Free to be: Do women feel safe in public spaces?

Women's Rights in Pakistan
Women's Rights in Pakistan

February 25, 2020

By Xari Jalil


When Sana* bought tickets for the recently held Solis Festival in Islamabad, she had no idea what she would end up encountering. From being groped, to having her cell phone stolen, it was a night she had never imagined before. Instead of spending late evening with her friends, listening to music, all Sana actually experienced was a tough couple of hours trying to get out of the place, and get back home as soon as she could.

She was not the only one.

Mass Harassment

For the women in particular, the concert night turned into a night of horror. The Pakistan National Council of Arts (PNCA) which has a limited capacity, was replete with so many people, there was hardly room enough to breathe. Attendees say that ‘fake tickets’ had been sold, and at some point a horde of violent men had gate crashed into the concert, pushing and shoving their way inside.

But the problem did not just stop at pushing and shoving.

Sana says she saw how violent they were, shaking the stage – which later even collapsed – being so rough that it was scary.

Another first-hand account of a girl who was sexually abused also went viral on social media. It was both chilling and upsetting to read how badly she was molested.

“I was standing directly under (the stage) and tried to run for it but my leg got stuck underneath the stage and I just blacked out. When I regained consciousness, my bag was stolen, a guy had “fallen” on top of me and was just casually laying there, moving his hands all over my body “trying” to get up. I yelled at him and he still didn’t stop instead yelled back “baji, main kaise uthoon?”

“I pushed him and kneed him in his balls which made him mad and he slapped me across my face and got up laughing down at me. Then he spat on me and walked away calling me a cuss word. I felt disgusting.”

These were just a few of the several accounts of women who had attended the Solis Festival. In 2019 also an account of a similar experience went viral, where the girl called Lila Khan, took to Instagram and related her nightmare.

“Their intention was much worse than touching and feeling two girls. The way they were aggressively trying to pull our pants down, also hitting us too, it was quite obvious what they wanted to do,” she said.

Public Spaces Unsafe for Women

While sexual abuse, harassment and violence have been all too common at concerts – where crowds are comparatively much rowdier and more unruly than seated shows with families in attendance – and also where people are often also using drugs, whatever happened at the Solis Festival stood out in Pakistan as a symbol for how unsafe women are in public places.

The fact is there is hardly any public space or arena, where women can feel protected and even really be safe. Whether it is a market, or a mall, a crowded place, or an open area with few people – women who venture outside their homes do so with trepidation and anxiety, afraid of being touched, groped, poked at, teased, and on the whole treated with disrespect.

This is not restricted to women from any particular background.

The woman can belong to any socio-economic class, religion, or professional background, and even age group – she will be always be susceptible to any form of harassment.

Women’s Rights in Pakistan an Elusive Ideal

Pakistan is ranked 151 out of 153 countries on the Gender Parity Index (GPI), showing that a huge chunk of women are out of the public sphere, trampling on not only basic women’s rights in Pakistan, but also fundamental rights of children as well. Many young girls are not allowed to play for fear of sexual abuse and harassment.

Women’s protection laws – in this case Section 509 of the Pakistan Penal Code (1860) – allow a woman to file an FIR if faced with harassment. If a person insults a woman regarding her modesty, whether through gestures or words, the perpetrator can be charged with three years of imprisonment or with a fine or both.

However few women want to go inside a male dominated police station, and give explicit details of their experiences.

According to Madadgaar National Helpline and the National Commission for Children, 70 percent of women and girls have experienced violence. And around 93 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment in public places.

Other laws under the PPC revolving around sexual misconduct, including rape, hold the accused liable and sentenced with either imprisonment, a heavy fine or even a death sentence.

Activism in Full Swing

Women’s collectives and rights groups across the country have come together to exercise their rights as citizens of a state who are guaranteed their fundamental freedoms by the Constitution of Pakistan. Such groups face intense opposition from regressive and conservative stakeholders of society. Yet still, movements like the Aurat March, an annual women’s rights rally, remain undeterred in their demand for women’s rights in Pakistan.