Workplace Harassment in Pakistan

Illustration by Mehak Tahir

By Naurah Khurshid

According to the UN, harassment is “any improper and unwelcome conduct that might reasonably be expected or be perceived to cause offence or humiliation to another person. Harassment may take the form of words, gestures or actions which tend to annoy, alarm, abuse, demean, intimidate, belittle, humiliate or embarrass another or which create an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”1 Sexual harassment is defined as, “any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favour, verbal or physical conduct or gesture of a sexual nature, or any other behaviour of a sexual nature that might reasonably be expected or be perceived to cause offence or humiliation to another, when such conduct interferes with work, is made a condition of employment or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.” In Pakistan, it is a common perception that women are forced to work outside the home due to their economic circumstances or any other compulsion. Therefore,  women who are part of the labour force are either considered too helpless to raise their voices against harassment at the workplace, because they are compelled to earn money and cannot risk being jobless, or inviting inappropriate behaviour from their superiors and colleagues because they chose to work outside their homes. Attitudes towards working women may be changing gradually, however,  female participation in the labour force still stands at 22%, which is amongst the lowest in South Asia.2

Chart, line chart

Description automatically generated

Source: World Bank

Underreporting of Workplace Harassment

While harassment at the workplace is pervasive in Pakistan, there is a lack of reliable statistics that reflect the magnitude of the problem. Women who face some form of sexual harassment at their workplace choose to ignore it or remain quiet due to the fear of facing negative repercussions. According to one research, 54% of the women who were surveyed said that women should quit their jobs if they face harassment and 83% said that men get away with harassing without facing any consequences.3 While most women may be aware that the behaviour of their male peers at the workplace is inappropriate, they are faced with these situations so frequently that they continue to ignore it. The fact that her name will be sullied and she may even lose her job are factors that inhibit a woman from reporting harassment. There is hardly any precedent that holds a man accountable for his behaviour at the workplace. Moreover, in most cases, a woman’s ability to work depends on whether the male members of her family allow her to have a job, therefore, reporting harassment may result in her dropping out of the labour force. 

According to one research study, women said that they were called “arrogant” and “exploitative” for reporting sexual harassment, that they were fired to “secure the image of the organisation,” and that they were forced to hide sexual harassment “due to Islamic modesty and cultural traditions.”4 Alliance Against Sexual Harassment (AASHA) has also conducted a nationwide study, according to which, 58% of the nurses who were interviewed reported being sexually harassed by co-workers, doctors, patients, or patients’ relatives.5 The study also reported that 91% of the domestic workers who were interviewed said that they had faced sexual harassment to varying degrees.6 Some even reported being raped by their employers. These studies reflect the scale of the problem. Workplace harassment is common to the extent of being considered part and parcel of a working woman’s life. 

Domestic Workers’ Plight

Domestic workers face different forms of abuse on a daily basis and most of it remains unreported until extreme cases of physical and sexual violence become public. Domestic workers are most vulnerable to sexual harassment because of the prevalence of child labour and compelling economic circumstances. Based on media reports about domestic workers’ abuse over a span of ten years, 96 children were tortured and raped and 44 were murdered.7 These numbers are the tip of the iceberg that is exploitation and abuse of child workers at the hands of their employers. 10-year-old Tayyaba, brutally beaten and tortured by her employers, a former judge and his wife, is amongst many children working in mansions owned by the rich and educated.8 Child labour is not considered unconscionable by the vast majority of Pakistanis and the employers attitude towards domestic workers is treated as a private matter, which means that the majority of abuse and sexual harassment cases are not reported. 

Children as young as 6 years are sent off to work in houses where they are at the mercy of their employers. While physical abuse and harassment are common, child workers’ parents are usually intimidated or paid “hush money” for keeping silent about it.9 Domestic workers’ abuse, much like their labour, remains unrecorded. 

Harassment in the public sector

There is a common misperception that women working in the public sector as officers are safe from the dangers of workplace harassment that most women in the private sector have to put up with. Women in positions of authority are seldom believed to be victims of sexual harassment at the work place. However, despite having the privilege of working in permanent jobs as government officers, women are not immune from inappropriate behaviour by their male colleagues and superiors. Sara10, a government officer, narrates one such incident when her superior called her in his office and in the presence of two other male colleagues started commenting on her dressing and jewellery. She says that the way in which those comments were made, made her extremely uncomfortable. “I could tell by his expressions that he wanted to make me uncomfortable” she says. In another instance, the senior official said “she is worried about her figure” when Sara refused the biscuits being offered with tea. The other officials who were present in the same room did not say anything. She was extremely shocked and upset because even though her colleagues realised what was happening to her was wrong, they advised her against speaking up and escalating the situation, dismissing the senior official’s behaviour as his style. A few days later during an official lunch and in the presence of the head of the office, the same official commented again about Sara watching her “figure” following which, he was transferred to another office.

This is just one of the countless stories where women have to tolerate unprofessional comments made by their male colleagues to make them uncomfortable. In the best case scenario, a senior official will take note or not dismiss the complaint of a woman and get that male official transferred. However, mostly such comments remain unreported and the perpetrator’s career and public image of the organisation takes precedence over holding him accountable for his actions. Sara says one consequence of encountering such behaviour by a superior is that “it makes you want to take up even less space, it affects your work.” She says that since the anti-workplace harassment against women Act came into effect, men openly say that women use it to blackmail their male co-workers and get promotions. For many, inappropriate comments directed at women do not even fall under the ambit of harassment even though they create a hostile work environment and affect a woman’s productivity. Another female government official says that while men can have tea and gossip with their superiors for hours, if women do the same they are labelled “loose”. While men get prize postings for being on good personal terms with their bosses, women are slandered. 

If what happened to Sara does not count as sexual harassment, then what kind of comments, gestures, looks, etc. would? How bad does it need to get for it to be reported and believed? And, if this is what relatively privileged public sector employees deal with on a regular basis, what is the scale of harassment that lower grade or contractual female employees face?

Legislation against workplace harassment in Pakistan

In 2010, the first and only legislation against harassment of women at the workplace was passed in Pakistan. The Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act (PAHWWA) aimed to make sexual harassment at the workplace a criminal act punishable by a fine, demotion or dismissal from service.11 This act defines harassment as, “any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favors or other verbal or written communication or physical conduct of a sexual nature or sexually demeaning attitudes, causing interference with work performance or creating an intimidation, hostile or offensive work environment, or the attempt to punish the complainant for refusal to comply to such a request or is made a condition for employment.”12 While the Act is an important legislation which, finally, recognises the terrible reality faced by many women on a daily basis, there are many aspects of harassment that remain unaddressed. The Act specifies conduct that is strictly sexual in nature and ignores verbal abuse, inappropriate jokes and comments that may not be explicitly sexual in nature but create a hostile environment nevertheless, screaming or demeaning comments that are non-sexual in nature etc. Even the aspects of sexual harassment mentioned in the Act do not make a comprehensive list of the various ways that sexual harassment plays out in real life. Sara’s experience, for instance, may not strictly fall under the Act’s definition of harassment but it was inappropriate conduct directed at a woman repeatedly in order to make her uncomfortable. Another woman working in the public sector says that she started receiving messages from an unknown number within a week of starting her training for the job. While she never responded to them, the messages describing what she was wearing that day, how she looked, what she said during her class presentations etc. persisted for weeks. She felt that she was constantly being watched and started dreading speaking up in class. It is impossible to determine and prove sexual intent behind such messages, however, this should be treated as harassment. 

In a recent judgment by the Supreme Court, Justice Mushir Alam has called PAHWWA “blinkered in its application” and a “myopic piece of legislation that focused only on a minute faction of harassment.”13 The judgment further said that the definition of harassment as laid down by PAHWWA is limited strictly to sexual harassment and that the onus of proving sexual intent behind an act or words of the perpetrator lies on the aggrieved party.14 Justice Alam’s remarks have pointed out the many loopholes in the applicability of PAHWWA to the extent that the scope of the Act actually defeats the purpose it was meant to fulfil. It is important to have laws that explicitly make certain behaviours unlawful and punishable, however they should be applicable in a manner that they function as deterrence. When a woman goes against social norms and general advice to complain against harassment at the workplace, her fate is determined by the person she is complaining to which, in most cases, is a man. That person decides whether he/she believes harassment occurred, and if it did, whether it is actionable. Let’s say, a woman’s complaint is taken up and there is an inquiry, it would be impossible for her to prove; (a) what she went through should be categorised as harassment, and (b) the sexual intent behind the perpetrator’s conduct. 


In an ideal world, the simple solution to widespread problems like harassment at the workplace would be people knowing about their rights and having a legal recourse in case they are violated. However, that is not how legislation works. Social attitudes and cultural inhibitions play a large part in enabling criminal behaviour and ensuring that such behaviour remains unreported. A woman reporting that she is being leered at, propositioned, made uncomfortable through jokes and comments, etc. would typically be met with “maybe you misunderstood,” “you are not the first woman to go through this,” or “let it go, you will spoil your reputation.” Women, if they are too ambitious, are thought to stop at nothing to get to the top. If they avoid late-sitting or spending too much time in their male superior’s office, they are deemed unproductive. Work culture, especially in countries like Pakistan with low female work-force participation, is designed to make women put up with downright criminal conduct or drop out of the labour force all together. Legislation and judicial action do not even scratch the surface of what women and girls face at their workplaces, however, laws that attempt to address the full scale of the problem and their implementation can act as deterrence. It is the fundamental right of women to feel safe while they are working so that they can reach the full potential of their productivity. Workplace harassment is a major hindrance which has a devastating impact on a woman’s life, therefore all aspects of it should be criminalised. 

1 United Nations Secretary-General’s bulletin, “Prohibition of discrimination, harassment, including sexual harassment, and abuse of authority,” February 11, 2008,

2 The World Bank Data,

3 Razeshta Sethna, Tooba Masood and Ramsha Jahangir, “Misogyny in the workplace: hidden in plain sight,” Dawn, April 19, 2018,

4 Munir Moosa Sadruddin, ‘Sexual Harassment at Workplace in Pakistan: Issues and Remedies about the Global Issue at Managerial Sector’ (2013) 7 (1) Journal of Managerial Sciences 113.

5 “Situational Analysis on Sexual Harassment at the Workplace,” AASHA,

6 Ibid.

7 “Domestic help starved, beaten by employer,” Dawn, July 10, 2020,

8 Sana  Jamal, “Judge, wife sentenced to one year in prison over torture case of child maid,” Gulf News, April 17, 2018,

9 Maria Laraib, “Abuse and hush money,” Dawn, February 23, 2016,

10 Name changed to protect privacy.

11 The Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, 2010, Section 4.

12 The Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, 2010, Section 2(h).

13 Nadia Naz v The President of Pakistan, Supreme Court judgment, paragraphs 12 & 13.

14 Ibid, paragraph 21.