Nabila Hakim Ali Khan
JWT: When was the Office of the Ombudsperson established? How and with what purpose does it serve?
Nabila Hakim Ali Khan (NHAK):
The Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, 2010 was a stimulus for the establishment of this office. This Act deals with the harassment, either physical or psychological, of women at their workplaces. Since it covers the entire province, any misdeed done to any woman in public as well as private organizations of Punjab can be taken into consideration, and the perpetrator can be lawfully penalized, regardless of his status or position. Owing to this equitable nature of our work, accused influential persons, including some university personnel and government officers of up to BS-21, have been penalized. Our office, being wholly concerned with the safety and welfare of women, has notified several departments, authorities and educational institutions to form harassment committees that can address such concerns of women. The committee is supposed to be comprised of three members: maximum two males and at least one female member. Women can easily file their complaints there. If the decision made by committee doesn’t seem just to the victim, then the office of the Ombudsperson acts as an appellate court. The procedure to file a complaint is quite simple: evidences along with an application is to be submitted to the Ombudsperson, either through post, email, contact number given on our official website or by personally visiting the office. If any woman feels uncomfortable to even approach the departmental harassment committee, she can still have easy access to the Ombudsperson’s office. We move forward with fair proceedings, keeping in consideration the official record and evidence, and conducting mobile, cyber and face-to-face investigations. If the complainant or the defendant finds the ruling unfavourable, again, they have the right to appeal against it to the honourable Governor of Punjab.
The most recent development in this regard is the Punjab Enforcement of Women’s Property Rights Act, 2021, passed by the Punjab provincial assembly. It calls for women’s right to property, emphasizing on providing them with their legal share of inheritance, which they are often deprived of, according to the law. The property can be either movable or immovable. Our first priority is to find out whether the property legally belongs to the complainant. After confirmation, we move on to a legal procedure of around 60 days. The concerned ACs, DCs, and Revenue departments are consulted with for official record of the subject property. Hearings take place at the Ombudsperson’s office where both the parties share their claims and apprehensions. In the light of the acquired record and relevant documents, the final decision is then forwarded to the DC of the respective district. He is bound to implement the ruling and submit an implementation report within 15 days.
As far as the success stories of the office are concerned, over 80 such cases have been speedily investigated into and peacefully resolved from June to October under the Act of 2021. Apart from that, there is an incremental influx of applications which shows the rising awareness in women of their rights: over 500 complaints are pending.
JWT: What has been the attitude of government departments with regard to the implementation of the decisions made by the Ombudsperson?
NHAK: In most cases, the concerned AC, DC, and the Revenue departments are looked up to for their cooperation. The attitude of administrative bodies has always been positive so far. They would, at times, send their representatives for coordination. Also, we have been receiving the implementation reports in time. The other department that we need the help of is the Punjab police. We have been receiving positive responses from the DPOs and other police officials. If the accused party doesn’t show up at the court hearings, the intervention of the police is inevitable.
JWT: The Office of the Ombudsperson, despite its huge responsibilities and remarkable functioning, is an underrated government institution. Are there any measures taken by the Government of the Punjab regarding the ensured security of the office and the officials?
NHAK: The Ombudsperson receives complaints from the unheard and downtrodden sections of the society against grim manipulators. On the days of hearings, the office is swarmed with witnesses, security guards and blackguards who usually come with big guns. Though the officials have to deal with such sensitive issues regarding women harassment and property cases, yet, unfortunately, there is no proper security management, neither at the entrance nor inside the building. Our staff feels insecure during the proceedings. We have been experiencing such mishaps lately. Last month, hearings were going on and the opposing parties flared up a heated argument which nearly involved the use of weapons. We called the police and submitted our complaint in Shadman Police Station, with FIR no. 699/21. The most recent incident happened on October 23rd, 2021, when the offended party kept calling on our official contact numbers, threatening our staff members.
While genuinely dealing with critical and pressing cases in a patriarchal society, we feel vulnerable to harmful situations; it puts our staff’s lives and wellbeing at stake.
JWT: What is the modus operandi of the trials held at the Ombudsperson’s office?
NHAK: Having received an application from the victim, we notify the concerned parties to appear at the court on a certain date. We encourage both of the hostile parties to make compromises that can usher in peaceful resolution. We prefer to get a contract signed by both the parties which has the details of the division of property, in the form of either assets or money. The sphere of conflict resolution is not limited only to Muslim women; minorities’ rights are also important to us. We have resolved some serious cases of Christian families according to their religious law. We have witnessed the reunion of broken families, blood relations coming together after years and years of abandonment and animosity. Our purpose is to empower women and make men aware of the undervalued strength and neglected rights of women.
JWT: Since the entire Punjab comes within the purview of the Office of the Ombudsperson, why is there only one office in the entire province? Does it not create challenges for the staff as well as the complainants?
NHAK: As per the direction of the Government of the Punjab, three regional offices – DG Khan, Sahiwal and Bahawalpur – have been recently set up so that the grievances of the local population can be addressed right then and there. These offices have started functioning. However, due to the lack of proper infrastructure, the hearings are, for the time being, held at the Deputy Commissioner’s court. There is also a lack of human resource and physical assets. As of yet, there is a dire need to set up offices in all 9 divisions of the Punjab; it will make the case trials easier and speedier.
JWT: With welfare of women as your prime goal, how do you see the future of your department? With what vision do you move forward in the direction of welfare of women?
NHAK: Islam grants both men and women right to property inheritance. It is stated in Holy Quran that: “From what is left by parents and those nearest related, there is a share for men and a share for women, whether the property be small or large, a determinate share.” In Islam, the share of a man is equal to the share of two women.
“Allah (thus) directs you as regards your children’s (inheritance): to the male, a portion equal to that of two females. If only daughters, two or more, their share is two-thirds of the inheritance. If only one, her share is a half. For parents, a sixth share of the inheritance to each, if the deceased left children. If no children and the parents are the (only) heirs, the mother has a third. If the deceased has brothers (or sisters) the mother has a sixth. After payment of legacy and debts you know not whether the parents or your children are nearest to you in benefit. These are settled portions ordained by Allah, and Allah is All Knowing, All Wise.” The Noble Quran 4:11
The twenty-first century demands for social and gender equality more than ever, which requires a revolution in people’s mindsets, especially in the Third World countries like Pakistan. Our aim is to cooperate with deserving women as much as we can in order to bring a positive change in our society. Our department needs technical staff and paraphernalia; for that we have already conveyed our concerns to the Government of the Punjab. With hopes for a brilliant future of the institution, we move forward with zeal and devotion.
JWT: Would you, as the Chairperson, like to convey a message to the women of our society?
NHAK: Both men and women are God’s precious creations, having equal intrinsic value. Equality isn’t ‘sameness’; the roles and aims of both genders in this world are different, but their potential and worth as human beings is a self-evident reality. With rights come the consequent responsibilities. Since females make up around 50% of the country’s total population, there’s no leeway if we neglect their needs. In our society, women are considered the proverbial ‘heart of the home’, ‘the foundation that the society stands on.’ Since one of the SDGs adopted by the United Nations in 2015 calls for gender equality and women empowerment, and Pakistan is a responsible member of the UN, it’s crucial to make our women aware of their legal rights through proper education and psychological grooming so that they can become financially independent. Though the awareness and social consciousness in women has increased in the recent years, yet there’s a long way to go before we can collectively claim that our women are empowered and safe from prejudiced notions. It is a part of PM Imran Khan’s vision of the ‘State of Madina’ to empower the often marginalized sections of society, especially women; therefore the Acts passed by the Government of the Punjab encourage women to come forward and express their demands for moral justice and property rights. We are earnest to help them in their journey of self-confidence. My message to our women is to speak up for themselves, to not stay silent and to establish themselves as significant individuals of society. With the will of God, there’s no getting away with abuse of power. I would like to sum up my message in the following golden words:
“No nation can rise to the height of glory unless your women are side by side with you. We are victims of evil customs. It is a crime against humanity that our women are shut up within the four walls of the houses as prisoners. There is no sanction anywhere for the deplorable condition in which our women have to live.”
Muhammad Ali Jinnah