Where are the women? - Reclaiming Public Spaces
If you ask a man what precautions they take when they step out, their answers are short. Ask a woman the same and you’ll be there for a while. From pepper sprays, keys in fists and tasers to switching to the other side of the street when you see a stranger, women are always on the alert when they’re out in public.
Amongst our society, a common response to this is that women should stop going out and avoid public places, especially when they are alone. It’s easy to restrict the movement of the victim as compared to correcting the wrong that is being done. In doing so we have created a system that facilitates victim-blaming and has effectively divided public and private spaces into gendered ones.
Pakistani culture is known through many of its very public spaces, from the beaches of karachi to the stunning treks of the Northern Areas. From its street food vendors to its infamous chai dhabas. As with any culture, we can’t deny the importance of utilising public spaces here either. Having a healthy interaction with the outside world, be it through parks, outdoor tracks, or exercise spaces are all important. This comes along with the idea of building community relationships which are made much more difficult if these are facilitated in public spaces meant for such a purpose.
Yet despite all their charm these very places are unwelcoming and harsh to half of the country’s population. There’s been growing attempts at changing the narrative. One popular movement started a few years ago was #GirlsatDhabas, where a group of women aimed to reclaim public spaces despite the dominance of men. The movement has made some progress, despite it being slow outside of its immediate members. Nevertheless the idea has been put forth. The slow acceptance of women enjoying public spaces - or dhabas to be precise has coincided with the rise of a certain kind of fancy dhabas as well. With this new category, its become easier to decide which kinds are appropriate for women and which aren't.
But keep in mind that this issue goes far beyond enjoying a cup of chai on the side of the road. For women whose lives and work force them to spend time on streets and public transport, this turns into a security issue that can threaten their lives. There will hardly be a woman around us who will deny the stares they get when they step out. Unfortunately, it isn't just stares for everyone and let me be clear - the kind of abuse and harassment that occurs is no ones fault but the perpetrators. We are all equally entitled to this country we call our home and everyone deserves the right to walk its streets and enjoy its gifts.
The response to these threats is often the idea of added security, be it in the form of chaperones, private vehicles or other forms of protection. However, it is important that we realise that all of these come with a certain privilege. Does a woman with no access to a private vehicle deserve to feel unsafe? Should a woman who has no one to accompany her be forced to feel uncomfortable, be stared at or catcalled?
If there’s one thing this lockdown has taught us, it's that being cooped up does no good for anyone. So why is restricting women’s movement in public an accepted solution? There may be some of you who are thinking that women are asked to avoid public spaces for their own benefit. Unfortunately, you may just be right. In years and years of facilitating such a culture, the idea of sitting comfortable in a public space without being on guard is almost alien. But this isn’t something that should in any way be accepted as a norm anymore. Noone deserves to be harassed or catcalled simply for existing and it's high time that existence is brought out into the open rather than being hidden away.