Beasts on the streets

Updated March 08, 2015

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Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

She might be young or old, a homemaker or a corporate executive, but when she steps out of her home, to many a predatory gaze, she is simply a woman, and thus, fair game.

“No matter how well you try to obfuscate your identity, no matter whether you don a veil or any of its various forms, it simply doesn’t make any difference. You will still have to bear the brunt of harassment when you go out in the city because you are still a woman,” says Mahvesh Ali*, a 23-year-old journalist from Karachi.

Like many girls born in middle-class households, Mahvesh too was brought up in a protected environment, and often shielded from the brutal realities of everyday life. Despite the security afforded by family, there were simply some things they couldn’t guard against.

“I remember I was in class 8 at the time. Our van was about to leave, but I climbed off to grab something to eat. On my way, I was grabbed by a man. He squeezed my chest like a beast assaulting his prey. It was a message for me, a clear one; I was like his property and he could do whatever he wished,” recalls Mahvesh.

“I did not tell anyone about this incident; keeping it inside me for many years left me feeling utter rage and frustration. Even today, even in my most intimate relationship, I don’t want my husband to touch me where that ugly beast did.”

Another traumatic experience for Mahvesh happened when she was in class nine and sitting inside a vehicle.

“A guy came from nowhere and, while standing behind the window, unzipped his pants so that I could see what he was doing. I couldn’t accept that. I couldn’t accept that it had actually happened. I shouted like I was a mad person, ‘No, that did not happen to me’.”

As is the norm in many families in the city, Mahvesh had been taught not to respond to any catcalling or harassment. But when the parents eventually witnessed one of the many instances of harassment — this time, a young man forcing his phone number down her throat, her father lost his cool and physically assaulted him.

For Mahvesh, it should not have been her father but she who needed to respond.

“The entire discussion is centred on whose honour has been violated, and who has been offended. It seems to me that only men are violated,” argues Mahvesh. “If the entire episode was so offensive that somebody had to step in to beat the other person up, if that’s how important my honour is, then why not teach me how to respond, or why not give me the confidence to deal with these situations myself?”


As is the norm in many families in the city, Mahvesh had been taught not to respond to any catcalling or harassment. But when the parents eventually witnessed one of the many instances of harassment — this time, a young man forcing his phone number down her throat, her father lost his cool and physically assaulted him.


Born in the same city as Mahvesh is 19-year-old Kiran Khan*, who lives in a far-flung area of Karachi and often has to commute long distances to reach her university. The bus ride, she says, is an everyday dose of staring, catcalling and harassment.

“I was never forced by my family to don a veil or anything like that. I would do it out of my own choice and to blend into the crowd so that I did not arouse much attention. One day, while I was walking down a street covered in an abaya, a man came close to me and loudly said, Mashallah (Praise the Lord). In that moment, I realised that even a veil could not protect me,” says Kiran.

“I have learnt that a pair of jeans makes you stand out and attract creepy gazes from men, irrespective of whether you are wearing a long kurti over it. Whenever my friends from college and I take a rickshaw, men on motorbikes start riding parallel to us so that they can have a look at our legs. We try to cover everything, but that does not ward off these men.”

For Kiran, only the faces of the motorbike riders change. “I have now limited going out during the night. I do not think I can freely go anywhere,” she says.

“Today, when anyone crosses his limits and angers me, I simply start shouting at him. This catches others’ attention and the culprit flees the scene in a rush. At least, I am trying. And I will keep trying in my capacity,” says an adamant Kiran.

So much has happened in 22-year-old Amna Ahmed’s* childhood that she does not exactly remember which experience has influenced the way she thinks before stepping out of her home. What she knows is that street harassment produces more adverse repercussions if you happen to be the eldest among your siblings.

“It gets harder every time you accompany your younger sister and you are harassed on streets. The inability of the elder girl to do anything against the offenders leaves the younger one in a state of confusion,” says Amna.

“I was walking on my neighbourhood street not many months ago with my younger, 12-year-old sister, when a man in his late 20s came and said something utterly ridiculous to us,” recalls Amna. “He abused me. I asked him loudly what he was saying. Confronted, he left us immediately. But by then, my sister was in a state of shock. She realised that we were not able to do much against the culprit who had pretty much frightened us.”

By now, Amna believes it is “quite normal” for girls and women to get harassed. In this skewed normalcy, she too has restricted her life and movement. After all, she says, there is no telling when a beast might emerge on the street.

Names changed to protect privacy and identity

The writer tweets @FawadHazan

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 8th, 2015

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