In a recent Thomson Reuters Foundation poll, Pakistan ranked as the third most dangerous country for women in the world, and sexual harassment is prevalent in the patriarchal society. In Peshawar, a rigid and conservative city dominated by Pakhtuns, women have to face physical and verbal harassment in public places on a daily basis.
The practice makes it hard for women in the walled city to step out of their houses, to get to places of work or education. Professional women in the provincial capital are repeatedly subjected to sexually explicit comments, catcalls, and leering by “eve-teasers”.
“It’s become a routine for school-, college- or university-going girls to face objectionable, vulgar and unsolicited comments made by males on roads, bus stops and other public places,” says Muqadas Aziz, a medical student of Peshawar’s PEF University College. “I often have to face obnoxious comments and obscene gestures from males while going to university.”
As well as passing inappropriate comments, boys will make smooching sounds, blow whistles and wink at women. Worse, they “try to touch breasts and bottoms of the females in congested places”.
This “evil-practice”, Aziz adds, has made roads and public transport insecure for women. “I feel insecure in my home country and especially in the city.”
Her comments are echoed by Irum Umar, a student of journalism in the nearby University of Peshawar. “I have no other option except to use public transport because I belong to a middle-class family and can’t afford a car.” As a result, she faces “unwanted sexually explicit comments and touching while going to the university or travelling home.”
Umar tells angry stories of men leering, ogling or making lewd comments; others rub their bodies against women in public places, chase girls home, even masturbate in public.
Such harassment can go beyond mental distress, and cause depression or other psychological problems. In a society where women already have limited access to educational institutions, it can even damage that: when male family members discover that their sisters or daughters are being harassed on roads, some will be forced to abandon education forever.
A 2010 Human Rights Watch report revealed that around 68 percent women and girls in Pakistan are subjected to sexual harassment. The Stop Street Harassment website puts the figure much higher at 96 per cent. But it’s hard to be certain which figure is accurate: many women simply aren’t willing to discuss the harrowing experience of street harassment.
One student at the Frontier College for Women would only speak to me on condition of anonymity. “I do not complain about the nuisance I face on routine basis by eve-teasers to anyone,” she told me. “When a girl shares the experience of sexual harassment in Pakhtun society, people start finding fault in girls’ dress or behaviour trying to hold her responsible for alluding boys.”
When I contacted Mian Saeed, the senior superintendent of police operations in Peshawar, he told me that street harassment is a serious crime and punishable by law under section 509 of Pakistan Penal Code. According to section 509 of that code:
Whoever, intending to insult the modesty of any woman, utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or that such gesture or object shall be seen, by such woman or intrudes upon the privacy of such woman shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to three years or with fine up to Rs500,000 or with both.
Yet the fear of dishonour means that many women will not even register their experiences of harassment with the police, meaning that no action can be taken.
Saeed argues that women need to break the silence and speak up by lodging a complaint with the nearest police station. He also stressed the need the “de-normalise” the culture of street harassment.
For their part, some victims of sexual harassment have called on the government to constitute a special taskforce to tackle the issue. They want the government to appoint police officers in plain clothes, who can keep watch and arrest eve-teasers on the spot. Some also want a helpline, where women can report the problem.
The hope is that the right action and awareness campaigns could change men’s mindset – and stamp out the harassment once and for all
Mahwish Qayyum is a Peshawar-based journalist. She tweets as @mahwishqayyum.
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