'Hans gayi aur phans gayi': On the mechanics of laughter and sexual harassment

Everyone laughs but the feminists. Who are humourless.
Published July 19, 2017

In the record of a woman bearing witness to her own life when other people wouldn’t, I found the following line: "…the men walked away, still laughing and singing ‘Lahore Lahore aey’". This sounds like a happy ending, but sometimes laughter is just an animal showing its teeth.

That woman was brave to tell her story of harassment. Most of us do not. There are many reasons we are reluctant to tell the stories of what happens to us on a daily basis.

In the best case scenario of our silence, we are trying to protect others from the knowledge of their own helplessness. This country is full of loving, good-hearted people and we don’t want them to be shot, stabbed, beaten or set on fire.

The other day, I walked out of a bookstore with my husband, my baby in my arms. Two men lounging on the street gave me the cat’s tongue as I passed, rasping the clothes from my skin.

Kya dekh rahay ho?’ I always ask, in these situations, in case the person is just lost in thought and the eyeballs are drifting unsupervised. These men laughed.

My man strapped the baby in his car seat then bounded across to the men, grabbing one by the shirt and asking what he was laughing at.

Some of you stand with us and we don’t tell you because we don’t want you to fall with us too.

In this country we are mostly unparh but we can all do the BODMAS of love; agar kuch ho gaya, to pehlay kis ko bachaoon?

Designed by: Marium Ali
Designed by: Marium Ali

Sometimes when we don’t tell, it is the worst case scenario. This country is full of bitter vacant people weaned straight to the urine of whichever misogynist raised them.

Last week a woman was separated from her sister at Islamabad airport and molested by an FIA official. She told the other FIA officials. They laughed at her.

I don’t know if that particular woman laughed with them but sometimes – strange as it seems - we laugh too.

When I worked in television production, an executive producer called me into his capacious office and complimented me on my keen intelligence and devotion to social justice evident in the conversation he had previously had with me on set.

I wasn’t like the other women, he said. His flattery agreed with my estimation of myself; I wasn’t like the other women. Of course I would work with him to set up a dedicated, issue-based documentary stream!

Related: How a medical exam at a top notch Karachi hospital ended in sexual harassment

To ensure his availability at all times so my worthy films would not be beached on the cruel shores of budgeting where frivolous projects went to die, he offered me an office next to his. Would I like to see it?

Rising from his desk he opened a door in a corner I had assumed led to a bathroom, and ushered me into a windowless room with no furniture other than a sofa. At which point, I started laughing.

I don’t remember the manner of my leaving, but I remember my laughter. I was laughing, I like to think, at the idea that the casting couch was actually a couch.

That is a more flattering interpretation than the alternative, which is that I was laughing because I was reminded that I was just like the other women; I was laughing because comedy is tragedy plus time; and time moves so fast for us, from disaster to disaster.

I was trying a new restaurant once and I saw the owner was a man who had once lifted the cloth on a table I was hiding under – I was 9 or 10 and playing hide and seek with my cousins in a restaurant my uncle owned before it opened to the public – and scooted under with me.

After the time it took me to learn he was not, after all, a friend, I had shot out the other side. I didn’t tell anybody then.

Our secrets are gifts and children can be stingy. The man I gave that secret to said, when the bill came, “Well it probably wasn’t very good for him because he didn’t even give us a discount.”

It’s fine, you can laugh, I laughed too.

I wonder if reading these sentences is as uncomfortable as writing these sentences. The words resist, as if I am dragging them out of crevices and they don’t want to come.

Each day we feel resistance in a million little ways in public too. Stares, comments, glares, touches, filth, fatwas, a total and complete lack of toilets. Don’t sit here. Don’t walk there. Don’t be.

Sometimes the push is so hard we slide all the way back over the boundaries of ourselves till we become sore, infected, incomplete people. The sore, infected, incomplete people who will bear and raise the next generation of you.

But this is not about me. It is about certain stories, which all women have, and ways to tell them, which most women don’t.

F, who works in retail, once told me one about the night after Benazir was assassinated. She had managed to catch the last bus out of the secret city where the rich can pull up the drawbridges.

Passing an empty plot in the dark, the headlights played across a pale dog running, a darkness after it. At home the adrenaline receded and the pale dog became the naked torso of a woman, the darkness the men behind her.

Also read:I was a victim of verbal sexual harassment at work and blamed myself for it

For some out there, every day is that day. Last month a woman shot her husband because he kept raping her daughter-in-law. Her son said his wife had told him the story but due to “parental respect” he couldn’t do it.

The newspaper recorded no laughter. I wonder if laughter is what happens when we all live to see another day?

The last time we met, F was complaining about the bus driver on her route. He would wait for her to put a foot on the step, then jerk the bus forward. Wait, and jerk again.

I asked her what she was going to do about it. She said she was going to buy a gun. I said “Tum kitnay aadmi maro gi? Har ghar say aadmi niklain gai.”

In her story the bus driver was also laughing.

Sometimes when we tell our stories, others complain that we have bookended Pakistani men, that we have not spoken of the vast majority of men who don’t harass.

These people cannot seem to wear even for a second our pretty, useless shoes. Even now they prime themselves for a pithy comment about generalisation, or embellishment, wondering if I really think it is better elsewhere.

I wonder, when I think about these hordes of the silent who miraculously discover speech when their self-image is at risk, if they even know that their idea of who they are is more important to them than other people’s real wounds.

When they want us to be quiet about the hostility and intimidation and molestation employed to drive us away from vast, open spaces, cramped professional ones, their screens, their Facebook pages, they are telling us our stories are not worthy.

Our stories don’t flatter them. Our stories don’t make them heroes, or villains, but lumpen, broken things, like furniture rotting in an old house meant for demolition. That is the house we have built, here in the land of the pure.

I wonder, about these people, these slaves of piddarshahi, if they realise how much space they already take up in the world, and how selfish it is for them to demand more, to invade our very selves and call for silence inside it.

Let us not even speak of the garden-variety harassment of the cat’s tongue and poondi genus anymore. Let’s turn the dial on this impulse, unchecked, to the intensity it acquires in private.

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There are stories in the news archives of this country about men punishing women for crossing the lines drawn around them with acid, bricks, bats, knives, bullets, whips, stones, soldering irons. But I am not allowed to detail how, in this space.

Someone waits to tell me it is against our culture to talk so nakedly about the body. As if culture is a fixed, tangible thing and not a work in progress both he and I are working on.

When we tell stories about bodies we are not talking about the body, meray aziz humwatno, we are talking about the soul. In the case of a country, that collective consciousness that chooses when the whole is animated.

The soul of this place we call home is a sick, twisted thing. It rages when it should feel shame and laughs when it should cry. The screens in the cinemas of the sick play on loop stories that worship at the altar of violence, and never ask how a story house built of only those stories invariably crumbles.

Men laugh on talk shows and in parliament when ‘women’s issues’ are discussed. Men laugh as they walk away, women laugh as they are left behind, children laugh as they keep their secrets.

Even the dog, that is actually a dog, approaching the men on their benches in the dusk, slides its gums back as it rolls over hoping for scraps.

Everyone laughs but the feminists. Who are humourless.

The author is a performance artist.

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 blog@dawn.com