We are addicted to numbers. The statement “care to back that up?”
At the “Conference Against the Harassment of Women” which the Commons Court held at “Books n’ Beans” on the 20th of August, 2016, we had a very pertinent question from an audience member in response to claims that females face more harassment than males in Pakistan. A simple question: “Could you share some statistics, please?”
Skepticism, I have found, is a very useful mindset – a way of life, even. But why reject a possible reality simply because we do not have the cold hard statistics collected from meticulously conducted surveys or field research? What if the object of the study being conducted is not universally understood or, in fact, something an entire section of society cannot even relate to?
Allow me to share for why the three of us at the Commons Court decided to do a bit on female harassment in particular and why we chose to call it that instead of simply “harassment”.
Two words: “Anecdotes” and “Patterns”
We interviewed several women. Some of them homemakers, teachers, doctors, bureaucrats, beauticians by profession – and not all of them well-read or conversant in feminist literature. Most of these were casual conversations more than interviews and were not recorded.
We found that all these stories and conversations had similar patterns. For instance:
And, yet, while all of them resented it and thought it wrong, all of them had resigned themselves to accepting it all as normal. Some of them chalked it up to how men are, therefore, believing that women should protect themselves by covering up. Some of them felt that social change was needed but would take time or that it was an age-related matter and that women just needed to wait until they were older and, therefore, safer from harassment.
I do not believe an anecdote of mine would count here as I have, and will never, face the problems that these women have but one particular incident which actually sparked the idea for the female harassment bit (in my mind at least) happened to a close friend of mine. She is a legal professional and currently a partner at a Lahore-based law firm. Only someone who is confident in their abilities and is dedicated to their profession can reach such a tier in Pakistan, especially if they are female. Imagine what went through my mind when, after a get-together dinner with some other friends, someone of that caliber and clear confidence meekly asked to borrow my car shades so that she could put them up on her way back home. Apparently, some men had been following her car and making her uncomfortable on the way to the restaurant in an upscale locality.
Are we seeing the patterns in the anecdotes as well? One does not have to take my word for it. The Commons Court will definitely be posting up some of the recorded interviews. I am sure one would like to delve deeper into the issue, even if it is to rebut all these women and their perspectives.
If that’s not enough, we have novels written by women which, almost in a nonchalant manner, mention harassment in passing. Now we are not just talking run-of-the-mill walking down a street and being stared at, or called at, or being cornered in a street by a suitor one’s parents are interested in, only to be rescued by a frying-pan wielding transgender individual; we’re talking about actual - apparently normal to most of us - social interactions which we do not seem to realize make women immensely uncomfortable, and which then subsequently lead them to adopt protective measures against such advances.
The perfect example is a particular scene from an Urdu novel “Jannat Kay Pattay” (Heaven’s Leaves, if I were to venture a rough translation). The main character, named Haya, enjoys dressing up well for all sorts of occasions, and her first cousin’s dholki is no exception.
And dressing up well is clearly her only crime.
Her phupho (paternal aunt) who always compliments her to her face and even calls her more reliable than her own daughter, is overheard in the kitchen complaining that Haya dresses as she does on purpose to entice her sons.
The cousin whose wedding she is supposed to be attending only barely backed down from his desire to marry Haya and no one else, and now the younger cousins are hell bent on marrying her as well. All this with no regard for her desire to be treated like a cousin and a sister. She wishes to feel comfortable around people she considers close to her and enjoy such innocent moments with them, and yet, now she has only more individuals to possibly protect herself against.
This is not fantasy alone. This is a depiction of a pattern which is very clear in the lives of Pakistani women in reality. To me, this is the greatest form of social harassment that women face in their everyday lives in Pakistan – even more so than being stared at or being called at in public. This is harassment in spaces where women initially make the mistake of feeling comfortable and then “reality” slaps them in the face. They have to protect themselves more. They face unwanted advances and social interactions from males they were never originally threatened by and, thus, are forced towards what ought to be unnecessary caution in their attire and behaviour.
The member in the audience questioned why we had named the conference specifically “Conference Against the Harassment of Women” and not simply “Conference Against Harassment”. I could not answer him there and then I hope to have answered him by now. Perhaps, he will have more to say. We will definitely invite him to have his say, if he agrees to. Because that is exactly what the Commons Court is. We do not want this discussion to end up as another purely feminist vs. egalitarian vs. men’s rights issue, only to linger on forevermore as a fiery social media war with different Facebook pages posting memes against each other.
Which is why, before I end this, I would like to ask a few questions and have my say on how to carry this forward without letting it fizzle out into an age-old, ongoing, endless debate.
Is one a feminist if he/she accepts everything written here? Is one a feminist if he/she is moved to do their part against the harassment of women in Pakistan? Would one rather be called an egalitarian, perhaps? Does it matter?
If the reader of this piece is anything like me, they would know and understand that labels are largely ineffective and just serve the purpose of fulfilling one’s sense of belonging to a cause. In a conversation, they are more likely to create walls beyond which at least one side will refuse to look because of the baggage that inevitably becomes associated with every label.
Perhaps it would be more fitting to carry forth this conversation without any such labels so that we can take this matter seriously and not have legislation enacted to protect us from ourselves.
The author is a practicing lawyer in Lahore and is a Co-founder of the Commons Court - an online, social media-based initiative which seeks to utilise the professional expertise of its members to address various social issues affecting Pakistan. He can be reached at email@example.com