KARACHI: “I’m afraid … I’m afraid …” Her anxiety echoes the fear she feels every time she steps out of her home. Pinching, groping, ogling, stalking, bullying, harassment … she experiences it all … until she learns to fight back. She brings her phone out to take a picture or make a video of her harasser who then backs off.
The above is a description of a video produced by Kissa Abbas for the Legal Aid Society. Kissa also featured in the video. Sharing her own experience she said that she used to walk to a nearby gym and men would ogle her. “They didn’t stop even after I switched to wearing an abaya because the problem was with them, not me,” she pointed out during a Dialogue for Change organised by Uks Gender Watch to look into sexual harassment in public spaces.
The dialogue was especially held in the aftermath of the harassment of women and families by gatecrashers at the Eat Food Festival Karachi, the banning of stags from shopping malls and the daily ordeal of women who are ogled and groped on public transport. On the occasion, some important questions were raised such as why do women have to be constantly vigilant in public spaces?
Sharing a recent incident, Kissa added that she and her friends were exiting a hotel after another friend’s wedding ceremony when they realised that they were being ogled by a man in a Vigo with bodyguards. “When confronted and asked why he was watching us, he replied by saying: ‘Why not? You are pretty’.”
Unfortunate incident at Eat Food Festival Karachi gives women courage to point out the real wrong in society
Another young woman, the 15-year-old daughter of a participant in the dialogue, shared her own ordeal. “You wear your hair in a ponytail, you wear new sneakers, you wear mascara, you grow your nails long and others say that you have done it to attract guys. I go to a school where the girl and boys sections are segregated. The boys whistle, make catcalls, and sing when they see you but they don’t get into trouble for it. It is the girls who are pulled up for wearing their hair a certain way or something. But why? Why not teach boys to behave. Teach them that what they are doing is wrong. Teach them to respect girls from the start,” the girl pointed out.
Fauzia Yazdani, a development practitioner, remembered when she was a student in Lahore. “I would wait for the bus to take me to Kinnaird College and during that time I would be pinched and touched. Not much changed even after I changed cities and went to Islamabad. Men 20 feet away made kissing sounds and inappropriate gestures from 20 feet away,” she said.
“They even did it when I was with my husband, who beat them up. Now I have taken it on myself to beat the eve-teasers myself. But I understand that confronting such men is not easy for young girls who silently tolerate the ordeal. We have grown up from that stage of feeling ashamed of ourselves. We should become the voice of those still suffering in silence. There is social media and digital outreach to try and change the narrative,” she said.
“I was once even harassed while I was with my parents,” said writer and researcher Shahrezad Samiuddin. “I turned and hit the guy and then my parents were saying that it is impossible to go out with me but I insisted that the guy needed to be punished. This narrative that the problem happened because of the female needs to change,” she said.
The director for Uks Gender Watch also recalled when she used to walk home from university while carrying an umbrella. “And the men on bicycles, even pedestrians would touch my umbrella. The grilled partition for women commuters in public buses was also no barrier to keep the men’s hands at bay. They would even burn you with cigarettes,” she said.
Haya Tariq of Uks said that she had just started working somewhere when a man got into classified files to find her curriculum vitae. Then he started acting extra helpful by offering to find her better jobs. “He knew my personal details. I felt unsafe. I complained about him and the organisation I was working for fired him. Then other people tried to make me feel guilty for making the man lose his job,” she said.
Raheela Saad said that she is a mother of three daughters whom she taught taekwondo and self-defence. “But this empowerment has become disempowerment because now I tell my girls to just try and avoid trouble instead of reacting. The girls also say that if they react, the harassers bring more men with them,” she said.