To ‘save’ or not to be ‘safe’...

By Alishbah Sijal
Tue, 10, 19

Commuting by public transport on a day-to-day basis is an ordeal for any working woman. This week You! shares a personal account of a commuter based in Karachi...


It is said, "You can't learn how to swim until you step inside the water" and with all due respect in Pakistani context, I would say, you won't learn how to protect yourself unless you have been violated enough. As a young student, rushing to a job after university unveiled to me how I was living my life in a cocoon. Taking the public bus was the most economically suitable mode of transport, so my adventures of learning began.

While travelling in the bus for the very first time, I asked the conductor what was the fare and that probably gave him away that it was my first time, and that too that I was alone. So, he lied to me saying, "pachass Empress Market tak." Looking at him with speculating eyes, I handed over the note and this made his suspicions clear as daylight. That day was just sheer bad luck for me. As I was sitting on the seat right behind the door, the conductor refused to leave and constantly kept hanging from there. First, he leaned towards my seat and rested his arm with my knee, then slowly started groping my calf and massaging it. As a girl who was experiencing this for the first time, I couldn't even find my voice but protested nevertheless by pushing him away and getting off on the very first stop that I could. I was wearing a typical shalwar kameez but the people I discussed this incident with, said that I wasn't 'enough' conservatively dressed. So, the next time I boarded the public bus, I made sure I was wearing a burqa with a veil across my face.

I was out in the world, determined to seek independence and share my family's burden as an equal. In this economy, to move forward, we look towards women to share the economical crunch equally with men. Hence, backing out because of one such incident wasn't an option for me. I tried again, and I kept trying again till all strength in me was shattered.

All other trips I took in the public bus, I distinctively avoided the seat near the door but that didn't stop the tortures I was destined to suffer. Sometimes the male passengers sitting behind me would try to reach out and touch my back through the spaces between the seats. I would shout and reprimand them but no one would stand with me. At times when there wasn't enough space in the bus to sit and I had to stand, the other male passengers standing would push against me and try to exit from the female compartment. Apparently, all female passengers were used to of being touched by the conductor while he asked for the fare, or they had compromised with the situation since a public bus is the cheapest mode of transport.

Constantly ogling at the female passengers and making rude gestures seemed like a bonus for the men due to the convenient arrangement of seats in the female section. No veil, conservative dressing or seat in the bus ever gave me a 'safe' experience while travelling in the city. Other than that, waiting at the bus stop for the bus to arrive was more tormenting than the ride itself. Every other motorbike rider would slow his pace and make comments selected from this huge spectrum of insults to make any woman feel filthy without being touched. Not to say they wouldn't make an effort to touch but the words alone were hurled so blatantly that it would insult even the ones who it wasn't directed at.

Rickshaws in the city are always expensive if they are to be taken every day and especially for long distance commute. But, are they safe? Well, they are open from both ends and one can jump out in any unforeseen situation. Maybe the heavens were hell bent to teach me resilience when one day my auto was cornered from both sides by other similar vehicles. The drivers joked about how they wanted to 'take' me while we were stuck in a traffic jam. To say I was terrified would be an understatement. I shouted nevertheless and asked help from the traffic warden. Anyone who heard of what I went through had multiple solutions to offer but one amongst all was consistent - if I value my chaste image in the society I shouldn't be public about it. When we say 'the society is unsafe for our women', we fail to realise 'we' are the society.

I understand that not being harassed at all is a matter of fortune in the society we live in. However, choosing public transport is opting to make oneself vulnerable every single day and hoping that today would be different. Irony is that I live in a metropolitan city like Karachi where females work and study as an equal with male counterparts. Even then, there is a huge crisis for safety of women and such issues are not dealt with enough seriousness generally at the time of hiring. Now, I am left to ponder how to protect myself and harvest my talent without indebting my pocket. Solutions vary from case to case but my sanity can only take enough experiments.