KARACHI: The bus is veering towards Kala Pul; in the women’s compartment, Rida, a broadcast journalist, notices a man harassing another woman, who looks visibly uncomfortable. As she pleads with the man, Rida tells him to "please move to the men’s compartment and to stop teasing the woman. Instead of moving away, the man replies in a matter of fact tone: “Why are you so concerned for her? I’m not doing anything to you.”
Frustrated, Rida pushes the man. He stumbles, falling down the bus steps, and lands outside the vehicle next to a canteen store department. As the man gets up, people gather around and start inquiring what has happened. A naval police officer posted nearby joins the crowd, and upon learning what happened, slaps the man.
For the next two days, Rida notices the harasser has stopped travelling on the bus. “Women have to be resilient,” she cautions. That resilience often means helping other women out when they are in trouble. Reflecting back on the incident, she adds, “I was thinking about the miseries of women commuters.”
A daily ordeal for women commuters
In a metropolis comprising more than 20 million citizens where there are no adequate measures available for public transportation to a large segment of society, one cannot imagine the anguish women experience while travelling on buses and rickshaws— not only physical, but emotional and mental too.
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Owing to various socio-economic reasons, more and more women are stepping out of their houses, but the unavailability of a proper and safe public transport makes life difficult for them. An Urban Resource Center report on transportation published last year, for example, found that most female commuters experience some form of sexual harassment while using public transport.
Women who participated in the study shared similar narratives: Men in cars or on motorbikes stop next to them, offering them a lift, often persistently. When women refuse and continue waiting for their bus/ride, men start pestering them and harassing them.
Inside the bus, women say men routinely occupy seats in the women’s compartment, and refuse to leave when asked to do so. Those travelling in rickshaws complain of a different form of harassment, especially when they are alone: rickshaw drivers often stare at them through their large rear-view mirrors, often adjusting the mirrors to provide a better view.
Some women said they have started covering themselves in order to avoid harassment — or at least to feel more secure — while others felt that a proper and safe public transport network would help increase their job opportunities.
Hafza says that using public transport—especially for those who commute to work and school—is nothing short of an ordeal. For the twenty-one-year old who has to commute back and forth from her university, difficulties and harassment have become daily affairs.
For one, there is no room to stand on the cramped buses, and even when there is, she is forced to put up with constant harassment. It doesn’t help that the seats next to the railing separating the male and female compartments are both troublesome and prickly; they also give men room to harass women through the railing’s gaps. “Men stare, sing vulgar songs, or deliberately try to touch us,” she complains.
Unbridled sexual harassment is particularly an issue every other woman is forced to confront. Bena, who works as a senior clerk in a government department, is tired of seeing men occupy space in women’s compartments, where harassment usually occurs when men crowd the space. “Not only is the women’s compartment already much smaller,” she complains, “I often find men sitting there even when the men’s compartment has empty seats!”
Many men, she adds, also make it a point to exit from the women’s gate, and on their way out, ‘accidentally’ touch against a woman. Bena also hates the seat located above the engine: aside from being an uncomfortable spot for anyone, it places the sitter in direct view of the men’s compartment. Backache and postural problems are the least of Bena’s worries when she constantly has to be on guard to avoid constant stares from the men.
“Sometimes women retaliate,” Hufza says, “But most of the time, we just ignore it to avoid quarrels.”Commuters like Hufza avoid complaining to anyone because of social taboos—it turns into an exhausting conversation. She adds sarcastically, “Often, people end up blaming us for the harassment.”
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Arifa, 23, is a final year student at a local university, who feels that welfare of common people is simply not a priority for the government. “The combination of harassment and inadequate space on public transport vehicles creates apprehensions, uncertainty and disturbance for female passengers,” she says, having known several women who were forced to quit their jobs because of these issues.
To most people, rickshaws might seem like a safer option, but they are hardly harassment-free either. Women complain that the rickshaw walas often stare at them through their rear-view mirror, especially when they are travelling alone.
Another problem is that women don’t ride motorbikes. According to the study, 53 percent women said that they would like to use a motorbike if permitted by their families, or if women-friendly bikes could be introduced.
There are also health and medical concerns due to pollution and over-speeding. The non-standardisation of fares is another issue, and many women complain they aren’t given their change back.
At times, bus drivers are reluctant to take women on board, especially during rush hours.
The long time spent waiting for the overcrowded bus, and the fear of the gas cylinder exploding (which is placed in the women’s section) are some of the other disconcerting factors women take into account while commuting. 79.3 percent of respondents, for example, consider the gas cylinder to be a safety hazard.
All of these combined result in severe mental and physical exhaustion for women travelers, who often have to return home and take care of household tasks too.
Dr Nargis Asad, a senior psychologist at Aga Khan University Hospital, explains that harassment in any of its forms leads to anxiety, a sense of insecurity, and low-self esteem among women.
A separate bus for women?
“Women should have their own buses,” Arifa suggests. In the study, 76.7 percent of respondents agreed with this view, saying there should be buses exclusively for women. However, running women-only vehicles will not address the root of the problem.
As Arifa admits herself, harassment also occurs at bus stops. “Men come up to us, offering us a ride on their vehicle, or tease us with vulgar remarks while we are standing.”
Urban planner Arif Hasan agrees. “Merely launching women-specific buses and doing other cosmetic stuff will not serve as a permanent solution,” he says.
Efforts like Pink Rickshaws, Pink Bus Service, Busanti and Tabeer may help provide women with safer public transport, but they have not been able to remedy the root problem; neither are they sustainable.
“They too have hit a snag owing to financial constraints.”
In order to make the transportation system safer for women, Arif says that transportation providers have to be held accountable by concerned authorities.
He cites the example of the inhuman rape which took place on a New Delhi bus in 2012, adding that the bus was running illegally and had been impounded a number of times in the past.
Although the government introduced the ‘The Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act’ in 2010, the act applies solely to working environments. There is need to frame a law that enables women to fight harassment on public transport vehicles as well.
Hasan also stresses upon the need for establishing training modules for advocacy campaigns to spread awareness among commuters and transporters. He comments, “Civic education will help people learn about their rights and obligations.”
Video by Sadia Khatri