Footprints: streets that cause fear

Updated January 27, 2017

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LAHORE: Any woman who has been subjected to catcalls, whistles or being leered at can tell you how degrading and de-humanising the ordeal is. In recent years, despite the passage of laws and policies addressing gender-based violence and harassment, women’s visibility in public spaces continues to be viewed as an encroachment and the accompanying street harassment, an inevitable consequence rather than a crime.

Last week, the Punjab government launched a women’s safety smartphone application titled PSCA (Punjab Safe Cities Authority), envisioned as a first responder tool in cases of street harassment. Fauzia Viqar, who heads the Punjab Commission for the Status of Women and sits on the board for the PSCA, minces no words in saying that it’s impossible for women to walk the streets without being ogled.

She explains that it was during conversations around the problem of gendered spaces that the heads of the Punjab Commission for the Status of Women, the Special Monitoring Unit (SMU) and the PSCA came up with the idea of creating a harassment reporting tool and a mechanism to gather data on street harassment in Lahore. The app connects the victim to the emergency helpline 15 and tracks the location so that the responders can navigate to the site.

The central monitoring cell in the PSCA building, where all emergency calls are received and processed, is a far cry from a local thana. In fact, the screens that layer the walls of its multi-storeyed office are quickly becoming the eyes to deal with street crime in the city. Around 800 cameras have strategically been placed in the city as a pilot programme that will by June increase to around 8,000 cameras. Once that happens, government bodies, including the PCSW, will be able to collect video evidence of street crimes, including harassment.

But not everyone has access to smart phones and apps, lawyer Nighat Dad says. “If all the app does is direct emergency calls to 15, why not publicise the number as a way of dealing with harassment in public spaces and inform a larger audience on how to file complaints?” she asks.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the app itself are the data-mining possibilities, shares Suleman Shahid, an assistant professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, who designed the app. The app is but a brick in the wall in the government’s ongoing attempts to tackle street harassment, Salman Sufi of the SMU adds.

Before I tested the app myself, I sought permission from higher-ups at the PSCA — but I did not tell them when I would make the call or the phone number I would use. “I need to report a case of harassment by a man in a car on Gurumangat Road,” I told the operator, who asked if I had caught the licence number of the car and assured me that a police unit would soon get in touch with me. The mobile units arrived almost 13 minutes after I had lodged my complaint. The discussion that followed was cordial but revealing of how naive it would be to assume that the solution to street harassment was in an app.

The law details punishments and explanation for two kinds of harassment: at the workplace (Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, 2010) and in public spaces (Section 509, Pakistan Penal Code amendment). The police unit that arrived to discuss my ‘complaint’, however, was unaware of these laws: they said their standard procedure to deal with harassers was under Section 345 and 345-A (criminal assault and stripping a woman of her clothes). The latter crime is punishable by death or life imprisonment. It was clear when they arrived that they had assumed the worst; they shared that they had never received a complaint about “common” street harassment.

A woman, who suffered the unnerving experience of her car being followed by two men last year, tells me that she called the emergency helpline 15 and took pictures of the car and its licence plate. But no FIR was registered as the cops who arrived jotted down her name, phone number and residential address and told her to let them know if it happened again. By the time she got home, there were ‘frandship’ messages on her cell phone. “This made me hesitate to call up the police again,” she says.

There is a dire need for gender sensitivity training for first responders, says Nighat Dad. It takes a lot of courage to report harassment — the ordeal itself being no less than traumatic, she adds.

As I wrap up my interviews with the people at the fore of the initiative and step out of the PSCA building in Qurban Lines, two men on a motorcycle drive past whistling and chiming “Mashallah”. I look around to see if any cops have taken notice — I am, after all, on police territory. No one has.

Published in Dawn, January 27th, 2017