By Aisha Sarwari
A woman in Bengaluru, India was walking home one night when she entered a secluded street. Two men on motorbikes turned onto the street. One got off and grabbed her, molested her and then both of them attempted to carry her off. When she resisted, they threw her on the ground with a menacing thud and rode off. All this was caught on CCTV. Then there was the new year’s event in Banglore, India where there was mass groping of women.
The reason I mention what is going on in India is because it is extremely pertinent to our context here. It is a veritably South Asian mentality to think women who are isolated and unprotected are fair game. That the onus is on them to fend for their security when they are out solo. That somehow it will be too tempting for men to devour her as if she were prey and they were the hunter and that this was a jungle and not a city. That somehow women are sugar and men are ants. As ludicrous as the latter sounds, this was actually uttered in Indian national TV by Abu Azmi of Mumbai, the state leader of a political party. He mirrors only the absurdities our very own politicians and common people mouth on a daily basis.
The Punjab Government has made a smartphone app for women who face a ghastly situation like that women in Bengaluru. This app has the functionality to not only mark safe and unsafe places for women but it actually is linked to a first response law enforcement team that would show up in times like this with the press of a panic button. Instead of lauding this effort, Pakistan’s religious right are calling it unislamic. They say it is in conflict with the Muslim holy book and the constitution based on Islamic principles. What they are essentially claiming is that an attack like the one in Bengaluru should be dealt with silence, inaction and passive observation. Sadly, there are actually many takers of this insanity. What is even sadder is that the mighty women of Islam fought wars and led merchandise caravans on their own, and yet the so-called custodians of our religion want women to be unlike women in Islam’s history.
As spectacular as technology is in providing women safety in public spaces and allowing them to reclaim it, it can also be a bit limiting. Smartphone penetration in Pakistan is amongst the highest in the world, but when you look at the gender breakdown, women own less smart phones than they aught to. This app does leave behind a more rural spread granted, but it is also important to note that it is in the urban landscape where most of the harassment actually takes place. The everyday kind of harassment particularly – the groping, the pinching, the lewd comments and the threats of rape. Perhaps an SMS integrated panic mechanism for women who are non-smart phone users will be a better addition in phase two of this project.
The government is in the best position to put such a mechanism in place because it integrates three essential aspects for this app to be effective – the Police Integrated Command Control and Communication (PPIC3); the geo location and the invaluable data that is being collected on the helpline that is dialed into. Over the years it will help the government zero in on the problem public spaces and transform them into areas where women can be mobile without worrying that they will be assaulted. With women like Fauzia Viqar at the helm of this initiative it seems likely.
By making this app, the Punjab Government has signalled to the ants of the province that women may be sugar but they are not your sugar, they are their own sugar and there is a social contract between them and the government to have and hold them in protection. I see that with this app we can stop equating women to things and prey and equate them to human beings who deserve to thrive in harassment-free environments.
My guess is that many times the app’s panic buttons will be activated against women’s own families and acquaintances – that is where the bulk of abuse takes place. Hopefully the app’s response team is adequately trained to not brush these calls as domestic disturbances and private matters. Technology only goes so far. The mindset is the real challenge in South Asia. Punjab has taken a lead.