Around 9 p.m. on a weekday in Pittsburgh, my colleague and I decided to visit a Walmart to get some items to take back home. We were in the U.S. for only two weeks and were heading back to Pakistan in a few days. With our schedules really tight, we were only free in the evening. Our hotel was in downtown and the Walmart was at the other end of the city. The only way for us to get there was to take an hour-long bus to it. So, two young women set out around 9 p.m. and while half the city was drowned in darkness. We shopped for two hours and then headed back to our hotel, again, through the bus. Compared to Karachi, the 11 p.m. in Pittsburgh felt like 2 a.m. here. It was deserted, yet we felt confident enough to make that journey and return safely.
Fast forward a couple of months, I decided to jog every evening on the street in front of my house. But, at 8 p.m. in Karachi, I needed to have someone accompany me, preferably a male, just so I can walk in front of my house. It is the neighbourhood that I have lived in for my entire life, yet I felt more confident to roam freely in a distant land.
If you are a woman living in Pakistan, there are certain peculiar mannerisms that you are taught from an early age. Every time I accompanied my mother to the market, I was made to walk in front of her so no one could touch me or cop a feel. Whether or not I wore a dupatta in the house, I had to be draped in a long chaddar if we were going to certain areas, but it was better if we could avoid it altogether. As a student, I was picked and dropped by a parent. Now, as a grown married working woman, I have another checklist: always text husband or parent before leaving work; if I’m taking a cab I should send the driver’s details to husband so he can track the ride etc. And most of all, I have to stay alert at all times of certain looks, smirks and ‘accidental’ grazes. Basically, you have to be on a look-out for yourself constantly.
Around two weeks ago, Marwah, a five-year-old girl and resident of Essa Nagri in Karachi, was found dead from a garbage heap by locals. She was raped, assaulted before being murdered and her body torched. Just like the case of Zainab from Kasur, this case, too, got media frenzy and was being discussed on social and mainstream media. We hadn’t even gotten over the shock of this news when a few days later the Lahore Motorway incident happened. On top of that, insensitive remarks of the Lahore CCPO added fuel to the fire. The following weekend, a large number of citizens took to the streets in different cities and demanded justice for the survivor. The organisers of Aurat March held marches in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Multan and Peshawar.
“Women, men and other gender minorities gathered all across Pakistan to signify their strength and to lament over complete failure of the state to enforce their rights and liberties. It was about the atrocities committed deliberately against women in the name and garb of patriarchal violence,” tells Qurrat Mirza, member of WAF (Women Action Forum), activist and Aurat March organiser.
In Peshawar, protesters were stronger and unfiltered in their speech. Fatima Nazish, a journalist in Peshawar sheds light on it, “In my career of five to six years, I have never witnessed such a spectacle in our KP culture. We had a diverse group of people - from young teens to people in their sixties, from students to professionals and to housewives - hold up slogans and raise their voice. While there have been child abuse cases and we have condemned them, this case hit us on a different note. For a child, you may assume this happened because they couldn’t protect themselves as they are innocent and naive. However, in this case, the victim was an empowered woman, belonging to an elite group with children. Normally when you are with children, there is hope that any robber would have mercy on you. This was a horrifying trauma for the kids to witness such a crime with their mother.”
While the protest was a success, there was some backlash as well. “For my coverage online, I had a lot of backlash with trolls using slurs and hurled abuses. I was removing hate comments from my Facebook page for an hour straight but I still had them coming. In our culture, a working woman is not considered a ‘good’ woman and we need to change this mindset. The first thing that a woman leaves her house for is education, then a job. And, since I am a field reporter, I have to travel very frequently on my own. Given our profession, we are often targeted, so taking some safety measures for us is necessary. However, not everyone can carry a pistol or a weapon with them. It is our right to be protected at all levels.”
While social media was abuzz with the hashtag #HangTheRapistsPublically, many members of the civil society felt that capital punishment would not be the answer. “First off, capital punishment is a temporary arrangement because it is an outlet of anger and rage. Also, it’s another way of instilling fear, but we have seen this model in Zia’s era and nothing has changed since. By just killing the rapist we can’t stop rapists from being in the society. This is only going to normalise the violence. The government should work on sustainable policy reforms and implementations rather than short-term ones. Before anything, we need to strengthen our system of prosecution, sensitise the police and make their investigative process better. We have to somehow end rape culture by spreading awareness through discipline and extensive training programmes,” informs Mirza.
At the rallies held in different cities, there were placards highlighting the underlying misogyny in our society and prominent were the ones calling out the CCPO Lahore for his insensitive remarks. The main reason is that women are dehumanised which is why majority in the society fail to understand the gravity of this crime. “We need to stop dehumanising practices i.e. two-finger test in case of sexual assault. We need to increase women and transgender MLO’s (medico legal officers). At this time, there are only 2 women MLOs in Karachi. Therefore, women should legislate about the issues because they are the main stake holders in the society. Rape apologists and victim blaming by the persons, holding highest of offices, should not take place in the 21st century. We need a society where woman is treated as a fellow human, no more; no less,” stresses Mirza.
To better these circumstances, the change needs to come from the state and on an individual basis as well. For this, Qurrat Mirza suggests bettering the prosecution in our courts, correctional facilities, confinement and GPS tracking of the culprits as an alternative, “At state-level, we can put an end to it by state sponsored programmes, therapies and sustainable policy and behavioural reforms of state. On a personal level, we need to stop making rape jokes, empathise with the victim rather than blaming and shaming.”
Another trend that I came across online was regarding self-defence; that women should start taking self-defence classes or carry a weapon with them like a pepper spray etc. While this is a good precaution, not everyone finds it feasible. According to Qurrat, it, again, is a temporary arrangement because primarily the State has to provide safety and security to all its citizens. Plus, not everybody can afford trainings and weapons.
To be honest, there shouldn’t be a need to carry a weapon or learn self-defence in the first place. We shouldn’t have to by default stay alert of impending danger every time we step out. It’s time we hold the real criminals responsible for their crimes. Because, it’s not my fault, not my clothes, nor the place where I was, not my class, nor my religion, nor my labour...