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Pakistan: No country for women

Updated 10 Apr, 2017 11:31am
Women reclaiming public spaces | Photo courtesy: Girls at Dhabas
Women reclaiming public spaces | Photo courtesy: Girls at Dhabas

For Tahira Rasool, a young woman studying at Multan’s Government Degree College, February 17, 1994, began like any other day. On her way home from classes, however, a hoodlum blocked her path and doused her with acid. Tahira’s arms, chest and face were severely burned, and her left eye was destroyed.

The young man who attacked her had a reputation in the neighbourhood for harassing local college girls. In fact, Tahira had once admonished him for his inappropriate behaviour.

It seems that the man in question found the young woman’s comments offensive and decided to teach her a lesson. In the few seconds that it took to drench her in acid, he turned Tahira’s life into a nightmare.

Tahira Rasool’s case is not the first of its kind, nor will it be the last. It is, admittedly, among the more extreme forms of harassment women face in public places. Nearly every day, similar incidents, as well as scores of less violent cases, are reported in the press. For instance, a burqa-clad man was caught harassing women in a bazaar. He was found to be mentally deranged and released, but then arrested on orders from above (Jang, Rawalpindi, December 31, 1997).

Another recent news item reported increasing incidents of harassment in certain villages near Hasanabdal, where female teachers walk several miles to and from their schools and are frequently waylaid. In one such incident in Jhoj, two teachers were walking to school when a man on a bicycle rode up to them and snatched one teacher’s dupatta. The two teachers ran towards a group of village women nearby, hoping for protection. But their assailant proceeded to grab at some of the other women’s dupattas as well. He then made obscene gestures and pedalled away. The incident was reported to the local administration in Attock, but no action was taken against the offender (Khabrain, November 27, 1997).

Similarly, in a suburban town outside Lahore, a few boys were drinking tea at a roadside cafe when a 14 year-old female labourer passed by. One of the boys grabbed her hand and asked her to stay. She refused. Screaming and begging for mercy, she was dragged to a nearby room and raped (Jang, Rawalpindi, Sunday Magazine, December 28 to January 3). In another such incident, a taxi driver allegedly tried to rape a woman passenger who, fortunately, managed to escape (Khabrain, October 30, 1997).

As more and more women enter the workforce, more such cases are bound to arise. For this reason, women’s activists believe the problem of harassment requires urgent attention

Frequent as they are in the press, such reports do not even scrape the tip of the iceberg. Ask any woman and she will tell you that from the moment she steps out of her home to the time she returns to its relative safety, she is stared at, verbally assaulted or physically molested. There have also been cases of women being publicly humiliated, disfigured and even gang-raped. Such incidents occur in the rural areas as well as in the cities. In fact, the harassment of women in public places is so common that it has almost come to be accepted as the price they pay for their social mobility and independence.

What is perhaps worse still is that the phenomenon is not new. In fact, in the early ’60s, the Akhbar-e-Jehan carried a detailed feature on women’s harassment in the workplace, citing cases where female workers quit their jobs or even committed suicide as a result. Similarly, in the late ’70s, there were several cases where acid was thrown on female students at the Karachi University. And today, little seems to have changed.

Shahnaz Bokhari of the Progressive Women’s Association has been pursuing such cases on a volunteer basis for nearly a decade. At present, she is handling about 300 cases from Rawalpindi and Islamabad alone. The young women who seek Bokhari’s assistance work mainly in low status jobs and face harassment at the hands of their bosses or senior colleagues. The majority of these women need to work, and rarely dare to speak out against a hostile work environment. In any case, it would seem that complaining about such incidents is largely futile. Bokhari explains that in those rare instances where a woman is courageous enough to lodge a complaint with the management, her case is generally dismissed, either on the grounds that no harassment actually took place or because it was a “misunderstanding” on the part of the victim.

As more and more women enter the workforce, more such cases are bound to arise. For this reason, women’s activists believe the problem of harassment requires urgent attention. Even though the constitution considers women to be equal citizens of the state, over the years their status has been eroded. Women’s activists cite the discriminatory legislation introduced during General Ziaul Haq’s martial law imposed in 1979. When the law considers women to be second-class citizens, society is bound to follow.

It is perhaps for this reason that harassment has never been considered a serious crime in this country. During a recently held open kutchery at Iqbal Town in Lahore, for instance, the SSPissued orders that men found harassing young women outside educational institutions should have their heads shaved and be publicly beaten. One wonders whether such punishment is adequate—or even appropriate.

Women organisations take out a rally in Lahore against Zia’s so-called ‘Islamisation laws' |
Women organisations take out a rally in Lahore against Zia’s so-called ‘Islamisation laws' |

This nonchalant attitude towards women’s harassment is reflected in our press as well. Nearly all the newspapers of January 1, 1998, carried an item describing how “eve-teasing” invariably increases in the week before Eid, with gangs of teenaged boys thronging to major shopping centres and pestering young women. The local administration in various cities seems oblivious to the problem and has yet to provide security to young women in public places. Meanwhile, newspapers downplay the seriousness of the problem rather than treating harassment as a crime.

Even if the administration were to suddenly sit up and take notice, the problem is not likely to disappear overnight. This is because short term administrative measures cannot remedy the malaise that has long afflicted the male culture of this society. The measures that need to be taken should be aimed at raising the status of women to that of equal citizens of the state. In order to do so, several complex issues would need to be addressed, including education, healthcare, economic independence and women’s role in decision making at all levels. These, however, are long term objectives.

But even in the short term, certain steps can be taken to confront the problem. The government, for instance, could start the ball rolling by enacting legislation that deems harassment to be a serious crime. The media can help by dealing with gender issues in an enlightened manner. Meanwhile, one obvious way to reduce harassment in offices, at least for the government, is to hire more women. Private sector organisations could also be urged to draw up rules of employee conduct in an attempt to clean up the work environment.

But all the legislation in the world is useless if those charged with enforcing the writ of the law are themselves culprits. The Aasia Ayub case is a gruesome reminder of this reality. In 1991, Aasia and her husband were brought to the Banni police station in Rawalpindi, charged with theft. For several days, Aasia was physically and sexually assaulted in the thana premises. In fact, she was so severely tortured that she was subsequently hospitalised for medical treatment and psychological counseling. Her case was taken up by an eminent lawyer from Rawalpindi and the SHO responsible for the brutality was initially suspended. The case is still pending in the courts, but the police officer has been allowed to resume his duties.

What is most alarming is that Aasia Ayub’s case is by no means an isolated incident. In early December 1996, four sisters were arrested from their home and taken to the sector I-9 police station in Islamabad. Here, under the pretext of interrogation, they were subjected to the most unspeakable brutality at the hands of the ASI and his team.

The media can help by dealing with gender issues in an enlightened manner. Meanwhile, one obvious way to reduce harassment in offices, at least for the government, is to hire more women.

Similarly, in August 1997, Shamim Akhtar and her husband were brought from Abbotabad and locked up at the Secretariat police station, Islamabad, on charges of car theft. Inside the thana, the woman was stripped naked and the entire male staff was ordered to “inspect” her in that condition. This abuse continued for three full days at a police station located a stone’s throw away from the Prime Minister’s House, the Presidency and the PM’s Secretariat.

While women’s activists call for legislation to help them in their battle against sexual harassment, many fear that the recently passed Anti-Terrorist Act will in fact make women even more vulnerable to the bestiality of unscrupulous elements within the police. Meanwhile, women’s police stations—which were set up to avoid the kinds of incidents that still occur regularly—have proven ineffective. Their purpose seems symbolic rather than practical. As such, rather than building separate police stations for women, a women’s cell could be set up within every thana to look into matters that require the attention of female police officers.

In many parts of the world today sexual harassment is recognised as a serious crime. Meanwhile, Pakistan marches into the twenty-first century with one half of its population subject to the most intolerable forms of public humiliation.

This article was original published in the March 1998 issue of the Herald under the headline 'The price of freedom'. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.