The sun was rising on Karachi as Sara hailed a local bus to commute to class. Carefully, she tried to balance a book bag and her water bottle in her hands in the cramped bus. She kept on checking the time on her phone in case she’s running late. Looking up, she noticed someone in the men’s section smiling invitingly at her. Quickly, she reprimanded him. Others in the bus jumped in to defend him. Forcing her to bear the brunt of it, he said “itni fikar hai to ghar bethain”. And the words ‘but I was only going to university..’ remained stuck in her head.
Women’s presence in the public space in Pakistan is contentious. The degrees of street harassment in the Pakistani city vary from leering, ‘checking out’ and catcalling to stalking and physical assault. Most women report feelings of psychosocial insecurity when they step out of their home. Yet, they feel that nothing can be done to teach the perpetrators a lesson because of a structural power imbalance.
“I was travelling in a Daewoo when I saw two boys sitting behind a couple of girls, trying to annoy them. I interfered. When I told my brother, he affectionately instructed me not to do that again because ‘tum kuch bhi nahi kar sako gi agar wo badla lain’..” There’s a pertinent question: What is this ‘something’ that they can do and why do they feel entitled to do that?
There are laws to tackle street harassment in Pakistan. The Section 509 amendment in the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) defines harassment as incidents where the culprit “to insult the modesty of any woman, utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or that such gesture or object shall be seen, by such woman, or intrudes upon the privacy of such woman” and criminalises it with punishment extending up to three years.
But Aimen Bucha, a feminist researcher who has worked with AGHS (Asma Gul-rukh Hina Shehla ) Legal Aid Cell believes that the presence of laws is not enough as a law’s functionality can only be observed when it is actually implemented. It is then that we get to know of the loopholes and gaps in the existing judicial framework.
“A woman who wants to report street harassment will first have to lodge an FIR at a local police station, and they may trifle with the matter, not considering it ‘serious enough’.” Moreover, she adds, laws are insufficient if there is no healthy debate and the popular culture normalises and infantilises violence against women, be it of any nature.
CULTURE OF SILENCE:
Hira, an undergraduate student in Lahore, believes that women should call out their abusers right away because “ignoring them and letting them go in order to avoid a scene perpetuates a culture of silence.” She believes that staying silent gives the next person power and confidence to repeat his actions because he doesn’t see any accountability occurring.
“What I’ve observed is that they never expect the woman to shout back or ask. So their first reaction is of shock followed by embarrassment.” Yet, calling out abusers to correct the power imbalance that engenders fear may lead to more fear.
Alia grew up in Mirpur before she came to Lahore to pursue higher studies. She was a feisty child who prided herself in the ability to put up a physical fight with boys.
In her first year of university, her friends told her not to react to harassment in public because these boys could follow her to her hostel, a dingy structure five minutes away from her university situated next to shops selling cheap plastic ornaments. Now, she avoids ‘getting into trouble’ and feels ambiguous about the nature of her response.
When asked in a public poll, most women shared that they’d prefer to keep quiet and avoid such harassers.
Bucha relayed that women should speak up “as much as they safely can”. It is important for a woman to do a risk assessment of her situation before she decides to call out her harasser. “We should not pressurise women to come out unless we can provide them with a support system to deal with the societal backlash. Their safety comes first and it is understandable if they are hesitant to call it out,” she adds.
However, it is important for women to understand that however someone behaves with them is not their fault. They should not feel guilty for being the target of such abuse. “It’s got nothing to do with them or their clothes because I am covered from head to toe and yet I get harassed most days,” concludes Hira.
With the social media led #MeToo movement, women have begun to call out their abusers, often to societal incredulity and denial. However, harassment in the street is complex as it mostly comes from individuals one may have no primary or secondary contact with.
There is this search for a ‘proper’ response that would be appropriate to the relative severity of the situation and yet won’t undermine the psychological torture that is a result of such ‘public dissection and dissemination’. Women often tell that their knees shake and they experience a very real “threat to survival” after they publicly reprimand their abuser in case he ‘tries to seek revenge’. Is it time to speak up? Yes. But are we better off suppressing our humiliation and anger? Sometimes.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy