Last week, I went to one of the leading hospitals in Karachi to get checked for some pain in my lower back. My mother went with me to the doctor's office, but not into the examination room.
It was a tiny room where I was led, about the size of a medium walk-in closet. There were only two people in the room at this point — a female nurse and myself.
The nature of my medical concern required me to take my pants off and expose bare skin to the nurse and the doctor.
The nurse gave me a gown and prepared the site of examination. Then entered the doctor.
He took a look at my back and inquired what the problem was. I told him I was experiencing some pain post-surgery. He proceeded with his examination i.e. applying some pressure on the point of concern, waiting for my response.
I let him know where it hurt and where it didn’t, and just when all necessary examination was done, out of nowhere — there came a smack on my butt.
I tried to phrase that elegantly, but it really was just that. A slap on my posterior, completely catching me off-guard.
The icing on the cake: he followed it up by smugly saying “ab naheen hoga” (you won’t feel the pain now).
This spatial interval on your screen mimics my mental situation at the time. I went blank, speechless — all sensibility flew out of the room with the doctor as he left right after casually smacking my butt.
I pulled up my pants and my eyes fell on the only other occupant of the room — the nurse. She looked down, avoiding my gaze, and in her silence I could feel her saying “I am sorry, but I am helpless.”
I walked out of the tiny room and into the doctor’s office, where my mother was sitting, waiting to read my expression, trying to get a preview of what the doctor was going to say, completely unaware of what had ensued behind closed doors.
“Honestly, there’s nothing wrong. You’re fine”, he said to me, without batting an eyelash. I avoided eye contact, trying to absorb what had just happened.
My mother spoke concerned, “Are you sure? So what about the pain she’s feeling?” He replied nonchalantly: “You see, I don’t want to say I can give you something for it, because that means I’m making you think there’s a cure for it. Just get it out of your head and you’ll be fine”.
After leaving the hospital and all through the drive back home, I kept replaying in my head those three minutes inside the narrow confines of the examination room, restarting the mental movie with the sound of a slap. Apparently my face looked washed-out as my mother asked me why I was so quiet and ‘off’.
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It was then that I decided to bury it deep into the recesses of my mind. I started to shrug the memory off of me as if I were brushing a bug off my shoulder. I longed to take a shower as I felt absolutely disgusted.
The word came nowhere close to encapsulating my feelings in the aftermath of such an agonising encounter.
I tried hard and failed to justify one scenario where that action by that man on my body was okay. My intellect and intuition strained to come up with a single justification for that man to have touched me in that way.
Maybe it was informal? Maybe he thought I was a little girl and it came as a joke? Maybe that’s just his way of expression?
Be that as it may, in no way, under any circumstance, will it ever be okay for a doctor to touch their patient the way he did. Neither was it in any way necessary for the purpose of medical examination, nor was it warranted in any other situation.
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A smack on the butt is not the same as a whack on the shoulder or on the arm. It is not a casual or even remotely acceptable gesture for a doctor to make toward a patient; more so, a male doctor toward a female patient.
The act of smacking the butt is inarguably sexual. I say this for any of you who may be wondering why I am turning it into such a 'big deal'.
Let me put it this way: a highly-esteemed surgeon, sitting at one of Karachi’s top-notch hospitals, smacked a female patient’s butt while examining her. Now, does that make you uncomfortable?
I wasn’t going to write anything about this, but I was convinced otherwise by the sensible minds around me.
Should I have gone back to the hospital afterward? What are the odds my complaint would not have fallen on deaf ears?
Should I have gone to him? What could I have said if he denied that it ever happened? What if it was something so trivial and common for him that he wouldn’t even remember it? Who knows.
The question I asked myself then, and I ask still, while writing this is — what do I want out of this? Do I want an apology? No. Do I want some compensation? No.
What I want is for any person who has been through any form of sexual harassment to stop re-imagining and reconstructing a scenario of when it is acceptable for the perpetrator to act the way they did.
Stop trying to look for excuses to justify their actions. Do not try to reposition yourself as an instigator of harassment. Staying quiet must never be the course of action for being treated inappropriately.
I took to the media because even if one person reads this, and feels a little bit more comfortable in owning their story — it is worth the effort to translate my thoughts into words.
I didn’t want to be that girl who complains about ‘minor issues’ but the fact that we might consider this a ‘minor issue’ is an issue. A serious issue.
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The hospital and the clinic is one place where stripping down bare does not mean you are willfully naked, and surely does not give license for anyone to take undue advantage of your vulnerability. It is the responsibility of the doctor and their management to make sure you are comfortable in these situations.
I don’t want to delve into conjecture about what this doctor could have possibly done with other patients (conscious or unconscious) or how he may have treated his female subordinates, because maybe he never did something like this before. But the point is, he did it to me.
Sexual harassment is not limited to a culture, a society or a race — it is a condition of the human self. The pain in my back might be, but sexual harassment is not ‘just in my head’ — or yours.
This article was originally published in June, 2017.
If you are facing sexual harassment and would like to file a complaint, please follow the government's guidelines here and here. You can also reach out to NGO helplines. If you wish to share your story at Dawn, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org