• 11 Nov - 17 Nov, 2017
  • Shahed Sadullah
  • London Eye

By far the most important event to have taken place in the UK over the past week has been the resignation of Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon from his post. In Britain, the word ‘Secretary’ is used to mean what in Pakistan is referred to as ‘Minister’, so this was the highest level resignation from Theresa May’s cabinet since she came to power following the Brexit referendum. Sir Michael represents the Sevenoaks constituency in Kent, which is the constituency in which yours truly is resident.

As the scandals involving Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein gathered pace, the question of harassment of women in Westminster came up with stories about erring politicians coming up thick and fast. All of them were denied to begin with; so it was a bit of surprise when Sir Michael suddenly announced his resignation.

Looking at his pictures you would never have thought that Sir Michael was the type who would be seriously swayed by the opposite sex, but you would be wrong. The story behind it highlights just how different are the values that guide public life in the UK from those that guide public/ political life in Pakistan. Keep in mind that Britain is an infinitely more liberal and permissive society than Pakistan, and forms of behaviour that are tolerated here would be deemed outrageous in Pakistan. But perhaps even by Pakistani standards, what Sir Michael was reported to have done, and what his resignation may be taken to mean as having done, was to touch a female journalist on her knee. English ladies do wear dresses that come up to a level above the knee so the touch was probably not over any protecting cloth.

This incident is said to have taken place in 2002, 15 years ago at a dinner during the Conservative Party Conference. The ‘offence’ possibly took place more than once and was stopped when the journalist in question firmly told Sir Michael to stop. Sir Michael duly apologised, the apology was accepted and since the journalist in question was what has been described as a ‘ferocious Tory’, the matter ended there and the lady in question certainly bore no ill will towards our Member of Parliament. She made no official complaint or anything of the sort.

Yet, when in the light of the Weinstein revelations this matter was brought up, a matter which, as stated, happened 15 years ago and with not even a whiff of a complaint from the lady wronged, Sir Michael thought it fit to hand in his resignation which was duly accepted by Prime Minister Theresa May, albeit with the usual praise about the great job that Sir Michael had done during his stint in the Ministry of Defence. While resigning, Sir Michael did mention that since he represented the armed forces from whom the very highest standards of behaviour were expected, it was no longer appropriate for him to be representing them given the fact that his own behaviour had, in the past, fallen from those high levels.

There are, of course, suggestions that Sir Michael decided to resign now fearing that if he remained in his high profile post, other revelations of female harassment might surface against him. By withdrawing himself from the limelight, it is quite possible that a superficial media may well lose interest in him. That may be as it may be. As matters stand at the moment, he has resigned for doing something which in British society is not really considered as rude or offensive. When men and women greet each other they do so quite often by kissing on the cheek and men often place their hands on the backs of their women companions especially when guiding them through doors etc. Placing your hand on a woman’s knee is a step beyond that, but not a huge one. It would probably be fair to say that the lady in question would have thought so too, which is why there does not seem to be any ill will from her side towards the ‘offender’.

One cannot help but think how very different is this incident from that of Ayesha Gulalai in Pakistan. I saw an interview of her before an audience of university students on a Pakistani TV channel and the striking thing was the hostility of the questions against her which gave the impression that very few believed her allegations. Over here, a woman’s allegations in similar circumstances, claiming to have visible proof of her allegations, would immediately put the accused in a spot and make it incumbent on him to clear his name or accept the allegations. Any forum deciding the issue would have come into action at once; on the other hand, Pakistan’s National Assembly reportedly made a committee to investigate the matter and that seems to have been that – even though the issue of harassment is a very live one in Pakistan and the person accused by Ms Gullalai is perhaps one of the most high profile individuals in the country.

Trivial as Sir Michael’s case may sound to some who may regard it as the ultimate in political correctness, the underlying issue here is actually quite serious. This is one of misuse of power and authority; in poorer countries, this usually takes the form of financial gratification but in more advanced countries, that is replaced by efforts at sexual gratification. In Pakistani society, financial gratification is perhaps seen as much less forgivable, than sexual misdemeanour but over here it is the other way around.

The case of Sir Michael Fallon has now caused confusion about just how this society should now work in the sphere of male-female relations. Given that the ratio of women in work is so high these days, this also has basic connotations for relationships in the work place and consequently, efficiency. Many women and men have said that touching on the knee would be acceptable if it is done after receiving the ‘right’ signals. But reading these ‘signals’ is a very subjective matter and what may be the ‘right’ signals for one side may not be quite that for the other. Also, a society in which alcohol flows freely, ‘signals’ can be misread very easily. Many a time such tepid advances are made just to test the water, rather like some of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s forays. It is perhaps described by the word ‘flirting’ and it would be a brave man who would say that that essential cornerstone of British society is about to undergo a radical change. •