Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
    Volume 9 Issue 17| April 23, 2010|

  Cover Story
  Current Affairs
  Writing the Wrong
  Straight Talk
  A Roman Column
  Human Rights
  Book Review
  Star Diary
  Write to Mita
  Post Script

   SWM Home


Choice, Not Compulsion

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

Sexual Harassment as defined in the Guidelines declared by the High Court
a. Unwelcome sexually determined behaviour (whether directly or by implication) as physical contact and advances;
b. Attempts or efforts to establish physical relation having sexual implication by abuse of administrative, authoritative or professional powers;
c. Sexually coloured verbal representation;
d. Demand or request for sexual favours;
e. Showing pornography;
f. Sexually coloured remark or gesture;
g. Indecent gesture, teasing through abusive language, stalking, joking having sexual implication.
h. Insult through letters, telephone calls, cell phone calls, SMS, pottering, notice, cartoon, writing on bench, chair, table, notice boards, walls of office, factory, classroom, washroom having sexual implication.
i. Taking still or video photographs for the purpose of blackmailing and character assassination;
j. Preventing participation in sports, cultural, organisational and academic activities on the ground of sex and/or for the purpose of sexual harassment;
k. Making love proposal and exerting pressure or posing threats in case of refusal to love proposal;
l. Attempt to establish sexual relation by intimidation, deception or false assurance.

In June 2009, just over a month into the High Court ruling banning sexual harassment at the workplace and educational institutions and issuing guidelines to that effect, an upazila education officer, at a public meeting, called the headmistress of a primary school in Kurigram a 'prostitute' for not covering her head.

Following the publication of the story in a national daily, a writ petition was filed by a lawyer, who was later joined by a human rights and legal aid organisation as co-petitioner, claiming that the actions of the education officer constituted sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination. On April 9, 2010, the High Court declared that women working at public or private educational institutions may not be forced to wear the veil, that covering their heads is their personal choice and that forcing them to do so is a violation of fundamental rights as enshrined in the Constitution. The Court also directed the Ministry of Education to take immediate steps to implement the Guidelines on Sexual Harassment. (The education officer was made to apologise to the headmistress during the hearing and it was also ordered by the Court that he may be transferred from his current area of operations).

Sexual harassment, according to the Guidelines, is discriminatory and humiliating for victims. It impedes gender equality, may hamper performance at the workplace and create a hostile working environment. The above incident was a blatant example of Rule 4(i)(c) -- Sexually coloured verbal representation and Rule 4(1)(f) -- Sexually coloured remark or gesture -- under the Guidelines on Sexual Harassment. In addition, the petitioners drew the Court's attention to Rule 27A of the Government Servants Discipline and Conduct Rules 1979 on conduct towards female colleagues which states that a government servant may not use language or behave towards their female colleagues in a manner which is 'improper and goes against the official decorum and dignity' of the colleague. They suggested that it be applied together with the Guidelines so that action is taken against government servants implicated in acts of sexual harassment.

The petitioners also claimed that the imposition of a dress code on women is a violation of fundamental rights to equality, to be treated in accordance with the law, and to personal liberty, freedom of expression and freedom of religion. Not only was the headmistress on the receiving end of comments with sexual overtones, but the comments were made due to her choice of dress and based on the assumption that, as a woman, she should dress in a certain manner.

The High Court has recently declared that a woman's decision to cover her head is a matter of personal choice.

The High Court verdict is significant in its emphasis on a person's -- in this case, a woman's -- 'personal choice'. It also notes that in our country, there is no uniform practice of veiling or head covering for women, though in recent years there have been instances of attempts by private persons as well as government officials to force women to cover their heads. This, as demonstrated in the above case, constitutes harassment.

This is not to say that women should not be allowed to cover their heads, as is the consequence of the controversial French headscarf ban. The ban, in an effort to maintain France's tradition of strict separation of the state from religion, prohibits the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in public primary and secondary schools. While critics have noted that under this law, the wearing of religious artefacts such as the Christian cross and the Jewish Star of David should also go, the focus seems mainly to be on the wearing of the khimar or headscarf by Muslim schoolgirls. In the case of headscarves, the law, while recognising that some women and girls wear them out of personal choice, assumes that others are forced to wear it against their will, impeding freedom of choice and gender equality.

The issue is really one of choice. Imposing a dress, action or way of life on someone is as objectionable as banning someone from it -- as long as it does not harm anyone else -- because it restricts their freedom. In the struggle for women's emancipation, the headscarf has come to be seen by many as oppressive for women, and, if forced upon them, it is. Unfortunately, women are often the prime victims of oppression, be it through the imposition of religious values or social norms. However, women who choose to cover their heads of their own will or from their own beliefs, should not be treated as victims of male domination or religious oppression. It is about the right to personal liberty and the freedoms of expression as well as religion, regardless of sex, gender, class, etc. This is what the verdict issued by the Bangladesh High Court stresses on -- the equal rights guaranteed by our Constitution to every citizen.



Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2010