“She asked for it”

04 Feb 2013


The recent spate of gang rapes in India has once again brought into the spotlight the mounting predicament of sexual assault for South Asian women, with no sign of any let up. Hundreds of women commuting in public transport are harassed and threatened publicly every day; however, the authorities continue to live in denial.

According to the International Labour Organisation, Pakistani women travelling in public transport are susceptible to verbal and physical harassment by fellow passengers, drivers and bus conductors. Women in Pakistan represent 51 per cent of the total population, however out of the 60 seats, less than a dozen are reserved for women in public buses which is why women who either manage to secure a spot over the engine or spots in close proximity to male passengers are repeatedly molested.

It is extremely unfortunate that many Pakistanis fail to understand what harassment really signifies. Many consider it to be an act which involves physical or sexual violence directed towards another person; however, it is important to understand that harassment covers wider issues. Any offensive behaviour, whether it is as insignificant as cracking a sleazy joke or as derogatory as touching someone indecently, qualifies as harassment. However, the level of harassment that women face on South Asian streets is a far more offensive crime.

Shifa Ibrahim, a student of undergraduate program at Government College of Commerce and Economics said, “There is a womens section in most of the buses, however, bus conductors and drivers misbehave and harass all college girls. Some of them try to touch us whilst shifting gears or pass inappropriate remarks. They try to grope young girls and it is extremely troublesome for us. Initially, we started travelling in groups to avoid these incidents but then we decided to use rickshaws as commuting in buses has become a nuisance for all of us.”

Ibrahim never dared to report any incident to the law enforcement agencies as she, along with many other like-minded women, does not trust the authorities. It is a well-established fact that Pakistani women feel threatened by law enforcement agencies and can one blame them for their reservations? Pakistani women have suffered much harm at the hands of policemen in the recent past. Not very long ago, five women who went sightseeing to Fort Munro were brutally raped by personnel of the Border Military Police (BMP). Similar incidents have been reported in various parts of the country, where women have been sexually assaulted by men in uniform. And aware of this, rapists and molesters are encouraged by the deteriorating situation.

A woman who uses public transport frequently, complained, “A few days ago a man flashed me and walked away. Thinking enough is enough, I went to the nearest traffic warden and told him what had happened. He replied whilst staring at me inappropriately, ‘I don’t blame the guy for doing what he did because you entice such emotions in men’.”

“The traffic warden’s words crushed me, as I turned away dejected. I, and many others like me, may not be able to afford the comfort and privacy of our own cars. Does that mean we are to be treated with any less dignity?” she asked.

So, when is enough, enough? In our society, girls are taught to be good daughters, wives and sisters but men are barely ever told to respect women.

More often than not, women are blamed for dressing immodestly and “luring” men to sexually assault them; the point to be noted in the case of most South Asian women who use public transport is that generally all of them are covered properly.

Why is it that we want women to cover themselves because that is deemed respectable but refuse to honour them? Why do we murder innocent women and call that a honour killing when most of us haven't the slightest inclination what honour really means? Why have we regressed to such a point where women are considered nothing but mere commodities?

Many women consider it unnecessary and futile to raise any sort of voice against the molesters because the altercation might result in serious repercussions for them. It would not be unwise to say that every other person in Pakistan has political ties which empower them to use their affiliations unfairly. Unless the government intervenes and passes strict laws to stop street harassment, Pakistani women will continue to face such problems. In year 2010, the Government of Pakistan, passed a historical bill which protected women against sexual harassment at workplace, however, no respite, of any sort has been provided to women who face harassment in other spheres of life.

It is essentially important to understand that harassment is one of the causes which leads to sexual assault and other sex crimes. Unless we all develop a fair understanding of the fact that culprits behind such behaviors must be reprimanded for their misconduct, we will never be able to get rid of street harassment. It is not only the authorities that are responsible for the reprehensible state of affair; we also play an equal part in the crime by showing cowardice and being a victim of bystander apathy.

Women are equally entitled to use public goods and spaces, by harassing them the oppressive men in our society deprive them of a fundamental right: limiting women's ability to be in public as often or as comfortably as most men.

We have to truly understand that street harassment is nothing women enjoy or find flattering and start treating it as grave ordeal with devastating repercussions.

It is now that enough is really enough; stop commodifying women and start respecting them.


Faiza Mirza
The writer is a Reporter at Dawn.com