Social practices such as sexual harassment have a history, institutional lives and semiotic lives. It can be defined as unwelcome sexual relations imposed by superiors on subordinates in any powerful differential environment.

When it was published twenty-five years ago, Catharine MacKinnon’s path breaking work Sexual Harassment of Working Women had a major impact on the development of sexual harassment law. In the book it is argued that sexual coercion was an entrenched feature of chattel slavery endured by African-American women who had no protection of law. In the US, in 1975, the New York Times published a story with the headline ‘Women Begin to Speak Out about Sexual Harassment at Work. ‘According to C.N .Bakers famous study published in 2008 by University of Cambridge,titled,The Women’s Movement Against Sexual Harassment, in 1984 Australia, in 1986 the UK, France and US amended their laws to tackle gender-based harassment and discrimination. Resultantly ,according to a study authored by Dr Fouzia and    published by Mehargarh in 2010,under the title A baseline Study on Anti Sexual Harassment Policies in Public and Private Sector,1986 US Supreme Court gave a ruling  in which it declared sexual Harassment  a form of gender discrimination and illegal. The existence of sexual harassment was academically identified  in the US in 1993 after   a famous report was published by the American Association of University Women, highlighting the high level prevalence of sexually harassing attitudes in high schools(Source: American Association Of University Women Survey on Sexual Harassment in High Schools, Hostile hallways, Washington DC, year of publication 1993),Consequently, famous social scientists,reserchers and policy makers started taking interest in this social issue.

In Pakistan, according to the statistics of Madadgar National helpline 1098, a staggering number of women, young adults and children face harassment in their daily lives.  The Act of Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace 2010 and then Policy Guidelines Against Sexual Harassment in Institutes of Higher Learning 2011, Section 354A,366,496 and 509 of Pakistan Penal Code(1860) and the recent Zainab Alert Bill are the steps taken at state level to make our society less, more gender friendly, secure and  protected for all in the light of Article 25(2) chapter 1 of Fundamental Rights and Principles of Policy, Constitution of  Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

According to the policy guidelines by Higher Education Commission of Pakistan against sexual harassment in institutions of higher learning, “Sexual harassment is a reality which occurs in classrooms, offices, research laboratories, and Higher Education Institutes environment in general. Sexual harassment may be overall or subtle, and can range from visual signals or gestures to verbal abuse to physical contact along with hand or sign language to denote sexual activity, persistent and unwelcome flirting.

Sexual harassment generally takes place when there is power or authority difference among persons involved (student/teacher, employee/supervisor, junior teacher/senior teacher, research supervisee/supervisor). Further, this also involves treating others unequally on the basis of gender in work-related or academic duties or programs and not providing female students with the same academic opportunities as male students or vice versa. This is also applicable to same sex harassment (male /male, female/female) Source: Higher Education Commission Policy Guidelines against sexual harassment in institutes of higher learning. The policy was implemented from 2011 in Pakistan.

We have considered sexual harassment as a relatively stable social practice, an integral part of a variety of hetero-socio economic relationships rampant in our daily lives.

Younger people such as students are unaware about different forms of harassment and existence of any support mechanism i.e. above mentioned Higher Education Commission Policy Guidelines Against Sexual Harassment and what existing institutional support is available in a higher education institute. Basically who is responsible to educate a student about harassment policies and where should a student go to in the hour of need.

Ideally, the Higher Education Institutes (HEls) are sacred places where administrators, faculty, employee/staff, and students (all levels/categories) work and learn in an environment free from fear and hostile behaviors. But the ground realities may be somewhat bitter. According to an unpublished research conducted by Miss Ayesha Majid under the supervision of the author herself  and  by the  Department of Development Studies in 2017/18,titled”Sexual Harassment in Higher Education Institutions in Islamabad,,Perceptions,;level of Awareness and Experiences of Students, it was concluded that Harassment in the form of cat calling, bullying, stalking, making silly or suggestive jokes, blocking way of fellow students or colleagues, asking for sexual favors openly, lingering looks, verbal abuse, gender discrimination, unwanted sexual attention and in extreme cases physical molestation and rape is being faced silently by young students in HEI. Sexual harassment also includes treating others on the basis of gender, asking female students to meet their supervisor/authorities in charge after office hours or outside the HEI premises by giving the student an incentive of good grades. Students as well as administrative staff, supervisors, faculty members should know what kind of behavior falls in the category of harassing behavior.


The anti-harassment policy by HEC is a comprehensive and elaborate legal document, which has been critically viewed by several scholars and researchers. The issue however is that who will break the silence and talk about this taboo topic in an academic environment. How to enhance the level of awareness of our students and built their perceptions about this social evil and availability of social safety networks within the HEI set up. As a development practitioner and academician, I have closely observed that students avoid even attending any information dissemination seminar/discussion/talk organized to increase their level of awareness regarding harassment and how they can save or protect themselves. Under-graduate students especially those of the first and second semester are totally unaware of the existence of any mechanisms or supportive networks available for themselves during their first semester. Also, during first few months of the university life, these young adults are going through multidimensional challenges in their personal as well as academic life. The pressure of obtaining good grades in a semester based on a marking system of relative marking, getting familiar with university style of teaching, endless deadlines, coping with the daily tough routine of university life and last but not the least is the undue parental emotional as well as expectation pressure of always getting an “A” in every course and maintaining an excellent GPA throughout the degree.

The entire situation makes a student very vulnerable and easy prey to all kinds psychological crisis, getting intimidated very easily by new friends and well-wishers and makes them difficult to combat with the day to day challenges of the university environment.

Over here, we need to groom our young adults about how to behave i.e. talk, cracking jokes and dressing up in a gender sensitive HEI environment. University authorities should make it mandatory for all UG/PG students that once during each semester they should attend awareness seminars regarding harassment in HEI and how to lodge a confidential complaint to the most relevant authority in a case of an unpleasant situation. Making our young adults comfortable to talk on taboo topics in a socially appropriate way should also be discussed and taught in these awareness seminars.

On the other hand, HEC should put in place a helpline/on line portal where anonymous complaints should be launched. Because, it has been generally observed that fear of social victimization always keeps the student suffering the pain of shame and fear in isolation.


As a society we need to establish an atmosphere of openness from homes to HEI and to our workplaces. We need to have a culture where we as individuals are trusted unconditionally instead of being subjected to questioning, criticism and victimization.

By Fariha Tahir

(The writer is a Development Consultant/Academician teaches at Department of Development Studies, School of Social Sciences and Humanities, NUST)