“The first moment something happens, you’ve got to double-check, was that my imagination? Was it deliberate?” Natasha De Souza notes in her podcast, Spirit & Sexuality.
Launched a few weeks ago, De Souza hopes to create a healing, accepting space with her podcast. True to that theme, the first episode was titled From Trauma To Truth. An unrushed, calm De Souza recounts being sexually assaulted around 15 years prior. Though she hurries to correct herself, “in my case it wasn’t assault”, one google search is all it takes to establish that any form of non-consensual physical contact can fall under the sexual assault category.
You may recognize Natasha De Souza from the second season of Coke Studio, when she joined Saba Shabbir on backing vocals, replacing Selina Rashid, who had just moved on to open her now very successful PR agency. 2009 may seem like an entire lifetime away, but music, as always, transcends space and time. And so, if you don’t recall De Souza’s presence on that particular season of Coke Studio, you may remember some of the hits she sang back-up for: ‘Aik Alif’ (Saeen Zahoor and Noori), ‘Jalpari’ (Atif Aslam), ‘Paimona’ (Zeb & Haniya). 2009 was a whole mood, as the kids would say today. For De Souza, it was possibly the last time we saw her perform in Pakistan.
“The media industry in Pakistan left me with a very bad taste in my mouth,” says 2023 Natasha De Souza. “It wasn’t the first time someone had tried to take advantage of me [when I finally left], but it was one time too many.
“One of my first brushes with what I experienced later had been when music channels were starting up in Pakistan, I had asked my friends who worked in marketing to let me know if any auditions came up. The very first time I was asked to an audition was at a hotel, which was weird, but the gentleman in question was ostensibly shooting an ad there.
“I took a friend along with me, and the person whom I was supposed to audition for moved to lock the door as soon as my friend left the room to take a call. This is a big guy, someone I couldn’t fight off on my own. So I told him that if he didn’t unlock the door immediately, I would scream it down, and proceeded to call out to my friend till he relented.”
De Souza recalls complaining to the friends who had set the audition up for her. “They told me, ‘so what Natasha, it’s not like he raped you’, as if rape is the point at which someone will take your concerns of safety seriously.”
Not one to back down, De Souza went on to complain to the agency that held the audition, only to be dismissed.
“When people ask, why don’t survivors of sexual abuse come forward, this is a good example to give. Either we - as a society - won’t believe them, or we’ll tell them it wasn’t so bad, or we will run them out of court and country like we did [names a popular woman musician].”
De Souza spoke up a few years back about being groped by a colleague while returning on a shoot she worked with them on. As the team returned from Thar on a bus, her colleague laid their head on her shoulder for a rest, and proceeded to touch her breast, more than once.
This is the point where De Souza second-guessed herself.
On the podcast she talks about being angry with herself for a long time afterwards, for not creating a scene right away.
As De Souza notes further into From Trauma To Truth, she realized at some point that she was carrying around someone else’s shame for them. The person, she says, who should be ashamed is the perpetrator of assault, not the one receiving it.
“I just want to ask: why did you think it was okay to touch a woman without her consent? Frankly this person is lucky they live in Pakistan.
“There is no legal system in place to protect the people who do come forward. And it isn’t just the legal system that’s corrupt, our whole society is corrupt.
We are all guilty of further traumatizing survivors - there’s no other way to describe the treatment they receive if a case becomes known.”
Regardless of gender identity, sexual harassment is a real concern globally, but in Pakistan, the trauma is twofold: not only do survivors have to suffer the assault, they also have to face massive public censure should they choose to come forward.
The only two choices then, are to stay silent and never report an incident of sexual assault, or to report it and be blamed for somehow incurring the assault on oneself.
For women, the threat of sexual violence lurks everywhere, from their homes to the streets to their workplace. Barrister-at-Law Ms. Naz Toosy details the laws regarding sexual harassment in and out of the workplace, and notes that, “An FIR would be registered in case of the sections noted [below] from the Pakistan Penal Code 1860. Under the Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010, a written complaint may be sent to the inquiry committee which is then required to take further action. Sections 4 and 5 of the said Act provide for this.”
Barrister Toosy further says, “civil complaints by an inquiry committee or ombudsperson are usually confidentially heard, whereas criminal complaints under the Pakistan Penal Code are tried in court hearings.”
The price, it seems, to pursue not just one’s dreams, but to pursue the very basic act of living life, sometimes may be too high. There is seemingly little else to do to avoid any form of sexual assault except to stay in what a former premier sagely referred to as, chaadar aur chaar diwari, where ironically, women, children and other vulnerable persons are not entirely safe either.
Sexual crimes or misconduct by more famous - and shall we say, more palatable – personalities are swept under the rug with a combination of court orders and social clout. While speaking up more may not yield the results we wish to see, continuously speaking up and at least giving survivors a chance to tell their stories without victim/fashion/profession/body shaming them might be a start.
On the podcast Natasha De Souza talks about being angry with herself for a long time afterwards, for not creating a scene right away. As De Souza notes further into From Trauma To Truth, she realized at some point that she was carrying around someone else’s shame for them. The person, she says, who should be ashamed is the perpetrator of assault, not the one receiving it.