A woman’s story

Published March 26, 2024
The writer is a journalist
The writer is a journalist

MAHWISH works at Dawn News in Islamabad. She stands out in a large room full of people, not because she is a woman surrounded by men but because she doesn’t really try to shrink into herself.

It is hard to explain what this means but most women can recognise the condition. A lone woman or a handful in a large room dominated by men instinctively shrink into themselves. Whether it is embedded in the DNA, or is socialisation or temperament, it happens. We crouch quietly over our desk, even if it has been allocated to us, as if we fear taking up too much space. If we look around, we do so timorously, if we speak our voice is barely more than a whisper — every movement and gesture is calculated to not draw attention.

This changes with time in some cases as the new entrants settle down and make friends. But rarely do new male recruits behave in a similar fashion in their early days; it not expected of them and neither have they been brought up to think that they can be a burden on earth or that if they draw attention to themselves, bad things will happen.

But I didn’t see Mahwish shrink, even during her early days. And I noticed it and admired it; I still do every day as I walk into the room. She doesn’t try to shrink into herself any more than she draws attention to herself. As she chats to her colleagues and roams around, she appears comfortable with herself and with those around her. Perhaps it is due to her height or her curly hair. Curly-haired women are born with a chutzpah missing in the rest of us.

But this is not about curly hair or women but Mahwish who works at DawnNews and rides a bike to work. Hers are not regular nine to five hours; on most days she goes home at around 11 at night. But recently, she finished work early and thought she could be home for iftar. I never found out if she made it in time or not because of the story she told us about what happened.

All academic discussions about how women can be encouraged to participate seem irrelevant.

As she was riding home, a small Mehran snuck up next to her, and the man in the front passenger seat shouted at her, admonishing her to not ride the bike. She isn’t entirely sure of the words but it seems he told her that she was not allowed to ride a bike.

Mahwish ignored them, focused on navigating the traffic and moved ahead. Twice more the car snuck up next to her so the man could warn her again; except that the next two times he made the sign of a gun and pointed it at her. The gesture was unmistakable and she recognised it.

This is the first time she had been threatened thus. Harassment is the norm; she shrugs it off. Dressed in Western clothes with her curly hair under her helmet, on most occasions, she guesses, she escapes the eagle-eyed men. But on the day the Mehran spotted her, she was wearing shalwar kameez. And that, unfortunately, was the giveaway.

Harassment she says she can deal with. In fact, on many occasions she has stopped and confronted those harassing her. She says it so casually, indicating how frequent an occurrence it must be. But a man making a threatening gesture towards her for riding a bike did leave her frazzled.

Did she ever consider approaching the police? Not really.

She had done so earlier on being harassed by someone in a car with a government licence plate. The police asked what she wanted. To find the man to begin with, she told them. But they did nothing after that, even though her friends had managed to identify the department the car was allocated to. She had managed to take pictures of the car and shared them with the police but…

I didn’t ask Mahwish why she works. Was it for herself or to support her loved ones? So many stories about working women tend to focus on the ‘heroic’ struggle of a woman who enters the big, bad world to help those around her. But these stories are terrible, frankly, because they reinforce the idea that women leave the home only because they are left with no other choice. And because of this she should be celebrated. As if those who might want to work out of choice rather than desperate need, are not to be celebrated because they are not victims. (This may seem like a digression but it is not; bear with me.)

Mahwish’s story struck a chord because this month so many women’s day discussions have revolved around unleashing the productivity of women, their absence from the workplace, and how Pakistan lags behind itsneighbours in terms of women’s participation in the workforce. And then as new governments were formed, newly appointed executives have also been holding forth on what they will do for the youth and women.

But these words pale in comparison to the lived experience of those who work.

All academic discussions about how women can be encouraged to participate — maternity leave, daycare, harassment laws — seem so irrelevant. Our problem is a society in which men think women who ride a bike should be threatened with death, in public.

And if there was a policeman around, he would have done nothing. Because even if he didn’t share the man’s views, the police force is not averse to thinking that women who venture out in public have to be ready to deal with catcalls and threats. And this will remain true, regardless of how many women officers are inducted and special hotlines established.

In fact, the problem is not limited to the state. Our media coverage is part of the problem, as I have mentioned earlier. Efforts to bring women in the mainstream have to begin with changing mindsets — mindsets that categorise women as good and bad. The rest might prove easier.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, March 26th, 2024

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