A few months ago I was walking from my house to the Markaz market to get some groceries. It was still early afternoon and I was walking with an adolescent female family member. We were almost...
A few months ago I was walking from my house (in Islamabad) to the Markaz market (hardly a kilometer away) to get some groceries. It was still early afternoon and I was walking with an adolescent female family member. We were almost there when a man in his late 20s or early 30s passed us by. He was not looking at us directly but had, as I realized only moments later, flashed me. I had never been flashed before and had not even heard of this as a common occurrence. As soon as I realized what had happened, my instinct was to hit him with anything I could get my hands on. However, I only turned around, swore at him and walked away. I was more careful than usual because I had a child accompanying me who did not notice what had just transpired.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when I saw a tweet from a woman from Islamabad, who chased after and reported a habitual flasher found in F-9 Fatima Jinnah Park, Islamabad. Following her tweet was another tweet by another girl who had uploaded a video of a man she claimed to have been flashing at her. Although the man is not seen flashing in her posted video, his creepy loitering and staring in the direction of the camera makes him suspicious enough to make me believe her. Interestingly, a police woman active on social media also tweeted about lodging an FIR against a flasher who had been exposing himself in a neighbourhood.
Responses to these tweets were mixed and largely reflected shock, disgust, anger, or dismay at the behaviour of the flasher and sympathy, solidarity for the victim. There were of course also those who found the matter funny and those who turned this into an absurd conversation about ‘would you arrest a woman if she flashed someone’. One cannot even feel sorry for the pea-sized intellect and emotional capacity of this lot, but more on that another time. What these episodes made me realize is that flashing, a form of sexual harassment, is a more rampant issue than I had previously realized.
I have no doubt that I can expect to hear back from some readers of this article that my and other women’s experiences of harassment are either (at best) anomalies or (at worst) invited by us, because women in their families have never complained of harassment. I would like to, preemptively, tell such readers that just because women in their families do not share such incidents, does not mean they have not happened to them. They might be sparing you feelings of anger, frustration and humiliation and the potentially devastating consequences of you lashing out at the perpetrator.
I looked up the Pakistan Penal Code to see if the act of flashing is covered as an offence. Section 354 B of the Pakistan Penal Code criminalizes “Whoever with sexual motive resorts to act of fondling, stroking, caressing, pornography, exhibitionism or inducing or intimidating any person, with or without his knowledge, to submit for such act” and sets a punishment of up to seven years and / or a fine.
Section 509 of the Pakistan Penal Code criminalizes “words, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman” and punishes anyone who “utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or that such gesture or object shall be seen, by such woman or intrudes upon the privacy of such woman … or uses verbal or non-verbal communication or physical conduct of a sexual nature which intends to annoy, insult, intimidate or threaten the other person” with imprisonment of up to a year and / or a fine (http://www.pakistani.org/pakistan/legislation/1860/actXLVof1860.html).
While the law seems to address situations of harassment, occasions on which enforcement of these laws leads to conviction are still few and far between. In fact I spoke with Elysee Nazir Khan, a lawyer, who told me that in a country where murder and rape are bail-able crimes she has never, in her professional career, seen a harassment case being tried.
According to UN Women, Pakistan has no official national figures for sexual harassment and assault. Aside from anecdotal reports (of which there are many) on social media and metropolitan sections of newspapers, there are no officially compiled numbers on sexual harassment cases to establish a baseline of how large and widespread this problem is. Official statistics on follow-up actions by law enforcement and any convictions resulting from them are even further removed. And while it is not surprising to see no official statistics on an an issue seem embarrassing to the 'national image', what is surprising is that with social science departments at so many universities around the country churning out papers there are almost no studies coming out of Pakistan that do as much as provide baseline numbers, not even in a limited context.
Beyond that, how many of these 'harmless' flashers go on to more serious and violent sex crimes? Are there parts of the country where harassment is more frequent? What are some typical profiles of harassers? What are their reasons? Do they suffer from mental health problems? It is in the public’s and the government’s own interest to conduct credible local research studies that seek answers to these and other questions.
Whatever incidents do manage to get reported to police are not aggregated and reported at any level. Sexual harassment is a problem that affects at least half of our population every day and is certainly among our society’s most widespread ills. What is ultimately needed is the collection, reporting and centralization of the crime statistics / FIR filings from the thaana-level upwards to the provincial level, for all kinds of crimes and misconducts. As things stand, we have no baseline for how many crimes occur in which vicinity.
In the US, crime stats are publicly available through sites like AreaVibes (https://www.areavibes.com/). The FBI also maintains links to separate state Sex Offender Registries (https://www.fbi.gov/scams-and-safety/sex-offender-registry), which contain names, pictures, registered residential address and broad case outlines of convicted sex offenders (even after release from prison), all available to the public. People can and do consult these sources before moving to a new neighborhood or buying a new house.
Even though cases of sexual assault are highly under-reported in Pakistan, the least we could do is something similar along these lines. While that would take care of the small fraction of cases leading to convictions, it leaves the much more commonplace problem of sexual harassment cases unaddressed.
During my research for this article I got to talk to a group of people that are developing an app for Pakistan that will allow people to report locations where they experienced sexual harassment. The result will be a publicly accessible map that allows the public and the police (if it chooses to do something about it) to identify places where sexual harassment frequently occurs. This addresses the problem of low reporting and even lower conviction rates for harassment cases. To avoid any charges of defamation prior to conviction, this app will focus on marking times and locations of incidents of harassment, without identifying the accuser or the accused.
I would like to see harassment and assault become as socially unacceptable as theft or dacoity is. Until then, however, even putting the police on every street corner cannot and will not stop sexual harassment. The only thing that will put an end to such behaviour is an end to society’s toleration of it.
The writer is an independent educationresearcher and consultant. She has a PhD in Education from Michigan State University.