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Rendezvous With Dr. Fauzia Saeed: Social Scientist, Gender Activist and Author Of The Best Seller “Taboo”

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Fauzia Saeed — a PhD from University of Minnesota and author of the well regarded ethnographic look at prostitution, Taboo: The Hidden Culture of a Red Light Area is a gender expert from Lahore, Pakistan. She has spent over two decades in positions related to the task of bringing social change in Pakistan. Having worked for the United Nations and other international development organizations, she is now a senior Director of Mehergarh, a human rights institute. Her new book, ‘Working with Sharks’ a riveting account of sexual harassment in the United Nations was published on 22nd December’11.

Fauzia Saeed

YKA’s Pakistan Lead, Waleed Tariq spoke to Fauzia Saeed, on her latest visit to Karachi. Excerpts:

From prostitutes of Shahi Mohalla to the women in entertainment industry and from activism against sexual harassment to the creation of the first women crises centre in Pakistan, majority of your has been women-oriented. What has encouraged you to do the work you’re doing today?

Yes, majority of my work has been women-oriented. This is because it is a personal affair to me. For the first time, I felt restrictions when I was not allowed to play on streets or socialize outside school. Having experienced it from childhood to adolescence is when I started to feel a soft corner for women.

After ‘Women in folklore’ and ‘Taboo: the hidden culture of a red light area’, your new book ‘Working with sharks’ is an account of eleven women who faced sexual harassment at the hands of a UN official in Islamabad. How you came about writing this book?

We live in a stereo-typical, patriarchal society where women’s rights are snatched. Honour killing has become legitimized murder and power is maintained through violence and social stratification. We need to have an awareness to challenge the status-quo.

I realized that women who were victims have been unable to lodge an FIR report against the culprits due to the threats and influential political family pressures. So I think collective action should be taken against sexual harassment.

Now the women have come out with their complaints and I decided to document my experience, resulting in my book ‘Working with Sharks’.

There were 100 men and 16 women at the UNDP office in Islamabad where I worked, and out of those 16, 11 women including me had been sexually harassed by the same official. We all had similar stories which continued for years, each victim staying silent out of fear and humiliation for being disgraced.

We, 11 victimized women took a strong action to lodge our complaints on 22nd Dec 1997 to the UN hierarchy, but all our attempts went in vain as no drastic action was taken against the official because of the bosses’ favouritism to him.

On taking the case to the court, we eventually won the case after two years resulting in the accused man firing on-spot and bringing out changes in UN itself.

This stand finally culminated into a legislation that has been passed by the Pakistani Parliament in March 2010 declaring sexual harassment as a serious crime. Also, in solidarity with the cause, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani declared 22nd December, date of the original complaint as the national day for working women.

So were there any threats involved while writing it? I.e. you talked about the bureaucratic brick while writing Taboo.

No, because it came out as a surprise for everyone. People were aware of the theme but not the exact plot or that it’s even an autobiographical account.

You’ve been working as a gender activist since more than two decades, why do you think that feminist struggle is seen negatively, especially in South Asia?

We live in a male dominated society where people come from all aspects of life in which especially women have been subdued and have been made to work in some fields meant only for women.

Moreover, change is not welcomed in our society. Social workers like Edhi whose contributions for the wellbeing of the citizens have been great, are not opposed. But, ours work is different so we face a lot of negativism from people, especially who are a part of the male-dominated society.

Waleed Tariq with Fauzia Saeed

You are heading NIWC and AASHA; can you tell us more about it?

After having declared sexual harassment as a crime, we dissolved AASHA (Alliance against sexual harassment) on 22nd December’11. Our committee National Implementation Watch Committer (NIWC) is working with the legislators since last two years to ensure the implementation of declaration of sexual harassment which was announced in March, 2010.

There are many challenges for women in Pakistan. How do you evaluate women’s rights in the country today?

We still have to go far away than where we are today and I believe that pleasure always come from pain. Change is the solution to the problem.

You’ve achieved so much and many people look upon you as an ideal. Do you have a real life hero who has inspired you, be it personal or professional?

In the activist circles, I take I.A. Rehman as my mentor. He is an institution in itself. Another figure I adore is Raza Rabbani who has always been behind the screen. He is a source of motivation for me.

In my personal life, my husband Paul, without whose help I couldn’t have done and got the courage of doing what I am doing right now.

Do you have any message for our readers/masses?

Read my book ‘Working with Sharks’ which has been recently published. Also create more space for women to stand up and raise their voice.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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