When in Pakistan, do as Saudis do

On Dec 10, a man attacked a 95-year-old passenger and sexually harassed a female passenger on a bus.

Maria Amir December 12, 2012
I've always maintained that women ought to have the right to dress in whatever manner they choose and believe that moral policing, especially the vein that exists in Pakistan targeting women and their general appearance, is abhorrent.

I am, however, also conscious of the fact that my own attire and behaviour tends to alter with regards to my location. I am comfortable dressing in jeans when I go to Cosa Nostra, for example, but I tend to switch to shalwar kameez when I go to Liberty market.

This particular form of social hypocrisy is not uncommon and most women would simply deem it prudent to consider their environment before selecting their wardrobe in our country.

Sexual harassment is everywhere in Pakistan, whether in the form of men gawking at women in the street; men stalking women drivers on the road or whispering blatant come-ons behind their backs as they walk in a market place. While Pakistan has introduced legislation penalising sexual harassment, this law has largely proven to be fruitless as few are able to practically implement it. That said the 'cure' lies with women themselves and most of us know better than to make eye contact with anyone while driving or raising our voices in public places and drawing attention to ourselves.

For better or worse, Pakistani women suffer from sexual harassment and it is these same women who also have to place constrictions on themselves and their lifestyle to deal with it. The situation is not ideal. While, it is true that women should not have to pay for the frustrations of the male populous, the fact remains that a woman who draws too much attention to herself increases the odds of becoming a target.

I was reminded of this fact in the most shocking manner by a recent incident that occurred on a Daewoo bus.  There has long been a general consensus that the Daewoo bus service operating in Pakistan is one of the more useful transport facilities we have available to us. The service is considered safe, punctual, economic and convenient.

However, it is time for Daewoo to seriously revise its security protocol!

On December 10, an incident aboard the premium plus service leaving Islamabad at 12pm for Lahore shocked passengers and Daewoo staff. A young man aboard the bus had a hysterical episode after the bus crossed the Lahore toll plaza. The man in question attacked a 95-year-old passenger sitting behind him, proceeded to take off his trousers and sexually harass a female passenger while swearing and hurling profanities at her.

According to another passenger Tehmina Arshed, it took others on board several minutes to grasp the situation and respond by restraining the man and beating him to a pulp.
"At first he was banging his head against the window and howling loudly. We all thought he had received some tragic news on the phone. When the elderly man behind him tried to comfort him, he attacked him," she said.

Mrs Arshed said that the passenger, a young man in his mid twenties then attacked a woman and tried to tear her clothes while hurling insults at her before he was restrained.
"The bus driver refused to stop the bus because he would have lost his job but by the time we reached the Lahore station the police had arrived and the girl's family was there. I still can't help but imagine what would have happened if that man had a gun or a knife."

It is true that it is impossible to anticipate such incidents and that the Daewoo bus service is generally a safe mode of travel, even for single women. That said, several passengers on board said that there was no checking before they boarded the bus and there was no guard on board.

Given the security situation in Pakistan, it ought to be mandatory for Daewoo to ensure that all passengers, male and female, are checked before they board a bus and there ought to be at least one armed guard aboard each bus.

I was told that the young woman who was attacked was wearing a dupatta on her head, which the man tore apart before ripping out her hair and that she ran from her seat when he turned to assault the woman sitting next to her, holding a baby. When she ran, he followed her to the front of the bus before he was restrained.

As a woman living in Pakistan, incidents like this are terrifying.

Not because they happen all the time but precisely because they could happen. Of all the countries in the world, ours is one which ought to stock pharmacies with pepper spray and shops ought to sell tasers, for main counters to cater to women who drive alone and travel alone.

I have often heard some of my male friends’ joke that I ought to be happy; I'm not living in Saudi Arabia. As if that comparison is in any way reassuring. It is true that the lives of women are far worse in Saudi Arabia but at least the Saudi public fears the law and its consequences.

Passengers beating the man on board on the Daewoo bus refused to wait for the police by stating "If the police get him he'll get away in an hour by paying them Rs1,000."

The answer to sexual harassment certainly isn't for women to cave in and surrender their fundamental rights, but incidents like this ought to serve as a warning for the authorities. Women themselves should take all possible precautionary measures.

Pakistan isn't Saudi Arabia and women in our country have rights (at least on paper), however, until those rights are enforced one will never really be able to tell the difference.

 Read more by Maria here.
Maria Amir The writer has a Masters degree in Women's Studies from Oxford University and writes on identity, culture and current affairs
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.