The cases of the severe harassment of women, notably in Lahore on Independence Day, has sent many in the country into shock. For women, the shock stems also from the reaction of a large number of men and their focus on victim-shaming and finding excuses to defend inexcusable behaviour. This depicts what our society has become and most importantly the mindset that underlies the violence. This is the world in which Pakistani women live.
Since the horrifying incident at Minar-e-Pakistan there has also been another video showing a woman with an older woman sitting in an open rickshaw with a child between them being harassed and chased by a horde of men on motorcycles and rickshaws. The image of one of the men stepping into the rickshaw and assaulting the girl is horrendous to watch.
In the incident at Minar-e-Pakistan, the main issue is that of consent to what took place. It is logical and quite evident that she did not wish to be groped, jostled, thrown into the air, squeezed, and almost driven to a point of unconsciousness. The YouTube rationale from various persons and even from educated men that has emerged since then leaves even more horror in the air and more terror for women. Many of these men claim that the woman had somehow ‘provoked’ the violence, perhaps by blowing kisses to some of her fans who she had invited to the event, or by posing for selfies with people in her own group or allowing the young men who had accompanied her to put an arm around her shoulder. This of course is perfectly normal behaviour.
The fact that the mere presence of a woman should draw men to such unruly or criminal behaviour is a reflection on the state of our society. The incidents that have taken place, as well as the protests against them, signify that a great deal has to be done to change the existing mindset. A woman who is wearing clothes that are different from the norm is not ‘fair game’ for men of any kind. Nor should her behaviour ever be an excuse to attack, to maul, to rape or to kill.
There are fortunately organisations that attempt to motivate men and young boys into acting against violence directed at women. The White Ribbon Organisation was set up in London, Ontario in Canada, in 1991 by men to protest the massacre of 14 female students at a Polytechnic in Montreal by a 25-year-old man who had a hatred for women. Since then, the organisation has spread to 60 countries around the world and normally includes both men and women on its board. The organisation operates in Pakistan as well, led by men who speak out openly against the tradition of victim-shaming. These men need to be applauded.
The White Ribbon Organisation has been active in its publicity messages, although these need to be spread further, and has worked alongside both government and non-government organisations working against gender-based violence. The White Ribbon Organisation encourages its members to wear a small white ribbon to depict what they stand for and to show that they believe men must lay down their arms, whether they are physical or verbal, and together address the issue of how women are treated in our society.
Aside from the White Ribbon Organisation, there are also other men who are extremely active in the struggle for the rights of women. A number were present, indeed a large number, at Iqbal Park speaking out and making their views clear with the banners they held up. But there is still a mindset that needs to alter. The issue of whom the girl may have been with or what she was doing at Iqbal Park should not even be discussed. It is irrelevant. If men are unable to control their behaviour, they should perhaps not be allowed in public places. If this is to become our normal, then we should consider locking men inside their homes, inside the ‘chaar divari’, so that women can be safe and can operate in a society where everyone is protected including children, thousands of whom fall victim to sexual assault by men every year.
It is unclear what men consider to be their crime or if those who speak out against the actions of women believe that a five-year-old girl or a six-year-old boy is also somehow guilty of provoking the predator. The rule is fairly simple. The guilt for assault or abuse essentially lies with the people who hold power. At Minar-e-Pakistan power lay with the men who attacked the young woman; it also lay with onlookers who did nothing. It is also true that most of these people were men on their own with very few families, if any, present at the location.
Changing mindsets is something that essentially has to begin early. It must begin by celebrating the birth of a girl child as joyously as that of a boy. There is still a huge discrepancy in the way small girls and boys are handled. In the same way, we must ensure an equal education for women and equal opportunities at every level. The laws that exist such as those against harassment at the workplace, highlighted by White Ribbon again and again, must go into effect, and men who violate them must be placed behind bars. There have been many instances of workplaces where men are guilty of terrible harassment but are not punished and even defended by their colleagues.
The problem is an acute one, since it affects at least 50 percent of the population made up of women and many children who also suffer abuse, assault and other crimes. There is no longer any time to wait. The effort to change mindsets should essentially also take place in schools. This is perhaps more important than the Single National Curriculum we are trying to enforce at every level.
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.