How safe are Pakistani women in public spaces? – Press Release


A woman flashes victory signs as she rides a bicycle during Girls on Bike rally in Islamabad, Pakistan, April 2, 2017. Photo: Reuters
A woman flashes victory signs as she rides a bicycle during Girls on Bike rally in Islamabad, Pakistan, April 2, 2017. Photo: Reuters

Every year on Independence Day a certain section of women is deemed ungrateful and unpatriotic when they point out that Pakistani women are not free. They are asked to express their usual feminist outrage on another day, because this one is to celebrate the fact that we have the privilege of being born in a free country.

The mob harassment and assault of a woman that took place at Minar-e-Pakistan on the 14th of August is testament to women’s freedom, or lack thereof, to inhabit public space in the country. People keen to blame the woman rather than the hundreds of men who assaulted her have asked what she was doing amongst so many men, and on Independence Day no less. Evidently it is hard for them to digest that she had no ulterior motive and was only celebrating being a Pakistani. Perhaps her only crime was to disregard the basic tenet of being a woman in Pakistan — that women’s joy, like their grief and rage, should be muted and expressed behind closed doors.

When I was young, my father would take me, my sister and our girl cousins out on every chaand raat to get bangles and mehndi. We would cram in a car, sing and laugh the whole way to Anarkali. He used to take us out on Independence Day to see the canal decorated with lights and floats. But then we grew up and our long-standing tradition to go out and witness our city in celebration abruptly came to a stop. If we ever found ourselves on the road on the eve of Independence Day or Eid, despite making all efforts to get home before 12am, my father would panic at every traffic signal.

My sister and I did not have to be told that our city’s roads were not safe for us anymore because we felt it in our bones with every leer and every vulgar gesture made at us.

A woman’s participation in a public celebration is considered provocative in a culture that censures women who are deemed too loud, too ‘bold’, and too free. Our culture, as we are often told by our leaders and celebrities, gives utmost respect to women, whose place is at home catering to the men in her family and raising children. A respectable woman has no business walking, commuting, celebrating, mourning, praying in public. Why would she want to be seen when she has the infinitely better option of staying at home, invisible?

Perhaps it is because of this culture that the country’s law-enforcement authorities have forgotten to do their jobs. A woman was assaulted and abused in plain sight by hundreds of men for God knows how long and nobody took action. Not one police officer or security official tried to intervene. That men harass women and murder them with impunity in Pakistan has more to do with the fact that there are zero legal repercussions of their actions than a culture that enables their behaviour.

The reason women do not report instances of harassment and sexual abuse is that the state fails to give them justice time and again. The authorities are more comfortable lecturing survivors of abuse about being alone at the wrong place at the wrong time, or airing their dirty laundry in public (in cases where the abuser is her husband, father or brother) than doing their actual jobs, which is to enforce the law. The state owes it to Pakistani women that their harassers and abusers are punished before the spectacle of their harassment becomes viral in the media. The state has a duty to fix a justice system that lets a man convicted of attempting to murder a woman walk free after three and a half years in prison.

Men, and this culture they are so proud of, have expelled women from mosques, from public parks, from celebrations, and from the roads of the cities they call home. It is no surprise then that the only time I have felt safe in public was when I was surrounded by hundreds of tired and angry women like myself demanding justice and equality.

The writer is a former civil servant.

Originally published in

The News