The right to public space for women in many parts of Pakistan is a tenuous one, fraught with insecurity, and constantly under pressure from conservative elements.
On Monday and Tuesday, two incidents in Balochistan have served to once again underscore this reality. In the first one, masked men entered a jewellery shop in Quetta and sprayed acid from syringes on four women patrons.
In the second incident, two teenage sisters shopping at a bazaar in Mastung were attacked in an identical manner. Although mercifully it appears that the injuries sustained by those targeted are not of a very severe nature, the message that has been sent out is loud, clear and terrifying: women, if they choose to venture independently into the public domain, are fair game.
There have been three earlier attacks employing the same modus operandi in the province in the last few years, in Dalbandin, Kalat and Quetta.
The targets in all of them were women — sometimes no more than girls — out in public, without a male chaperone. Those attacked in Kalat, significantly, were a group of teachers and students.
The perpetrators are not difficult to gauge; in fact, after the Dalbandin attack an obscure religious group had claimed responsibility, warning women to stay away from public places if they were not accompanied by male members of the family.
However, no one has been held to account, a fact that has undoubtedly emboldened regressive elements who feel no fear in carrying out brazen attacks on women in broad daylight even in a small town like Mastung where, if the state did its duty by its citizens, it would be difficult for the assailants to slip away.
Balochistan has been steadily radicalised over the years, and a plethora of shadowy, extremist religious groups increasingly exercise their malign influence over society, diligently seeking to restrict women’s agency, and deprive them of their rights.
By turning a blind eye to their activities, the state imperils the hard-won rights of women elsewhere in Pakistan as well.
Published in Dawn, July 24th, 2014