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The liberating feeling as I came out of Manchester airport and headed home was so exhilarating I felt like breaking into a song and dance sequence. There were no lecherous eyes following me, no sexually loaded comments about my looks, body and gait, no attempts to touch or grope. I had returned from Pakistan after spending a year and a half with my family there. Whilst there, nothing bothered me more than the invasion of my personal space by ogling men of all hues and views, barring a few who seemed so out of place in a country that has a “staring culture”. Is there something I can do to bring about a change, a positive one, I kept thinking. Raising awareness by talking about the issue would be a good start. So I began my quest for finding a platform that would allow me to talk about the ogling scourge. I figured out what I could do. Speaking up about harassment is the first step to stopping it and speak I will, on the airwaves.
Although ogling is at the bottom end of the harassment scale with assault and rape at the serious end of the scale but it can make a woman feel extremely uncomfortable and violated. It’s the form of harassment every Pakistani woman has experienced. In fact, I can confidently say to find a woman in Pakistan who can say she has never been ogled at by a man would be a Herculean task. For most Pakistani men, a woman is a sexual object and when this object is in a public space she forgoes her personal space; therefore hai dekhnay ke cheez isay baar baar dekh!
Now the one million dollar question! Where to start in world’s fifth most populous country with an estimated population of 207.77 million? How to bring about an attitudinal shift amongst 51% male population and empower 48.76% female population? Gender gap is widening in Pakistan. The Global Gender Gap Report 2017 ranks Pakistan at 143 out of 144 countries. For the past five years Pakistan has ranked second last in the global gender equality survey. A country where gender based violence takes myriads of ugly forms from honour killings to rape, forced marriages to sexual assault/harassment criminalising these is helpful but not enough. Effective, permanent change requires behavioural change interventions. A behavioural change intervention is what I was going to try. Having decided I was going to use the airwaves to engage and educate people, the next task was to find a radio station that was willing to support my idea. And I found one in Islamabad. I designed a radio campaign and with the support from the Islamabad based FM radio station launched the campaign in July last year. The main objectives of the campaign are to bring an attitudinal change as well as give women the confidence to challenge unacceptable male behaviours that amount to harassment. The intervention seeks to create a public discourse on how harassment in public places, educational institutions, public transport and offices impact on a woman’s mental health and wellbeing and academic and employment opportunities. In addition to this, the campaign aims to engage opinion makers, analysts, gender specialists, men and women in a constructive dialogue and build a consensus that ogling amounts to female harassment and is a negative behaviour that men need to unlearn. A two hour radio show once a month, 16 public service messages that go on air every hour, road shows and presentations at colleges and universities are the main activities of the campaign.
One thing is for certain. Women will not be safe until men change their abusive behaviour.
While in Pakistan I spoke with thousands of women from different walks of life – journalists, managing directors, students, maids, academics, doctors, nurses, shop assistants, home makers – asking their views on the issue of ogling. Unanimous consensus was that ogling blights the lives of all women in Pakistan, is an unacceptable behaviour and is embedded in the Pakistani male psyche. Many women I spoke with had resigned to this unacceptable male behaviour saying it annoys them to death but they ignore it to maintain their sanity. A few were in favour of challenging such behaviour but realised challenging such behaviours in a male dominant society itself was fraught with many challenges. A woman who has to face male harassment on a daily basis, imagine how adversely it impacts on her mental health and wellbeing as well as her academic and career opportunities. The perpetrators probably don’t have the capacity and capability to even imagine that. It’s so frustrating and at times heart breaking when in discussions on gender equality in Pakistan one hears depressing but true to reality comments like the one I share here made by a friend: “Most women are really second class citizens in Pakistan and have a huge battle on their hands daily fighting misogyny and sexual harassment”. A number of women rights activists and students I spoke with seemed disillusioned with the gender equality efforts on part of the stakeholders which they thought were mere tick box exercises. They bemoaned Pakistani government’s lack of commitment for real, authentic gender equality. Many, who were critical of the government’s lack of will, believed that in order to elevate women’s status successive governments made some cosmetic efforts mainly to please the international community. To prove their point they drew my attention to the fact that Pakistan ranked second last in the global gender equality survey last year. Therefore they are right in saying that no meaningful measures are being taken by the government and other stakeholders to make gender equality a reality in Pakistan. Despite all the doom and gloom, many women and some men are tirelessly working towards creating a gender equal society. Their belief in a positive change gave me further strength to carry on with my radio campaign. So I continue to speak up because as I said before speaking up about harassment is the first step to stopping it. So let’s speak and the more the merrier!
Any discussion or debate on the issue gets hijacked by the male sexist discourse that blames the women for bringing this on themselves.
Where is this gender discriminatory narrative emanating from? Everywhere it seems. There is a constant barrage of messages in the Pakistani media, educational institutions, offices, public spaces, promoting gender inequality. I was appalled to see some Pakistani TV shows that discussed and debated the issue of female harassment, had invited only male analysts/journalists/politicians to share their views. It’s a country where the most common abusive words involve a person’s mother and sister. Even the religious leaders who have the power to bring the twin cities to a standstill use expletives relating to mother and sister in their speeches and sermons. Women are constantly compared to wrapped candy suggesting that the wrapper protects the women from flies and dust. Therefore a veiled woman won’t attract any unwanted attention and will be safe from male harassment. To an evolved mind, it’s a highly derogatory analogy as it suggests a woman is some kind of irresistible food to be devoured. Not only is the comparison offensive since it basically suggests that a person with a functioning brain can be compared to a lollipop- an inanimate object, it also suggests that an inevitable link exists between “being a wrapped lollipop” and being a good woman who by covering up prevents herself from getting ogled and harassed by men. It is also demeaning to men who according to this analogy are greedy, dirty flies who are incapable of resisting candy! Very disturbing, indeed!
Any discussion or debate on the issue gets hijacked by the male sexist discourse that blames the women for bringing this on themselves. This mind-set holds the women responsible for male ogling and harassment as they don’t cover themselves in public, wear makeup and don’t dress modestly. Nowhere are women safe from oglers’ onslaught but the harassment takes a nightmarish magnitude for women who use public transport to commute to work or educational institutions. They have to deal with male ogling and sexual harassment on a daily basis. This unwanted attention and indecent remarks by the ogling men cause much discomfort and anxiety to the female commuters. What’s being done to tackle this issue? Is this even on the radar of the people responsible for designing the transport policy? I wonder how many women working at strategic level sit around the table when public transport policy is designed! One does see some efforts on part of the government to create safe physical spaces for women to travel which is commendable indeed. Interventions like Pink Bus, Pink Rickshaw, Women on Wheels, and separate compartments for female commuters on buses are helpful indeed. Criminalising harmful behaviours might prevent some men from harassing women in public but the perpetrators might find other, perhaps more damaging ways of harassing women. However the question we need to ask is : Can these measures achieve the intended outcomes? Not really, I would say. Unless accompanied by behavioural change interventions, such measures on their own cannot achieve the desired outcomes. I recently came across Centre for Economic Research executive summary on Gender Equity in Transport Planning: Improving Women’s Access to Public Transport in Pakistan published in March this year. Its findings confirm what the behavioural change campaign has been highlighting since July 2016 in relation to the harassment issue on public transport in Pakistan. “Women face significant challenges while using public transport because of concerns over safety, harassment and worries about their social reputation. In a survey of 1,000 households across Lahore conducted by the Centre for Economic Research in Pakistan (CERP), 70% of male family members said they would discourage female family members from taking public wagon services. Women also feel unsafe getting to stops and waiting at them. In a CERP pilot survey in Lahore, more than 30% of respondents said that it was “extremely unsafe” for women to walk in their neighbourhood.”
Behavioural change interventions tackling misogynistic attitudes in a patriarchal society can be a painfully slow process.
Unsafe it is indeed for women to walk even in their neighbourhood. These men who make our streets unsafe for women surely don’t discriminate on grounds of age, race or religion They will harass any woman- a granny, a sunni alima, a shia teacher , a Balti Journalist, a young maid –every woman is their target. Let me share an anecdote with you. Whilst in Islamabad I met a Dutch broadcast journalist and we became good friends. One day during a conversation on the menace of ogling and harassment she shared a personal experience which outraged me beyond words but strengthened my resolve too: we need to keep talking about this issue until men make positive behavioural change and the Pakistani society ceases victimising the “victim” of harassment.
My friend was walking her dog one evening in Islamabad. This random guy on a motorbike pinched her bottom as he went past her. She shouted at him but he was gone in a jiffy. She said she felt numb and violated. We both bemoaned the deeply embedded misogynistic attitudes in patriarchal societies that put obstacles in the way of gender equality. When one challenges such behaviour, most men and some women too blame the ‘victim’- their spiel is something like this; women don’t dress modestly, they wear western outfits, they wear makeup, they don’t wear burqa, they don’t wear a niqab, they go out without a male chaperone, they GO OUT. So if you are guilty of any of the aforementioned transgressions then you are asking for it i.e. you are inviting men to harass you.
Behavioural change doesn’t happen overnight. It can take a very long time even when the right type of support is available. Behavioural change interventions tackling misogynistic attitudes in a patriarchal society can be a painfully slow process. Most Pakistani men who we engaged with through the campaign believed that women were responsible for harassment or sexual violence committed against them. The main culprits that lead men astray are a woman’s dress, her hairstyle, her make up. Poor men, innocent victims of women’s shenanigans!
One thing is for certain. Women will not be safe until men change their abusive behaviour. Another thing that is certain is not all men are misogynists and thank goodness for that. Many men too are fighting this battle against misogyny alongside the women. One of my favourite Guardian Columnists, Jonathan Freedland, recently writing on the issue of sexual harassment summed it up so well, in one sentence “On sexual harassment we men need to be clear: the problem is not women, it’s us”. Therefore if the problem is men then men need to make positive behavioural changes. Furthermore, in order to tackle misogyny we must confront ideas, cultural and social norms that underpin it. Unless and until we smash the narratives that legitimise and justify misogyny we can’t have real gender equality. So let’s keep talking about this issue. Let’s keep challenging the discourse that absolves men of all responsibility and blames the women for bringing on harassment on them because of the way they dress. Let’s keep campaigning to create a harassment free Pakistan.
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About the Author:
Anila Athar is a UK-based broadcast journalist, a communication expert with years of experience in journalism, radio activism and crisis intervention for gender related issues in United Kingdom and Pakistan. Her areas of interest include forced migration, citizenship, women’s rights, religion, literature, health and ethnic minority issues.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org