Fear beyond the naked eye

Why did the women in Faisalabad remove their own clothes?


ANNUSHEH RAHIM December 19, 2021

LONDON:

Early December 2021, the news of four women being stripped, beaten and dragged through Bawa Chowk Market in Faisalabad rocked social media. The impact of this incident is compounded by the fact that it followed another incident of mob mentality - on 1st December, hundreds of men lynched and burned alive Priyantha Kumara on the basis of a blasphemy allegation.

This ironically iniquitous culture of mob mentality is disturbingly normalised in Pakistan. In a nation where justice is ‘taken’ (forcibly snatched) by the individual’s hands, footage of trial by mob shocks not for its moral value, but for the aesthetic that reminds us how contagious violent anger is. Thus, the portrait of the mob and the women in Faisalabad complicated upon the release of new CCTV footage from the incident. The footage demonstrates that the women entered the shop with the intention to steal, and later that two of the four women derobed themselves in the middle of the road. Social media users were quick to redefine the incident; the women are thieves and did not have their clothes torn off, so naturally the immorality now rests within them. However, this footage only illustrates the rising tension that the shopkeeper and his supporters used to justify beating, harassing and recording these women.

The CCTV footage begins with four women, covered by veils, entering the shop. One, draped in black, leads the group forward - and the shop owner reaches forward and tears off her purdah. Perhaps he understood the magnitude of this humiliating action - for a woman, even an accidental slipping of her purdah in a male-dominated space is a cause for chronic and latent anxiety. The aggression with which he removed her covering channeled a desire for her degradation, initiating a string of crude events to follow suit.

The women try to leave the store, but are barricaded in by the shop-owner, who has now amassed two other men as back-up. As he holds his weight against the door, he motions to his entourage to bring more people. Two women manage to escape, but not without the woman in black’s purdah being ripped off again, now by another man. This sequence of humiliation continues, as this man sits another woman down and begins physically assaulting her under the guise of searching her chest.

Two of the four women did not escape the store. Another video that circulated on social media shows that the women inside were akin to being kept hostage. Another woman is dragged into the store being held spread-eagle by her ankles and wrists while she looks visibly distressed. A group of men begin chanting ‘kapray ataro’ (‘take off your clothes’), and she obliges desperately, wailing in horror.

Upon comparing this phone-recorded footage with the CCTV footage, it is imperative to note that CCTV footage captured the visuals, but omitted the sound experience of the incident. It is highly likely that the women undressing themselves outside were being threatened in a similar manner. Other disturbingly available footage of these two women naked shows how they attempted to later cover up with a cloth, to no avail. This cloth was ripped off, a bearded and

fully dressed man slaps the almost-naked woman in public, and a phone is there to record it all. No one offers help; their nudity is supported and punished at the same time.

The two women outside derobed themselves for two reasons. Partially as an admission of their innocence, to prove that their clothes were not hiding stolen goods. Earlier CCTV footage depicted a woman's bosom being aggressively searched by the shopkeeper, looking for any evidence of their culpability. By stripping naked, as if they are entering a prison, they’re baring their bodies as vessels clean from crime.

Secondly, they stripped themselves as a type of self-sacrifice to draw attention to the two ladies in captivity inside. It is likely that at that point they both knew about the ordeal their fellow women were going through inside. By publicly obliging to the mob’s orders, they surrendered themselves to their inevitable fate - and perhaps hoped that someone would save them.

The Chairperson of the Women Protection Authority spoke on behalf of these women to ARY news, explaining that they stripped themselves “out of fear”, feeling a need to issue an apology over “(this) act committed by them.”

What would push an already scared and humiliated woman to take her clothes off? Undoubtedly, the act of disrobing oneself is a trauma response, rooted in the knowledge that their female body is their strongest bargaining tool. This is especially true as their occupation is to pick garbage, which both drives an economic necessity for shoplifting and reinforces their female body as their only currency.

The same way a child may blush before telling a lie, the women attempted to give themselves away before the additional punishment that follows non-cooperation. Perhaps, by stripping themselves naked, they wore their vulnerability in the hopes of dissuading the hardest of violent streaks.

Even if the women deliberately stripped themselves, who took out their phone to record them? In a nation that enforces the purdah as a protection from the male gaze, the women's collective immodesty was punished not only through a digital recording, but their naked bodies reaching viral status. These videos are voyeuristic, drawing on the viewer’s perversions to replay the women’s humiliation again and again. Someone taking out a phone to record such a humiliating incident would not go unnoticed - yet, why did no one stop these cameras? In one video, a voice calls from near the camera, asking “Yeh kiya ho raha hai?”, as casually and curiously as if his peers weren’t jeering at and hitting two naked women.

Has the everyman lost so much faith in the justice system that the instinctive desire to take justice into one’s own hands overrides everything? The actions of these men do not exist in a vacuum. Rather, these men simultaneously reflect and perpetuate the masculine desire of Pakistan to possess the female body. This is a country where women are taught to harbor guilt for simply existing in front of the male gaze. Thus the purdah emerges as an invisibility cloak, granting a woman’s only refuge in public spaces. The CCTV footage captured the initial disarming of these women at the hands of the shopkeeper, which instigated a violently patriarchal mob. The attempts of social media users to undermine the mob’s accountability, on the basis of these women stripping themselves, reflects the cultural desire to absolve ourselves of our collective voyeurism.

The author is a filmmaker based between London, Lahore and Tehran. She holds a Honours degree in Comparative Literature with Film from King’s College London.

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