society that habitually blames the victim. (click here)

In the alleged 2012 sexual assault at the Toronto Consulate the consular officials insist that what happened was "only a verbal exchange", when the police were clear that the incident was "an alleged sexual assault". In the Pakistan High Commissioner's denial that a sexual assault occurred he states that he "thinks it [the complaint] is being a bit misreported." In one article the Consulate even claims that they gave the RCMP the same information and yet their evaluations of the incident are not congruent. Over the last year there have been a number of reports in the Canadian press about the mishandling of sexual assault files by police to the detriment of the the victim making the allegation. The scandal of registering real sexual assaults as "unfounded" has been a long pattern in many police districts in Canada, given this past tendency to dismiss complaints it is notable then that the Toronto police said 5 years ago that the police identified the complaint as "a sexual assault" allegation. To see the difference in the opinions of the consulate and the Toronto police (click here)

Maherwar is a young woman like so many who have high hopes that they will be able to face a future of opportunity in a country that not only respects her right to worship as she desires, but allows her a place to live a respectable life as single woman where she can work with dignity in a peaceful environment. At 25 y/o she is the one responsible for the care of her widowed mother. A western country like Canada or Australia would allow her to pursue a life free from the stigma of what has happened to her through no fault of her own.  It costs $27,000 CAD for two individuals: Maherwar and her mother, to come to Canada through private sponsorship. We have set up a Chuffed Crowd Fund account (click here) but if you would rather give directly you may also (donate funds here) and designate your funds by referencing it 'Love for Maherwar Ishaq'.  A Canadian crowdfunding campaign can also be found on Go Fund Me (click here)

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