Is street harassment really as innocuous as we seem to think it is?
How many times have you or a female loved-one been touched, ogled or whistled at by a strange man on the street? Plenty, I assume? We’ve all been there: an episode takes place when you least expect it, you silently scurry off to narrate it to your mother or friends and are barraged with questions about what you were wearing and whether it was covering enough. At times, you may also be advised to simply let it go. After all, boys will be boys and unwanted comments, wolf-whistles and catcalling can be taken as inadvertent compliments, right? Wrong!
It’s high time we stop shrugging off street harassment as unimportant and wake up for the damage it perpetrates on womankind. For instance, a study jointly conducted by Cornell University and street harassment specialists Hollaback earlier this year shows just how problematic things can be. Herein, some 4,872 American women were interviewed, 86% of whom admitted to having resorted to new, different routes in order to avoid the offenders on their usual ones. In fact, 72% of them ended up spending much more on the longer commute! The study also found that 70% actually avoided heading out at night for fear of sexual aggravation on the roads.
Some of you may argue that Western studies like these aren’t entirely applicable to Pakistan but reality states otherwise. Granted, the past few years have experienced the rise of the modern, Pakistani working woman with girls as young as the early teens, taking up employment in order to earn a living. In fact, according to a report released by the World Bank in 2013, Pakistani women now constitute 24.60% of the overall workforce, with a literacy rate of 40.08%. Considering this, Pakistan has indeed become much better for female workers.
Unfortunately, better doesn’t always translate to safer. Most women rely heavily on public transport to get to and from their workplaces but commute is nothing short of a nightmare. Many like 21-year-old student Wishaal Khalid have had to change their mode of transport to escape harassment. “I have stopped standing at the NIPA bus stop in Karachi because of all the times I have been teased there,” said Wishaal. “Now, I have to take a bus from Silver Jubilee which takes much longer than normal.” Some like 23-year-old Hafsa Said were compelled to quit their jobs owing to escalating street harassment. “I used to conduct tuitions near the Gulistan-e-Johar area in Karachi when I was 17,” recalled Hafsa. “But then, a man started waiting for me at the bus stop every day, insisting that I join him in his car. This continued for about three days, after which I had to resign.” Unsurprisingly, eve-teasing in Pakistan often goes beyond the ominous stares and sleazy compliments to include inappropriate songs, following, and even covert touching.
This brings us to the question at hand: does street harassment warrant immediate action or should women march on, ignoring the sounds of ‘kiya lag rahi hai’ and ‘waah’ that they hear all too often? According to Rimsha Ali Shah, founder of a non-profit organisation entitled No To Harassment, Pakistanis fail to see street harassment as harmful because women themselves haven’t realised it is an important issue. “The problem is that our society doesn’t regard a crime as a crime until it inflicts physical pain,” explains Rimsha. “In reality, even casual teasing is, at times, the groundwork for potential rape.” Back in 2014, Rimsha and her colleagues conducted an online survey on the matter, the results of which were rather depressing. “Even women don’t realise the problem,” said Rimsha. “They feel harassment can be avoided by covering themselves more without knowing that even our religion states that modesty is in the eye of the beholder.” Rimsha recalls an incident wherein a friend of hers was touched inappropriately by a stranger and they took the offender to the police. “The policemen were trained in such matters and were very helpful.” But the lack of any stringent law regarding harassment meant that the offender was released following just a brief warning.
A point to be noted is that derision of women isn’t restricted solely to the lower strata of the society; relatively affluent and educated men are just as guilty, albeit unknowingly. For instance, many young boys often joke about poondi, a slang term for ogling at women. But even joking about it somewhat objectifies women, as though we exist for male amusement. A lot of this could be attributed to the media’s portrayal of the female body and songs like Blurred Lines by singer Robin Thicke topping the charts.
Considering this, it’s no wonder that majority of women feel marginalised and resort to their own brand of vigilantism (read: wearing a bigger dupatta) to ward off unwanted attention. Sadly, even the police can’t always be relied upon, as suggested by Hafsa. “Once, I was walking across the Nazimabad bridge at night and two police passed by me,” she shared. “They saw me and said, ‘Isse akele thori chor denge…thaanay lekar hee jaana parega.’ I had to run against the traffic to get away!”
And yet, so few of us are willing to come forth and speak up against this plague. It is but our silence than indirectly encourages harassment and gives offenders the audacity to do it so freely. “It’s not just about sharing experiences but also speaking up at the time of the incident,” said Rimsha. “These men don’t expect us to speak and show them what they are doing is wrong. But when they find themselves in an awkward situation, they might mend their ways and stop.” According to Rimsha, it is equally important to cut off the problem at its roots by making men our allies. “We should explain to our brothers, fathers, husbands, relatives and friends that stopping us from going out is not going to rectify anything,” she suggested. “We don’t have to get them to fight for us but empower them to empower us.”
Seeing how we can’t predict what goes on in the mind of an offender and causes them to behave so, Rimsha’s suggestions may just prove fruitful. Scientific research has proven that the human brain is most absorbent during infancy and childhood so we ought to begin right from there. We should train our sons to be respectful to women and our daughters to be confident enough to report a disrespectful man. But most importantly, we should tell men that women shouldn’t only be respected because they are some ones daughter, sister or mother but because of the fact that they are fellow human beings, worthy of it.
Nisma Chauhan is a subeditor at The Express Tribune Magazine desk. She tweets @ChauhanNisma
Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, July 5th, 2015.