From the Motorway to Minar-e-Pakistan: Living in Fear

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By Maliha Rehman

It’s been a tough few weeks, if you’re a Pakistani woman. A slew of hashtags have streamed in on Twitter, alluding to horrific incidents of a woman getting beheaded, another stabbed in front of her children, a few others strangled to death, some defiled in their graves and then – this week’s trending topic – one who was harassed by hundreds of men on Independence Day at a venerated national monument.

One after the other, the headlines have flashed on TV screens and on social media, causing sorrow, acute depression, all propelled by a mounting feeling of fear.

Just as terrible as the actual news are the commentaries that have followed it. A girl who is beheaded by a psychopath is subjected to a posthumous character analysis: did she deserve it? What was she doing in the boy’s home anyway?

A mind-numbing video of a girl being molested by a leering mob at the Minar-e-Pakistan on Independence Day, helpless while men strip her and no one comes to help, is scrutinized impassively: what was she doing there anyway? She was on the online app TikTok wasn’t she? Could anyone really trust a TikToker? She must have aggravated that mob of men.

Ayesha Akram, the girl who was harassed at the Minar-e-Pakistan, subsequently appeared in a TV interview, where she cried and described her feelings of helplessness. It was heartbreakingly sad. Women all over the country, as well as men, rallied to her side, supporting her with multiple Tweets. Celebrities expressed their sorrow and alarm, urging the government to take action.

The very next day, however, social media was rife with skepticism. It seemed that the incident had been orchestrated to some extent because Ayesha had planned a meet-up with her TikTok followers at Minar-e-Pakistan and videos showed her taking selfies with the fans. Evidently, the fan meet-up went wrong and she couldn’t have possibly orchestrated what followed: being shoved about by an unruly mob tearing at her clothes, molesting her, filming her, with no one coming to her rescue.

Her words rang true, in her interview on TV, where she stated, “Even if I am a YouTuber, a TikToker, no one has a right to strip me naked …” It was irrelevant that she may have erred by planning a fan meet-up at a crowded venue on Independence Day, or that the incident only came to light three days after the 14th of August or that, following the incident, Ayesha had created a video where she appeared to many to be very calm. All this, ultimately, was besides the point because what happened to Ayesha should not have happened.

The incident, supported by horrific videos showing Ayesha being jostled, was extremely upsetting. Women on social media confessed to experiencing severe anxiety after having seen it. Many confessed to feeling scared of venturing out into public spaces. “This could happen to us too,” many women commented.

It was sad and terrifying, particularly because the Minar-e-Pakistan travesty was one incident among the many, many that are being reported on almost a daily basis. We live in a country where a psychotic murderer, despite the presence of extensive evidence, can be given the comfort of sitting through court trials for weeks, till many begin to wonder if justice will ever be served. We live in a society where every time a woman gets harassed, her supporters are outnumbered by critics who point out that perhaps she shouldn’t have been out alone, or out at a particular time of the night, or worn a particular kind of clothes.

It was irrelevant that she may have erred by planning a fan meet-up at a crowded venue on Independence Day … All this, ultimately, was besides the point because what happened to Ayesha should not have happened.

Perhaps, she wasn’t ‘Muslim’ enough, insist social media’s adroit flag-bearers of morality. And you may go hoarse recounting stories of little girls getting harassed and even dead bodies of women getting molested and it won’t make them bend down from their moral high horses.

Following the Minar-e-Pakistan incident, an Instastory shared by actress Ayesha Omar stated the tragic truth:

It’s no wonder that women are feeling unsafe – but Pakistan’s slew of female celebrities are particularly faced with a harrowing dilemma. Will they continue to feel comfortable when they are in a public place and throngs of fans close in on them for selfies? As they try to weather social media vitriol whenever the way they behave or dress in a way that doesn’t meet mass approval, do they feel increasingly anxious for their safety? Is there a feeling of helplessness, knowing that there is a predominance of mindsets that believe that it is all right to abuse a woman because she doesn’t abide by a certain moral compass, justifying that she did not deserve respect because of her dressing, her profession, her chosen way of life?

Some months ago, I remember attending a charity event organized by designer HSY and the NGO NOWPDP where some of the country’s most popular celebrities rode through Karachi’s Saddar area in special rickshaws or ‘tuk-tuks’ created by the disabled. I sat in a tuk-tuk with actress Mahira Khan and I remember being completely surrounded by a constant flow of fans who leaned forward and took selfies with her. Mahira had happily complied. Ayesha Omar sat in another tuk-tuk and I recall her fans calling out to her by the name of her popular character in the drama Bulbulay, ‘Khoobsurat’.

After the rickshaw ride, I wanted to take a photograph of actress Maya Ali and I recall waiting for ages for her. She was completely crowded, with people posing for pictures with her, one another. Maya stood alone – petite, very young – smiling amongst all these strangers who had surrounded her.

Would these actresses feel secure still being part of such events, surrounded by the public, trusting them to respect them?

“I am just terrified,” confesses Ayesha Omar, “and I am constantly anxious. The anxiety is there when I wake up and it’s there when I sleep and because we are living in such fear, it also leads to us being angry. When a woman rants about a topic, a lot of people turn around and ask why she is so angry. The anger is actually a secondary emotion, a by-product of how we’re scared all the time.”

“In my profession particularly, we’re going out and working for hours, till late in the night, in public places and I don’t think I’ll be comfortable doing that now without any security. What if I am shooting in a narrow alley and someone throws stones or acid at me? I am plagued by all these doubts and fears. And also, when we are at an event, there are fans that are waiting for us outside the venue and they’ll ask us for selfies, telling us that they have been waiting for us for hours. But if we allow even one of them to take a picture, the rest also start closing in. It gives me palpitations.”

She continues, “A lot of my friends tell me that I should meditate in order to overcome the anxiety but I don’t know how to do that since I am constantly terrified.”

Actress Minal Khan similarly talks about not wanting to go anywhere ‘without security’.

“My sister Aiman and I have been acting from a very young age and our interactions are mostly with people from the industry. They have always looked out for us and given us advice. We actually don’t know how to deal with people from the outside although yes, we do get to know what they are thinking when they comment on our Instagram feeds. A lot of people show love but there are also trolls and I don’t know what I would do if someone came up to my face and said the sort of things that they write on my social media page.”

“People can just be very vicious and it’s built up all this fear inside me. I don’t travel back home at night alone or with a driver that I do not know. I don’t venture out alone in public places. Recently, I was on my way to a shoot and the car got stuck in a crowded area and I was petrified that someone could simply force open the car and attack me. It’s a very difficult way to live but it’s a sad reality: as women, we have to protect ourselves because there is a chance that no one else will.”

A very sad Maya Ali talks about how her recollections of Independence Day and Minar-e-Pakistan have now gotten jaded by the recent incident of harassment.

“This incident happened in my city, at a location that I often pass by in my car, on a day that is sacred to my country. It has just made me so sad and I really feel that swift action needs to be taken against the culprits. Some of the men’s faces have been captured on video, just like there is concrete evidence against Zahir Jaffar, Noor Mukaddam’s murderer. There is no doubt that these men are wrongdoers. Why can’t immediate action be taken against them? I think that the government really needs to set an example so that the next time a man considers harassing a woman, he has to think twice. From the incident of a rape on the motorway last year, which took place late in the night in a deserted area, to now, harassment in broad daylight, at a public venue, there is just no end.”

She continues, “I was recently on vacation in Hunza and there were places where I was surrounded by other tourists that were there. The people of Hunza were extremely respectful but the tourists were from all over the country and there were times when I felt anxious, crowded by them. My mother pointed out to me that I should have had security with me and I realized exactly what she meant.”

Actress Hira Mani says that she wouldn’t want to venture out into a public place without making sure that there was security. “A lot of times, we attend shop launches and exhibits in malls but I would feel too scared now,” she confesses. “The incident at the Minar-e-Pakistan particularly shook me up. I didn’t want to sit in the car with my husband without placing sunscreens on the windows. And then, when I went to do some chores, I asked my husband to wait for me in the car till I was done.”

“I am actually relieved that I have always been very public about my family life, sharing pictures of my husband and my children. Maybe that will keep me safer? Maybe people won’t attack me? I am just so shaken.”

“More than anything else, the Minar-e-Pakistan incident made me angry,” says actress Mansha Pasha. “Incidents like these do take place in other countries as well but here, every horrific incident eventually gets embroiled in conspiracy theories regarding how it is tarnishing Pakistan’s image. If the people at Minar-e-Pakistan had cared about Pakistan’s image, wouldn’t they have helped the woman rather than leer and make videos of her? Wouldn’t they have been bothered that a woman was being molested on our Independence Day, at a monument that is a symbol of our freedom? If they cared about the sanctity of Islam, would they have had allowed an incident like this to take place in Muharram, while the Maghreb azaan was being said?”

“There is concrete evidence clarifying the gravity of what took place and yet, people decide to analyze and talk about fake propaganda. There are headlines regarding women getting harassed, several times a week – in public places, in their homes, fully clothed. All the arguments that indicate that it is the woman’s fault have been refuted. And yet, people want to escape accountability by coming up with excuses.”

She continues, “I have read the complaint that the girl, Ayesha Akram, looked far too calm in the TikTok video that she made on the day following the Minar-e-Pakistan incident. Living in a country, where from their early teens on, every woman is wary of getting groped or harassed in some way, perhaps she just wasn’t that surprised. Besides, is there a particular reaction that a woman needs to show in order to indicate that she is truly upset? Isn’t the incident itself upsetting enough?”

It is particularly tragic that every incident of abuse is followed by long commentaries on how ‘she had asked for it’. Entire TV talk shows are dedicated to analyzing the characters and intentions of victims. Apologists are invited as ‘special guests’. Misogyny is celebrated and advocated with the aid of religious declarations. But no religion allows treating another violently and harassment. That’s something that the skewed moral compass of the masses misses out on.

And while they continue to do so, and while abusers and harassers roam free despite the presence of hard evidence, women in Pakistan – actresses, teachers, doctors, housewives and even little girls – will live in fear, battling depression on a daily basis. And as they try to knit together the fabrics of their households and raise Pakistan’s future generations, the depression is likely to seep into our future.

It’s been a dark few weeks, few months, few years. Are we looking ahead to an even darker future?

 

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From the Motorway to Minar-e-Pakistan: Living in Fear