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THE LOCKDOWN ON WOMEN

Our cities don’t just need to be recast for public safety — they need to reckon with the way they hold women back
Updated 21 Sep, 2020 06:39pm

The Lahore Motorway gang-rape is only the latest in a stream of incomprehensible atrocities against women. But the victim-blaming and unsolicited advice that followed the horrific incident have reiterated the painfully obvious: women are safe neither in the city nor at home, and have to constantly deal with the policing of their bodies and minds



September 9, 2020: A woman is driving along the motorway, from Lahore to Gujranwala, when her car breaks down. Her two children are with her, and it is late. A relative is on his way to help. But before he reaches them, two armed men take her to a nearby field and gang-rape her while her children look on.

The motorway incident, as it has come to be called, was the latest in a stream of incomprehensible atrocities against women, children, trans and non-binary persons: in the past month alone, a lawyer was abducted and raped by three men for four days in Okara, a transgender activist was shot six times in Peshawar, and a five-year-old girl was kidnapped and raped before being murdered and torched in Karachi’s Old Sabzi Mandi area.

But unlike the many cases that go unnoticed, and the many more that are never reported, the September 9 incident was followed by instant nationwide protests and condemnation. Maybe it was Lahore’s Capital City Police Officer (CCPO)’s comments that played a critical role in igniting protests across the country, a collective call to remove victim-blaming public officials and implement effective and transparent investigations of gender-based crimes.

“Do we let our sisters, our mothers, go out alone? At 12:30 am!” the CCPO had commented incredulously after the incident. “She did this because she thought she was in France… where girls can travel at night and nothing happens to them.”

Related: Motorway rape case: Twitter shames CCPO Lahore for victim-blaming

Patriarchal violence is rampant enough in Pakistan that it is unsurprising, even when it reaches its most heartbreaking crescendos. But for as long as women are told that the only way we can stay safe is to stay at home (where we are just as vulnerable, given epidemic-levels of domestic violence), systemic change is impossible. The needle will only budge when the source of the problem is tackled head-on, and this is an effort that must be shared — because though the default of holding women back is everywhere, it begins in our most intimate spheres and often with loving intentions, despite how fundamentally detrimental the effect is.


***


Growing up in urban Pakistan, I had no grasp on what it was like to be out after dark and not feel terrified. My fear of what could happen to me while in transit lived beside, and was often eclipsed, by my fear of what would happen if I was caught sneaking home after an “acceptable” time — a layer of anxious dread that began in my teenage years, but lasted well into my twenties.

Last summer, after being stranded at a party, I managed to talk a friend of a friend into giving me a ride at an hour much later than the hour by which I was supposed to have been home. In the accidental-doorbell-pressing that followed, and the thunderous awakening of my household, I was admonished that I was putting myself at great risk by being out on the streets past midnight.

Patriarchal violence is rampant enough in Pakistan that it is unsurprising, even when it reaches its most heartbreaking crescendos. But for as long as women are told that the only way we can stay safe is to stay at home (where we are just as vulnerable, given epidemic-levels of domestic violence), systemic change is impossible.

The cycle is that the streets are unsafe for women, therefore women must stay off them. But this means that our streets will never be safe for women, that women have no freedom of movement, and therefore no choice, should they need it, to escape. The cycle is peddled to us, stoked by the most inflammatory stories: held within these towering walls of what we are told, there is no space for our own informed understanding of the risks we really face.

Read: Hundreds gather to protest gang rape

In Karachi, the city where I grew up and where I lived until I left Pakistan a year ago, there is no easy way to ascertain how safe the city is for women. The monthly reports breaking down crimes committed, published by the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee, does not have a category for gender-based violence. The Sindh Police’s monthly ‘heinous’ crime reports do include gang-rape stastics, but these are not broken down in enough detail to be insightful. In the absence of any specifics, it is impossible to understand how to navigate the city in a way that minimises risk. The data available for gender-based violence in other metropolises in Pakistan is equally not detailed enough to be helpful.

A protest at the Karachi Press Club | Tahir Jamal/White Star
A protest at the Karachi Press Club | Tahir Jamal/White Star

Irked that I had to report home at a certain hour, and perhaps naively convinced that my city could not possibly be as dangerous as it was being made out to be, I called my local police station and asked to speak to the Deputy Inspector General. I took copious notes while I grilled him about crimes committed specifically against women after dark. “It’s not like we receive such complaints or get such FIRs registered everyday,” he said, going on to cite cultural issues that “ghar-walay” [families] have as the chief reason for the existence of curfews. “After 1 am, it’s really impossible. If a girl goes out without her family late, our mindset doesn’t accept it… People consider it unusual. This comes to mind — that they are not supposed to be out. If a girl is roaming around after 1 am, they make assumptions and try to contact her.”

I wondered then how many women needed to take the streets en masse to reverse this condition: to scrape off that punishing veneer of unusualness. This respectability trap seemed like an all-encompassing net, that became more opaque as it got increasingly tangled over time — or perhaps it was always opaque, always a shroud, and needed to be overthrown altogether. Because once I started gathering stories, there were too many women who abided by curfews that had little to do with safety and everything to do with control.


***


Last year, at 28-years-old, Maham’s curfew was 10 pm. “Every time I go out for a non-work related thing, I have to provide a detailed explanation of where I am going and why,” she tells me. Her father’s rationale for policing her whereabouts is grounded in the same language used by the Deputy Inspector General. In our houses, it’s not considered nice for girls to come and go. When Maha tried to defend her right to meet a friend for chai, her arguments were thrown back at her as further justification of why women should not go out — they become too tez [‘fast’], and this, of course, is not a good thing.

Maham belongs to a slice of society I am all too familiar with: a slice where education is valued, where success is prized and ambition admirable. Her work takes her all over the country and beyond. Yet, for all her privileges, she is still held to and limited by a system of values that is altogether arcane, a system you can skirt only by railing against it everyday, without ever taking a time-out from the fight.

The cycle is that the streets are unsafe for women, therefore women must stay off them. But this means that our streets will never be safe for women, that women have no freedom of movement, and therefore no choice, should they need it, to escape.

When I track Maham down now, from Boston where I am based, I learn that she has relocated to Germany. The irony is that lately her — and my — freedom of movement has been limited by the global coronavirus lockdowns. “I think being policed all those years growing up definitely meant that the restriction of movement during the pandemic has felt much less alien,” she says. But we both know that even the confinement imposed by a global pandemic is nothing compared to the patriarchy-imposed perpetual suffocation we ran away from.

“I go into the streets,” says my friend Komal, when I asked her about her lockdown experience (she has moved away from Karachi too, and is now based in upstate New York). “I jog under towering trees. I climb on to the roof of my house to watch the sunset. I wander out late at night, taking pictures of everything in the moonlight.”

Protestors at the Karachi Press Club |Shakil Adil\White Star
Protestors at the Karachi Press Club |Shakil Adil\White Star

My objective in sharing these comparative stories is not to suggest that women can not experience urban space freely in Pakistan — during the lockdown, my friend Hira would often drive to Sea View to walk along the shore at dusk, and backpacker Maria Soomro has spent the better part of 2020 hitchhiking across the north. But it is simply not good enough to hold a handful of exceptions when the norm strays so far from them. The constant permission and calculations get exhausting after a quick while: seeking justification for every choice and assessing, in the quiet of your own mind, what you will do if that choice betrays you. There is no support for those whose lives play out in this in-between room: it is an infinitely lonely place.

As the world stirs from its quarantine, the anguish of a life even partially or temporarily constrained is universally understood. Its physical, mental, and emotional effects are enthusiastically decried. Yet, in Pakistan, a constrained existence is the norm for an overwhelming majority of women: a lifelong quarantine.

“By hook or by crook,” Virgina Woolf wrote in her seminal A Room of One’s Own, “I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.”

Travelling, idling, contemplating, dreaming, and loitering: these are tiny and hard-won freedoms in Pakistan (where no corner is free of gaggles of men, where time exists in perpetually expiring frames) — but they are essential, and worth every second of the battle they demand. The lockdown robbed women of even these freedoms, laying bare how little we have forced ourselves to settle for.

“Before I could go out for a few hours everyday and get some space, meet people, smoke up, or just sit in the library,” says Sara, a 22-year-old college student pursuing a social sciences degree. She thought she would be able to slip into lockdown seamlessly — after all, it was not unlike long summers spent at home, when she was not allowed to go anywhere. “I have been used to that life, but I am also tired of it, because I felt like I had finally moved past it.”

As the world stirs from its quarantine, the anguish of a life even partially or temporarily constrained is universally understood. Its physical, mental, and emotional effects are enthusiastically decried. Yet, in Pakistan, a constrained existence is the norm for an overwhelming majority of women: a lifelong quarantine.

“We had no idea how to get out of our homes,” says Wajiha, who graduated from university in 2019. “My partner and I would meet in hiding, because we’re not out. We would meet at her house at 9 am in the morning for two hours, before her mother returned. But when we didn’t have an excuse to leave our own houses, and both our houses were filled with our families who also could not leave — we had no way of seeing each other.”

She goes on to tell me about a friend of theirs who has her own apartment, where their extended group often flees. “We are — all of us — struggling in our own lives. Struggling to get our own space and be free. It’s a life goal.”


***


There’s a moment in Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours where one of the three protagonists (who lives in 1940s Los Angeles, mind you, the 1940s) leaves her infant son with a babysitter and disappears for a few hours — to check into a hotel. “She can hardly believe she’s done it. She has gotten the key, passed through the portals… she is so far away from her life. It was so easy.”

But would it be so easy in urban Pakistan, to disappear like that?

Photo by Tahir Jamal/White Star
Photo by Tahir Jamal/White Star

There are ways to hide in plain sight: stealing away for coffee with a friend, getting your nails or hair done. But what happens to women when there is nowhere left to go? “There is a lot of pressure on to cater to the needs of the family, a total lack of personal space,” says Maria, a therapist serving clients in their twenties and thirties. “There has been an increase in subtle, controlled domestic violence. Their activities are being monitored, they are under a microscope, they don’t have the window of autonomy they had when men would go to work and children would go to school.”

Our cities don’t just need to be recast for public safety — they need to reckon with the way they hold women back from these spaces to begin with, and how this holding back brings its own dangers.

“When we think about violence against women, when we think about fear, we imagine stranger violence, public violence, these sensationalized crimes or serial killers, when in reality the most dangerous places for women and children are inside the home,” says feminist geographer Leslie Kern in an interview with The Lily. “We have for so long divided public safety and domestic violence, but we won’t think about the ways those two things actually meet and the ways in which we could come up with interventions that would in some ways address both, or at least recognize that they’re interconnected.”

And then how do we create a revolution around violence that is not physical — that is spatial, mental, emotional, spiritual?

A performance at a protest in Islamabad | Tanveer Shahzad/White Star
A performance at a protest in Islamabad | Tanveer Shahzad/White Star

“The quarantine has actually had me confront a fact about myself,” says Komal, the friend I quoted earlier. “I like to be unobserved, unless it is on my own terms. I need to be beautiful and put-together, I need to have a smile ready, I need to laugh, I need to be listening, I need to be attentive, I need to be functional, I need to be confessional and friendly, I need to want to help you out, I need to have purpose in what I’m doing out there while you watch me.”

“In Karachi, perhaps this was why I was always tired,” she goes on. “I was watched all the time, everywhere at work, in the streets, at cafes, before family, before friends. Only my locked room offered solitude. And that’s not healthy. That’s what being trapped feels like.”

Trapped. And that’s if you’re lucky to have a locked room to yourself at all.

For a while, the world has understood what it means to feel like the life you want to live is paused or stalled, will come alive again, someday soon. But what if the life you want to live is always waiting — what if it is this way for millions, half an entire country? What then?


Header illustration by Samiah Bilal


Natasha Japanwala is a writer and educator from Karachi. She tweets @NatJapanwala

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 20th, 2020