Karachi: “It happened when I was a child but this is the first time I am opening up about it,” was a phrase repeated by almost all female participants in an open discourse on sexual harassment, organised by the National Students Federation (NSF) at the University of Karachi this past week.
The session comprising students from various departments of the varsity, was held in a bid to make campuses safe for students, whose complaints on sexual harassment almost always went unheard or unaddressed. Initially divided between male and female attendees, the session started off with each participant being handed over a document on harassment in order for them to understand the basic concept of harassment and sexual violence.The segregation, stated Laila Raza – NSF’s unit secretary at KU – was done so that women could open up about their incidents comfortably, since the concepts of ‘shame’ and ‘honour’ had made it difficult for women to speak up about their incidents in public.
“It is essential to provide them with a platform where they could share the horrifying incidents without the fear of being judged or having to explain that they were not the ones at fault,” she added. The men and women, however, sat together in the second half of the session which dealt with psychological effects of sexual violence on all genders. As the tea was passed around, it wasn’t a surprise when most cups got cold as participants mustered the courage to speak of instances where they felt sexually violated at different stages of their lives.
The incidents left not just those reliving them shaken, but also those listening to them. Making use of the opportunity, women while reliving the incidents cried when they finally got to let go off the burden of having to hide what happened to them, while others were reduced to tears over the needless vulnerability they had been brought up to live with.
“I vividly remember that one incident. But sadly it wasn’t just one, rather I was harassed several times but I did not tell anyone about it,” shared one participant. Another spoke at length about her ordeal and how her mother had asked her to ignore it because a person from the family was involved.
Speaking about how society rebukes women who openly talk about harassment a participant opined that people around us tend to blame the victim rather than the abuser. In most cases, the victim is not only forced to justify her attire but even her presence at the place where the incident occurred, another participant shared.
“I cover my head and face but it is normal for men to often pass comments like “Masha’Allah” when I am on the road, so attire is definitely not the issue, it’s the mindset which is the problem. I was stalked but I chose not to tell anybody at home because what was a solution for them was an impediment for me, since it would have hampered my education, and I certainly don’t want that to happen,” shared another student.
Lamha Kauser who is currently a student of Sociology said women are brought up to be fearful of the world around them, which hampers the growth of their personality. “The only way we can curb this issue is by countering the fear instilled within us,” she confidently stated, adding, “We are taught morals in a way that it clearly gives advantage to our male counterparts.”
The definition of ‘honour’ inculcated in women at the ages of five, six indirectly teaches girls to be cautious while boys are never taught to behave, she added. “I was brought up in a non-conservative environment, and although my parents had given me the freedom to do what I want, they now feel that they should have taught me the other definition for my confidence was ‘too good for my own sake,” Lamha laughingly added. The session comprising of male students focused on making them realise the effects of harassment, otherwise taken as fun by boys. Most of the male participants acknowledged that they had either done or stayed quiet while a friend did such things.
The participants also spoke about child sexual abuse prevalent in the society and how young boys effected by it also hardly shared their incidents for it was something not man-like to do, resulting in serious damages to their personalities. Addressing the second half of the session, Masooma Zehra a student of Masters in Psychology said “It is important to believe the victim because the moment you refute their account, the victim would not discuss it again leaving severe impacts on the mind.”
The session was concluded with the resolve to form a body of students which could serve as a platform for registration of complaints. Suggestions over gradually growing the body into a pressure-group lobbying for legislation on sexual harassment at campuses were also given.
“The idea of oppression of women, in form of sexual harassment or barring them from stepping outside their homes, all stem from a particular mindset and the absence of a student committee at university catering to such issues is also a projection of the same approach,” Laila said while closing the session.
Speaking about the session comprising of male students Muzammal Afzal, Organiser NSF Karachi, said the participants narrated their personal stories when their female friends or someone from their family were harassed and they had witnessed it. He stressed that men admitting the problem can definitely help in addressing the issue.