For my first trips to Ichra Bazar and Shahalmi, I recall, quite clearly even now, draping my twelve-year old self in not one, but two oversized shawls, covering and re-covering every possible inch of flesh in order to shield myself from the possibility of being touched or groped by a passing stranger. I recall also that this excessive behavior on my part was prompted by earlier visits to Liberty or the mela that came with Mian Mirs’ Urs, ones where I distinctly remember the occasional man who would stop in his step, take a minute to reach under my dupatta and then walk on. In those early teenage years, I, like many of my girlfriends, would go home with my new jorras and my khussas feeling dirty and ashamed. Our bodies were exposed burdens, and our otherwise shrill voices were strangely silent. The solution, at the time, seemed to be to drape our hateful bodies until they no longer looked feminine. Years later, my girlfriends and I, now in our twenties, would compare notes, and unequivocally declare that we would raise hell should anyone even attempt to touch us now. What we never talked about, of course, were other experiences. Unwanted touches, gropes, repeated incidents of exposure that we suffered from people close to us, around us, relatives, friends of parents, trusted family retainers.
We still don’t talk about them and I’m beginning to understand why. Recent incidents and the discourse that’s surrounded them has made it abundantly clear that we would only speak up in spaces where we had power and privilege over the men who tried to harass us. The man who harasses or molests females, in the minds of most wealthy, usually well-shielded (by drivers, guards, among others), English-speaking, cosmopolitan—liberal even—Pakistani women is an illiterate, frustrated pedestrian, normally found in public spaces such as bazars, buses, melas, and parks. There is no other possibility of harassment in our minds; except for the kind we meet with when we are in public spaces. Improper or inappropriate touching of our bodies is not sexual harassment when it comes from someone who is familiar, well known in our social circles, or “educated,” usually from abroad.
I may need to be more specific at this juncture: four days ago, this paper broke a story on a female student’s incredibly brave struggle to find justice (not just in action, but in words as well) on being touched improperly by a teacher. I have very little to say at this point on the incident itself, but a good deal to say about the rewriting of such a terribly urgent issue on social media. Awash with alumni, students, associated faculty, and people who had nothing to do with the institution in question, Facebook, Twitter, even a press release, reminded me that sexual harassment could never take place in the hallowed circles inhabited by Pakistan’s educated and liberal elite. The accused could not be guilty, people said, because they know him. The accused could not be guilty, people said, because he felt sorry afterwards. The accused could not be guilty, people said, because he was an educated man. The accused could not be guilty, people said, among other things, because it was “just a brush,” “harmless.” The accused could not be guilty, people even said, because it was the victim who was “emotionally disturbed.” But most of all, people seemed to say, the accused could not be guilty because he is one of us.
In order to have a leg to stand on, this self-appointed defense team has taken it upon itself to blame the victim and with that to set back professional women, from all kinds of backgrounds and in all kinds of places, another century or so. Beyond referring to the victim as “emotionally disturbed,” this media-savvy, twittering defense team of lawyers, friends, and socialites decided in a public statement on Sunday morning that the Federal Ombudsman’s office, set up for the support of the Protection of Women Against Harassment in the Workplace Act (2010) also acted improperly. How dare any legal or national body question or censure our behavior, the group seems to be asking. Does the Federal Ombudsman not understand that wealth, education, brilliance, and stature equate to dignity, decency, and respect for women? Does the Federal Ombudsman not get that because we are against the Taliban and extremism, we are the good people, the ones on the right side of everything?
Of course not. The Federal Ombudsman doesn’t get it. The victim doesn’t get it. I don’t get it.
What I also don’t get is where a couple of young women I’ve met recently get the courage to speak up. The first time I ever met the victim in this particular incident, I ended up confessing to her that at a party I recently attended, the owner of the venue kept touching female guests improperly: an arm around one’s waist, brushing another’s hair, trying to hug a third. Not a single one of us, however, was able to speak up and tell the man to lay off in a manner that meant business. Not because we didn’t want it to stop, but because to speak up would mean causing a scene, it would mean ruining the mood, it would mean making a spectacle of oneself.
It would be easy, to go back to Liberty, to take a ride on the Metrobus, and to make a scene. As bajis and bibijees, our privileged outrage would ensure that the man who came too close would be suitably admonished. But it doesn’t work the same way, interestingly, within the ivory towers that protect us from the bearded, shiftily dressed masses. Instead, the discourse shifts from the very nature of what sexual harassment entails to victim blaming, to snide comments about her dressing habits, to being over-conservative for thinking that her body is not a site open for male teachers and colleagues to touch. If you are liberal, in the eyes of Pakistan’s Ivy-League-and-better educated professionals, you should not mind if a liberal individual at school or at work takes liberties with your clothes, speaks to you or about you with sexual innuendo, stares you up and down, brushes your body as he passes by. Because unlike the masses, he isn’t frustrated, ignorant, or violent, he’s just that way, yaar. It’s not a big deal.
Gender and class, one would like to imagine, are different and big deals, two separate behemoths that assail our consciences at suitably convenient times. And yet, the past week seems to tell a different story: class gives you the ability to rewrite and reorder feminine narratives with consequences so perverse that every single one of us becomes a loser. Class, this time around, has decided that the women who speak up are either hysterical and weak, or calculating and conniving, and therefore must use every bit of its social clout to carry out its own version of what gender relations should look like. Next time around, it will call them worse names, and attempt to damage their dignity even further, while spinning a flimsy defense for itself. I’m hoping that by the time there is a next time, because there will be one, I’ll be brave enough to drop the shawls and join the speak-out.
The writer is an academic.