Women in a fix about sexual harassment in cab hailing services

Author: Rida Naeem

A video gone viral recently on the internet showing an Uber driver masturbating from on top of his clothes while driving a female passenger, recorded secretly by the passenger herself, shows how incidents of sexual harassment against women are taking new and more threatening forms.
Yet even though laws exist to deal with and deter such issues, they are still on the rise because of a combination of unwillingness of companies whose employees indulge in them to take appropriate action, lack of cooperation from law enforcement agencies, government organisations meant to address them being in a state of disarray and, above all, reluctance on the part of victims to come forward because of societal issues, a Daily Times (DT) investigation has revealed.
“A few weeks ago in Islamabad I booked an Uber ride to travel to a bus station,” said X (the victim did not wish to disclose her identity) during an exclusive interview with DT.
“The driver was constantly staring at me through the rear-view mirror, which I found very uncomfortable. Then I saw him masturbating while driving, he was continuously jerking.”
X pretended not to notice but secretly filmed the driver as he deliberately missed her destination to prolong the journey.
“When I told him to drop me in a harsh tone, he took a very long U-turn and dropped me,” she said, and added that “I was shaking by this time but I was thankful to reach the bus stop safely.”
When the victim complained to Uber through their app, she was merely refunded for her trouble and that seemed to be the end of the matter. Such behaviour on the part of Uber’s management, and their refusal to explain this matter to the press when questioned about it, only strengthens the argument that such companies end up becoming complicit in such crimes by trying to brush them under the carpet to protect their own reputation.
DT tried to contact Uber three times, but it was not provided with any information. Also, the manager of the main office of Uber in Lahore, Ms Sajjal, refused to even discuss the issue and directly said that she could not be of any help about how the victim should have been compensated.
The government claims to take the issue of sexual harassment against women very seriously and a number of authorities have been set up to provide justice to women suffering from it, mainly the Punjab Women Authority.
But it is not easy to get to the right person at the right time, as the contacted person refers you to another person and yet this chain continues till you are able to talk to the right person who is ready to deal with the issue.
DT tried to contact these authorities for comment, but each time we were forwarded to some other “relevant person,” which could not be found despite repeated attempts.
There are legal options available to victims as well, which can guarantee justice, but they are mostly not availed because of reluctance on the part of victims to come forward because of numerous societal issues.
“If the victim had come forward and registered a case, then she could have got justice in this instance,” Qasim Iqbal, advocate High Courts of Pakistan.
“If she had launched an FIR, PPC Section 506 (criminal intimidation) would be applied because the driver started an act without the consent of the rider, harassed her and even threatened her.”
But this would only have been possible if the victim had come forward for justice, which she was not willing to do in this case because of fear that she would be blamed by society, which, unfortunately, is very common in conservative societies in Pakistan.
DT also tried to contact several police departments for information about such cases – how often they are reported, how they proceed with the investigation and what direction they usually take. But we could not find anybody willing to comment on this issue.
Regardless of the increasing incidents of sexual harassment, though, most women are still ready to brave such risks and use cab hailing services primarily because they have few other options and there are very few forms of transport available only to women.
“After hearing of such harassment cases, I would prefer to use some other service because Uber is no longer safe and a number of cases have come out against them; but it is also true that most passengers are deprived of alternatives,” said a woman who uses such rides and also did not want to be named.
Lately Uber introduced a new feature in their online app, audio recording, enabling women to send recorded voice messages to a help centre if they find themselves in any kind of trouble during their rides. But such initiatives are non-starters simply because of their impracticality because women are hardly in a position to record their plight in front of the person harassing them.
“I didn’t know about this feature but it would have been of no use in my case,” said X.
Women who use public transport, as well as their families, are growing increasingly apprehensive about such services, especially in light of recent news of a gang rape of a woman and her daughter by a rickshaw driver, who was taking them from a bus station to a relative’s house, and his friends.
It is, at the end of the day, the responsibility of the government to take note of such things and make sure relevant arms of law enforcement agencies are working properly; which is not the case at the moment.
It is also for the government to make sure that companies do not try to brush aside such sensitive issues to protect their own reputation and customer base. And only once the government does what is expected of it can women feel confident enough to report harassment cases as and when they happen.

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