THE cold-blooded murder of 19-year-old bus hostess Mahwish Arshad in Faisalabad is a grim reminder of the violence women in general, and working women in particular, are subjected to in Pakistan. According to reports, Mahwish had already left one transport company to get away from her alleged killer, a security guard at the same company, over his incessant and forceful proposals of marriage. He followed her to her next job, where he continued to harass her. After her death, videos began circulating on social media; a mobile phone recording, just hours before her murder, of a heated argument between the two on a bus, in which he threatened her, and CCTV footage of him grabbing and then fatally shooting her at a deserted bus terminal.
This murder has sparked much debate about the social insecurity of Pakistani women, particularly working women and students living in hostels. A significant issue is why her company’s management did not take any prior action against an employee who had been harassing her for a long time. It also reveals the extent of women’s mistrust of our justice system; Mahwish might have reported the harassment to the police had she thought it would help.
In 2016, I interviewed several bus hostesses like Mahwish to ascertain their conditions. It was sometimes difficult to gain access to them through their employers; one bus service flatly refused to let me interview their hostesses. What they revealed of their work conditions was shocking.The life of a bus hostess is full of insecurity.
These hostesses mostly come from distant and underdeveloped parts of the country, and reside in their employer’s hostels situated at bus terminals throughout the country. Their duty timings are not fixed, and include day and night shifts. Their income is dependent on the number of trips they make in a given month, earning on average Rs700-800 per trip.
Their contract allowed them four holidays per month, but in reality, they rarely take time off to go on leave and visit their homes. Since buses operate throughout the year including on holidays, they have to wait their turn to go home for months on end, and absenteeism or lateness of their fellow hostesses is another reason they do not get to avail holidays. The fact that they earn double the usual amount by working on holidays is also incentive to not take time off.
Hostesses are also responsible for the company’s property on the bus; they are fined if anything has been damaged. A missing earphone, or showing up late for a shift, can result in a loss of Rs200 per trip. If some passengers go missing during bus stays, hostesses can be deprived of the entire earnings of a single trip.
The hostesses’ opinions of the behaviour of their passengers were mixed. One hostess, then 23 years old, said that they were trained to be polite and patient with passengers, even if the latter behaved arrogantly. “Sometimes, passengers harass us by using vulgar language, or call us repeatedly to ask for water or soft drinks.”
The code of conduct for their duty is quite tough. Some transport companies have devised strict checks and balances to measure the efficiency of their staff by pasting complaint numbers inside their vehicles and asking passengers to fill out feedback forms. An official of one bus service, however, insisted that they protect their staff and ensure they are respected; if a passenger continues to misbehave after being warned, he said, they are handed over to the authorities.
Of the women I interviewed, not one claimed that she would be happy to continue in this profession if given a better option. None of the hostesses were educated beyond matriculation, some even less than that. They said that, had they been able to pursue their education further, they would have preferred another profession in which they could earn the same amount of income but feel safer. Tellingly, these young women were all hesitant to disclose their real names.
Though hostesses have been working on inter-city bus services for years, is their occupation considered respectable in our society? And if one of them, like Mahwish, meets a tragic fate without having cameras trained on her final moments, would the authorities act to bring her attacker to account? How long will women like her continue to be killed in this way? Do they deserve to fear for their lives by virtue of being poor and helpless if they seek to uplift themselves and their families by working?
It is the collective responsibility of all segments of society — including the political class, religious groups and civil society organisations — to educate and propagate women’s empowerment for the sake of healthy nation-building. Alongside prioritised implementation of women protection laws, however, it is also necessary to deal with the ideology of misogyny that allows men to feel entitled to kill women with apparent impunity.