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What Pakistan’s Sexual Harassment Problem Really Looks Like

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    What does it mean for a woman to take up space in the world? In Pakistan, it’s complicated. If you do so in the way you’re inclined — speaking publicly about your right to an education, navigating your marriage the way you prefer, expressing your sexuality — all too often, it seems the results can be disastrous, even fatal.

    Of course, the repression isn’t always so dramatic or headline-worthy. It trickles down into everyday life for many Pakistani women — simply strolling into a public park on a sunny afternoon turns into a negotiation. Don’t show too much skin. Don’t smile. Don’t walk alone — or else you’re basically asking to be harassed. Even on designated Family Days, when males aren’t allowed inside the gates unless they’re with family, men leer from just beyond the fence. Sometimes they whisper, shout, or even throw pieces of paper with explicit messages, a practice that’s referred to here as “eve-teasing” (which is also used to describe groping and other physical forms of harassment and assault). The problem, many women say, is a lack of education; too many men have no understanding of women’s rights or why it’s important to treat all people with respect.

    Refinery29 sent a reporter and photographer to Gujranwala Park in Lahore this spring to interview women about how they navigate public space, and how they’d like to see things change. Read on to explore their stories.

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    Asma Javaid, 35, housewife

    Asma spends every Sunday here with her husband and 11-year-old daughter. “I won’t even come to a park like this without my husband. He is my security guard,” she says with a laugh. “I don’t go out alone, not even in my own neighbourhood. And if I have to, I ensure that my face expressions show no sign of friendliness. I keep a stern face.”

    She also dresses differently when she is in public, even if her husband is with her. “He cannot be by my side all the time. I try to walk with him, but if he gets ahead of me, I make sure that I don’t make eye contact with other men. Also, I always go out wearing the dupatta [traditional scarf]. I don’t wear a lot of makeup also and try to look as simple as possible,” she adds.

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    Even as Asma is forced to teach her daughter the same tactics, she has big dreams for her future, saying she hopes the girl will receive a degree, something Asma could not achieve. “I got married at a young age. I never met my husband [beforehand]. Love marriages are not allowed in my family,” she explains.

    Has Asma ever been "eve-teased"? “Thanks to Allah, it hasn’t happened, but it is because I don’t invite such attention. Some men have passed remarks but I try to ignore what they say,” she adds, refusing to expand on the remarks she’s heard.

    She also feels that harassment depends on education and social class. “If a man is educated, he learns to respect women. Also, if we go to posh areas, such things don’t happen. But in a park like this, it is possible,” she concludes.

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    Beena Kali, medical student

    Beena moved to Lahore from a northern region of Pakistan five years ago. She is working to complete her medical degree and plans to specialise as a surgeon. At university, she fell in love with a fellow student, and they got married last year. “My husband is my support system when I go out in public. I do travel alone, because one has to go out, but only with trusted rickshaw drivers or in public transport. I don’t use cabs. Me and my husband are in constant touch when I’m out alone, so as to know I am fine,” she says.

    Beena is here with her husband and her younger sister — she used to come to this park alone but no longer feels comfortable after what happened to her recently: “I was walking on the track when I noticed a young guy following me. He kept following me for 20 minutes, and kept saying ‘I love you’ to me whenever I was in his earshot. Eventually, I got angry and I went up to him. I asked him for his sister’s number and said my husband will like to have it. That embarrassed him and he then left me alone,” she says, visibly angry. “I did not tell my husband about this because then he would get concerned and may tell me not to go out. Some things are out of your control, and harassment in public is one of those things.”

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    As for wearing different clothing in public versus at home, Beena says it doesn’t make a difference. “Dressing does not matter. Even women in burkas get harassed. You can only see such women’s hands at most, and yet men don’t leave them alone. Why does this happen in Pakistan? In the West, women can even wear miniskirts and no one looks at them,” she complains. “Parents need to teach their boys how to behave with women. Educational institutes should do the same. And the government should have awareness programs too.”

    Beena feels that more opportunities for men and women to interact as part of normal life would be beneficial as well: “Our society needs to open up more. That will help. There should be sex education at schools, too.

    “Also, the mullahs (religious clerics) — what’s their issue?” she asks angrily. Beena mentions their opposition to the Women Protection Bill, a recent provincial law considered to be a landmark legislation that would severely punish men for domestic abuse and violence reported by women living with them. She says the law is a step in the right direction. “Such laws will give the courage and strength to women to speak out more. I hope they implement it well,” she cautiously adds, knowing that the weak policing system in Pakistan, with its ingrained patriarchy, is one of the main hurdles for women to report violence.

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    Noreen Ali, development specialist

    Beena’s sister Noreen feels much more unsafe when out in public. “I never go out alone. The boys touch you and tease you any time you are alone,” she says. Once, Noreen says, her friend was walking down the road in Lahore when a boy rammed into her with a bicycle, knocking her down. “My friend had a fractured jaw. The boy just ran away,” she says.

    Noreen believes in dressing conservatively when in public. “You have to cover your body completely. Wear the dupatta, too,” she explains.

    But timing also matters. “I don’t go out after 7 p.m. For women, it’s only when there [are a lot of people outside and it’s] daylight, that we are safe,” she adds.