Maps of shame

November 23, 2011

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RASHIDA works at a boutique in one of Karachi’s malls. All day she stands among racks of clothes splashed with embroidered peacocks and beaded flowers, five, even six digits announcing their exclusivity, and the largesse of men whose women can buy them.

At regular intervals during the day, groups of women traipse in and out of the store, older women with nannies trailing, younger ones delivered by dutiful drivers. Once or twice, the madam who owns the store also appears, never at the same hour, surprise being a key element in noting whether the staff, Rashida and another girl, is doing what it is supposed to do: restocking the racks whilst smiling at every customer.

None of the indignities of the realm of retail are particularly burdensome for Rashida; not the indecision of coddled women filling their emptiness with clothes, not the black and white uniform — a confusion between tunic and kameez, pant and shalwar — that she must wear to stand out from the customers.

The job has been an adventure, an escape from the apartment in New Karachi where she and her three sisters, a brother, his wife and their baby live piled atop each other and their mother. The neighbours think she works as a teacher, a job easier to explain and justify, nobler than standing in a store; the lie holds because no one in her building can dream of wandering into this boutique.

In recent days, the arrangement has become a bit more problematic with the arrival of an electronics store in the vacant property next door. At all hours of the day, young boys with fat wallets tucked in jean pockets flit in and out, padding themselves with the latest phones, cameras and iPods. Puffed up with their plumage of gadgetry and attracted by the sight of Rashida in black and white, some have begun to prance into the store snickering and demanding to be ‘shown the merchandise’. Others have become regulars, waiting outside when her shift ends at five, to follow her out — sidling up to her, leering at her. Yesterday one of them tried to grab her arm.

Like millions of working women in the urban areas of Pakistan, Rashida has little recourse. She is not foolish enough to go to the police, someone in the van full of paan-chewing, sleepy men that linger at the corner or the beady-eyed security guard who, along with his gun, mans the main entrance to the mall.

After the incident last night, she almost told her brother but then paused at the thought of the consequences. What would he do, what could he do: tell her to quit the job, return to the onion-chopping, garlic-frying paradise of squabbles of their tiny airless kitchen?

Rashida is not alone in her battle to emerge whole and untouched from the contested realm of public spaces where the presence of women is still a novelty. In emerging mega cities, from Cairo to Karachi, apathetic law enforcement, economic need and a lack of respect create a dismal mix that must be mucked through by millions like Rashida with modest ambitions to contribute to the family income rather than merely consume it.

Some have taken recourse to veils, a deliberate attempt to recalibrate power between the seen and unseen using the garb of piety as a stand-in for the lack of physical security — yards of fabric as visible boundaries to thwart the men that ignore them.But the veil strategy does little for those who cannot afford to hide behind it. As a new law banning visible eyes recently proposed in Saudi Arabia asserts, even the tiniest exposure can prove too tempting to devoted harassers. While wealthy Saudi women can stay at home, the economic realities of the women of less endowed countries allow little time for such luxury.

These female soldiers, born of want and practicality, have instead found recourse and possibly revenge in technology.

A year ago, women in Cairo experiencing harassment designed and introduced the HarassMap which allows women to use SMS and email technology to report harassment. The acts, from catcalls to ‘brushes and touches’ disguised as accidents to attempts to grab and molest are all immediately put on a map that shows anyone with access to the Internet which areas are the most unsafe.

In South Asia, a similar project has been launched under the auspices of Whypoll, an online portal designed to improve government accountability by allowing citizens to complain directly to elected representatives.

Using Twitter and Facebook, the ‘Fight Back’ technology allows women around Delhi to report harassment on city streets to create a similar map of the worst areas — a public record of the incidents. Next week, Whypoll will be launching an application that will allow women to not only report harassment but also send SOS messages to family or friends or law enforcement if they so choose.

The premise of the technology in use in Cairo and Delhi is an age-old mechanism familiar to Pakistan: the use of shame to goad communities and businesses into taking action against harassment rather than risk being labelled ‘bad’ areas.

The anonymity of reporting aims to lower the social cost of reporting so that women such as Rashida do not have to weigh whether or not they should report against the possibility of being blamed for it and forced out of the public sphere completely.

This small act of empowerment of sending a text against the intrusion of the unwanted touch, the lewd comment, the following and catcalls, can give dimension to a problem not really believed to exist at all except by those forced by their own vulnerability to hide its existence.

No woman in Pakistan can nurse the delusion that the implementation of such a technology will transform public spaces into safe and welcoming environments for all women; what they can hope for is that harassment, real and humiliating, will be afforded the seriousness of being marked on a map.

The writer is an attorney teaching political philosophy and constitutional law.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com