No country for women

Sahar Zareen Bandial

A deep-rooted sense of fear and distrust of public spaces is ingrained in us women through childhood and adolescence. We learn that by venturing outside unaccompanied, or without a covering that ‘adequately’ hides our physical form, we willingly expose ourselves to the risk of assault, harassment or worse. We are also taught to ignore such advances and breaches; we master the art of silence – because “men will be men.”

Some of us are able to unlearn such instruction; we find courage; we find a voice; we learn to speak up. We learn to walk into domains of male privilege and dominance with confidence, though always conscious of the scrutinizing eyes of men who almost always outnumber us. We take pride in those from us who have risen to higher echelons of public life; we begin to believe that there may be room for us in the ‘public.’

But we are naïve. Reminders of our insecurity and vulnerability are not infrequent.

On August 14, the day our country celebrated its 74th year of independence as a nation-state, we were reminded of a horrific reality: that a woman may be groped, assaulted, stripped naked and tortured publicly in broad daylight by a mob of 400 men, without fear of consequence. This woman was Ayesha Akram. She had dressed up in a green shalwar-kurta on Independence Day to match the color of our national flag, and accompanied by her team of six persons (including men), she decided to visit the Minar-e-Pakistan – a monument that is symbolic of the very idea of a free Pakistan – to record a video for her social media content. Ayesha and her team were attacked by the mob of men gathered there. She sought refuge within the fenced area around the minar, which was soon breached by the mob who pushed in, and grabbed hold of Ayesha, springing her up in the air as though she was no more than a plaything.

Not enough persons amid that crowd was able to protect her against such torture. Alleged calls to the police for help were not responded to.

The Prime Minister has taken notice of the incident; IG Punjab has constituted an inquiry committee to investigate the insufficient security deployment at the minar and the lacking police response; FIR’s have been registered against 400 persons, though with inexplicable delay; public personalities have come out to strongly condemn the incident. Others particularly on social media however, have found it worthy to condemn and blame Ayesha instead – “why was she there,” they ask. Implicit in their question is the belief that there is no place for women in the public.

In a video interview, Ayesha asked the state and the men of this country: “Was this my punishment for being a daughter of Pakistan?”

Ayesha’s question has been on the minds of the women of this country, more so now as each passing day of this summer brings forth another tale of gruesome and sickening violence against women. Just last month, 27-year-old Noor Mukaddam was allegedly tortured and beheaded in Islamabad; mother of four, Qurat-ul-ain was allegedly tortured to death by her husband in Hyderabad, Sindh; in Peshawar, Bushra Ali was allegedly shot dead by her husband, a police constable. Countless cases of such violence go unreported and undetected. Some have referred to this state of affairs in Pakistan as a “gender terrorism epidemic.”

Over 9,000 cases of violence against women were reported in 2020 (Sustainable Social Development Organization). 90 percent of women in Pakistan have been subject to violence (UNDOC, 2020). 81 percent women and girls feel unsafe in markets and parks and 85 percent have faced harassment in public spaces (UN Women Women’s Safety Audit in Public Places (Karachi, Dadu, Khairpur, Quetta, & Rawalpindi), Report 2020).

These statistics are harsh. They do not, however, capture the pain, trauma, fear and anger of the victims they represent, and other women whose sense of insecurity living in this country grows stronger each day.

What is our fault? Why are our lives so dispensable? Where is the State? Why is there reluctance to promulgate laws or implement existing laws to protect our lives?