Harassment is really just a misinterpreted compliment.
People, women in particular, should relax and learn to appreciate someone appreciating them.
This is what the countless perpetrators of street harassment would like us to feel.
If our presence or the presence of our bodies in a public place elicits a reaction from an admirer that could not keep their feelings hidden, then we should graciously accept their kind words rather than ignore them or, unthinkably, show our displeasure.
By stating any of this, I do not want to make light of street harassment.
My intention is quite the opposite.
I seek to highlight the very heart of the matter and by association, to advocate for a more concrete path to ending street harassment.
So what exactly is street harassment? The “street harassment” I refer to is defined as “unwanted comments, gestures, and actions forced on a stranger in a public place without their consent and is directed at them because of their actual or perceived sex, gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation” by the organization Stop Street Harassment (SSH).
According to SSH, this may include, catcalls, unwanted whistling, leering, catcalls, sexually explicit comments, sexist remarks, groping, stalking, flashing, public masturbation, sexual assault and rape.
The timing of this piece is purposeful as this week, April 12th to the 18th, is International Anti-Street Harassment Week.
Last year, participants in twenty-five countries demonstrated in support of measures to end street harassment.
In the coming years, this list should include Pakistan.
Though there are already organizations making valiant efforts to combat harassment, the movement should expand much further into the mainstream.
Publicizing the dialogue is perhaps the only way to marginalize those that do engage in street harassment.
By no means is it an exaggeration to say that women are the primary targets of street harassment and by no means is Pakistan the only country in which this harassment occurs.
Being constantly leered at or being followed is depressingly common.
I have experienced both more times than I can count.
The natural response would be to assume that it is because of what I wear or where I go that this happens.
Yet the victims of street harassment come in no particular mold and this assumption is lazy at best.
Harassment, in fact, is not brought on by anything having to do with the victim.
It is the result of the right that street harassers feel they possess in a public space.
The assumption at this point may in fact be that this article is the product of the alleged “NGO mafia” out to once again misrepresent how women are treated in this country.
Most assuredly, this is not the case.
The mythical mafia aside, the aim here is to delve into the nuances of what street harassment really is and how best to put an end to it.
If street harassment were always so obvious that women, for example, in public spaces were constantly physically harmed, then perhaps few people would sit by the wayside and allow such a thing to happen to their Pakistani sisters.
What makes street harassment and so much of the harassment in this country so dangerous is that it is often so subtle that it is only palpable to the victim.
If a woman is stalked in a bazaar or constantly and very obviously starred at by men passing by she most likely has no physical wounds to show for this.
Unease and shame are not something that can be easily displayed or understood.
If these occurrences are discussed publicly the victim may be asked to get over it or to not repeat the behavior that brought on such a response.
Naturally, the next step is to declare certain places no-go zones for those that would be more likely to suffer such harassment.
Why modify the behavior of the perpetrator, when it is so much easier to put restrictions on the victim?
The rather comical solution to all of this is that primary targets for street harassment, women, should not appear in public places.
If women have the audacity to be in public, they should accept the consequences.
I, however, advocate taking the harder route.
Long-term solutions to such behavior require increased education on women’s rights and on the social ills that breed and are bred by harassment.
Laws that penalize workplace harassment should be expanded to incorporate street harassment and criminal laws need serious reexamination to see if the harms incorporated in our penal code are wholly inclusive of these.
Initiatives should be taken to put victims more at ease in engaging law enforcement to assist them when they are harassed.
Street harassment must be recognized and put a stop to as it happens.
This harassment in many forms is a crime and should be viewed as such.
We do not blame the victims of a robbery, so why blame the victims of street harassment? I encourage everyone to think about and to discuss this issue during International Anti-Street Harassment Week.
It is time we all do our part to end street harassment to make Pakistan’s public spaces safe for all people.