Of whispers and touches...

By Sanobar Nadir
Tue, 12, 23

From the vibrant streets of Karachi to the serene parks of Lahore, from crowded buses to quiet family gatherings, there lurks a dark, pervasive issue – harassment. This week You! probes into this serious social issue…

Of whispers and touches...

“Commuting back home from a stressful day at work, I find myself standing in the packed bus as it travels through the busy roads of Islamabad. Being a professional woman, I face this type of struggle daily. But then, the bus becomes even more crowded as more people climb the already-packed bus. Pulling my belongings closer to me, I try to shrink myself in the hope of creating some distance between myself and other commuters. Because the bus was too crowded, a feeling of panic began to arise in my heart as I continued to pray ‘Not today...please, not today.’ Despite my prayers, a feeling of cold and disgust ran down my spine when I felt the unwanted touch skimming across my back. Unwanted touching becomes this distressing routine. Closing my eyes, I try to keep my tears locked inside my eyes as I try to think about what I did to become the subject of this humiliation because commuting shouldn’t come with this discomfort,” narrates Sara, a young girl in her 20s.

“Walking through the busy streets of Karachi, I felt like another person lost in the crowd. Suddenly, things took a turn. A group of guys surrounded me, making me uncomfortable. Their comments were like sharp knives, cutting through the lively city sounds. At that moment, I wasn’t just a face in the crowd; I felt exposed and uneasy,” shares Lubna, a working woman in her 30s.

“I am enjoying a calm walk in a quiet park in Lahore. Everything is so peaceful and calm. But suddenly, it’s not so peaceful. I feel the pressure of an unwanted gaze on me, and I find myself looking around to find the source of this gaze. And there I see a guy lurking around, staring and making weird gestures. It feels uncomfortable, turning my relaxing stroll into something I didn’t sign up for. Suddenly, the walk, meant to settle the chaos in my mind, turned into a memory that would always disgust me,” elucidates Tania, a lawyer by profession.

These are not just stories of one, two, or three girls... if we look around, we will find ourselves surrounded by many similar stories. But the question is that even though these incidents are quite common, why they should be acceptable. More importantly, why are these incidents increasing, and why is the situation getting worse?

This is not just a question but a conversation. A conversation about the discomfort woven into the fabric of everyday life, a discomfort that nobody should have to endure.

From the vibrant streets of Karachi to the serene parks of Lahore, from crowded buses to quiet family gatherings, there lurks another dark, pervasive issue – harassment.

“Harassment is sadly just part of my daily routine. On my way to class, it’s like a constant battle against comments and stares. It’s draining, and I wish it wasn’t something I had to get used to. We need more awareness and action to make the streets safer for everyone,” expresses Faiza, a student, who wants more awareness and action to reclaim safer streets for everyone.

Of whispers and touches...

Shaheena, another student in Karachi, highlights the infuriating challenge when a simple walk turns into a daunting task. “We deserve better,” she exclaims. “Being a student in Karachi means dealing with harassment far too often. It’s infuriating and frustrating when men eye us and sometimes even pass unwanted comments while we are going to university. It’s high time we change mindsets and make public spaces safe for everyone, regardless of gender,” she suggests.

Farzana, a young girl, tearfully shared her daunting experience where some guys on the motorcycle groped her behind and then flew off from there, leaving her scarred for life. “Whenever any bike passes by, I feel terrified... you know, I can still feel their touch and unfortunately, I know no matter how much I try to move on from that incident, I will never fully recover from it,” says Farzana with teary eyes.

For Samina, a housemaid, life is not easy as she faces harassment nearly every day. “I face this issue every day. It’s very distressing.” She sheds light on her experience as she works hard, striving to earn an honest living. She even shares how, a long time ago, a man who was old enough to be her father made a lewd offer to her. Her experiences raise concerns about the pervasive reach of sexual harassment, as even earning an honest living has become difficult due to this evil that is lurking in society.

“Even as a professional woman working in a bank, I am not spared from harassment,” states Asma who is working in a private bank. She shatters any illusion of immunity for professional women. “It’s disheartening,” she admits, emphasising the pressing need for stricter measures and cultural change to dismantle the deeply ingrained roots of harassment. Her words echo the sentiment that no one should feel unsafe in their daily lives, regardless of their profession.

“It’s not about what we wear or where we go; it’s about respect,” stresses Nida, an Art student. She emphasises the universal nature of fear that lingers with every step outside. “I am just a student trying to pursue my dreams, I want to complete my education without any mental stress but harassment makes it hard. The fear lingers every time I step out,” she comments. Like any other woman, Nida also expresses the longing for a society where women can pursue their aspirations without any fear.

Recounting a chilling encounter with a man on a motorcycle, Uzma, a school teacher in Karachi, vividly describes the terrifying experience of being followed and subjected to inappropriate gestures during her daily commute. “Once, a man on a motorcycle followed me, making inappropriate gestures. It was terrifying. I have heard about such incidents but never ever thought I would experience something so harrowing,” tells Uzma, with a profound sadness in her eyes.

“Even in a profession as demanding as medicine, I can’t escape harassment. Once, while rushing to the emergency room of the hospital, a group of men, passed lewd comments while having that sickening smile plastered all over their faces. For crying out loud, it’s an emergency section of the hospital, not some park or public place; people are suffering, and all they care about is satisfying their sick desire to harass a woman. It’s unsettling. We need to redefine societal norms and instil respect, irrespective of a woman’s profession or attire,” urges Sheema, a practicing doctor, while emphasising the urgency to break free from the shackles of societal expectations that perpetuate sexual harassment, irrespective of a woman’s profession or attire.

These are just a few of the incidents of harassment; one can’t imagine how many more such stories are hidden in the folds of our society.

Here, it is crucial to understand that harassment is not just a ‘woman issue’. It is a societal issue, and everyone is responsible for playing their part to eradicate this evil.

Imad, a content writer by profession, advocates for education and conversations around respect, emphasising that everyone needs to be part of the solution. “Seeing the rise in harassment incidents is not just distressing; it’s a wake-up call for all of us. As a man, it’s our responsibility to stand up against such behaviour. We need more education and conversations around respect for women. It’s not just their problem; it’s everyone’s problem, and we all need to be part of the solution,” opines Imad.

Saad, a twenty-five-year-old working professional and student, emphasises the role of men in helping and supporting women and contributing to creating a safe environment where everyone can live and flourish without any fear. “I think the increase in harassment incidents is a reflection of a deeper problem in our society. We need to challenge traditional gender norms and promote equality. It’s not just about blaming the harassers; it’s about changing everyone’s mindset. Men need to be allies in this fight. We should support and listen to women. They should not have to fight alone,” says Saad while addressing the issue.

These men should not just be bystanders; they should be allies of the women against harassment. The path to change requires a collective commitment, transcending gender boundaries.

Moheeb, another young man, highlights the significance of teaching the house’s young ones about right and wrong. “When we teach our girls how to act and what is right and wrong, then why shouldn’t we teach our boys how to respect and behave in their life? They should be aware of the consequences of their actions,” comments Moheeb. He strongly advocates educating children and fostering a culture of respect from a young age. “It starts at home and in our communities. Let’s teach our boys the importance of treating everyone with dignity and make sure they grow up understanding the consequences of harassment,” recommends Moheeb.

“Witnessing my sister go through the trauma of harassment has been both heart-breaking and enraging. It’s not just about her; it’s about the collective safety of women. The incident changed our family dynamics, making me realise the urgency for societal change. We need to create an environment where women, including my sister, can move freely without the constant fear of harassment. It’s not just about protecting our sisters; it’s about transforming our society for the better,” voices Amir who is the brother of a harassment survivor,

The rise in harassment incidents serves as a wake-up call. It beckons us all to stand united against harassment, creating an environment where everyone feels respected and safe.

The time for change is now. Be an ally, be a voice, and be the change. Together, we can rewrite the narrative, replacing whispers and touches with a chorus of unity and respect. The scars may remain, but with collective action, we can ensure that no more are added.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the respondents.

Sanobar Nadir is a Mass Communication Research Scholar and a freelance content writer.