I learned to drive when I was 16 years old.
It was essentially my first foray into a world outside my rather conservative home setting. Insisting that I learn to drive the “correct” way, my father hired a driving instructor. I still owe this female instructor for providing me with my first window into how class operates alongside gender strictures in Pakistan.
Having lived, by every stretch of the imagination, a “privileged” existence and based on just the size of my house and my address, my new instructor astutely surmised that I needed a drastic detoxing from privilege.
On my first day, she parked the car and made me take a bus. Public transport being something I had never experienced in Pakistan, I recall feeling uncomfortable in the heat and hating the way I felt exposed on the street.
I recall constantly shifting my dupatta (shawl) in an odd attempt to deflect random gazes that both landed and lingered at will on my face, my hair and my chest while on the bus. My instructor abruptly ― rather loudly ― told me to stop fidgeting in response.
“Tum kyun tension le rahi ho. Un ka to kaam hai ghoorna. Tumhara kaam hai seedha aagay dekhna aur apna kaam karna. Warna ghar betho,” she said. (What are you getting so fidgety about? They will always stare at you, it’s just what they do. But you’re here to drive, so either focus on the road ahead or just go home.)
It was an odd lesson. I had never been taught to raise my gaze and stare straight ahead before. I grew up listening to the fact that “shareef” women kept their gaze lowered ― one of many odd reversals of religious principles in the name of cultural constants.
My driving instructor taught me two things: First, look straight ahead and never make eye contact. Second, carry a baseball bat in your trunk.
I have kept to the first piece of advice faithfully and marginally avoided the second, although I understand a need for it on occasion.
I remember finding my instructor woman “pushy,” “bossy” and “loud,” all things I had been socialized to believe were the sole purview of men and “certain types” of women who didn’t come from “respectable families.”
At the time, I was not ready to accept this woman for what she was ― brave.
A single mother in her 40s, living in a single room apartment above a shop and making ends meet. All I saw were the many crass modifiers generally ascribed to all Pakistani women who either don’t feel the need to ask for help or play coy to get it. One could possibly get away with one of those life choices but never both.
Navigating the parameters of sexual harassment in a place like Pakistan is a constant challenge. Women are socially trained to avoid creating a scene in public, and addressing harassment in public means exactly that. The degrees of separation when it comes to sexual harassment expand and contract based on class and culture, space and spectacle.
Those of us literate enough to actually know and understand the term before the experience, often distinguish between “gross, lurid, disgusting” incidents that by our logic must be perpetuated by the “gross, lurid, disgusting” people we never touch and seldom bother to see surrounding us.
Naturally, when such class distinctions are removed and the perpetrator exists in our own circle we question “intent” and “innuendo.”
After all, a male colleague casually stroking your arm and commenting on how lovely you look is “just a compliment,” it cannot possibly be “sexual,” it’s only sexual when it comes from the janitor.
Additionally, some men are just “natural” flirts they can’t really help themselves and any women who want them to are just “naturally” prickly.
Look a little closer and it becomes even less admissible; extended family that one meets at weddings and those one-off male relatives who feel the need to hug you just that little bit longer ― those are just “handsy, jolly uncles.” Harmless really.
Harassment is everywhere if one looks hard enough, so naturally, few ever do.
A recent case reported at Lahore University of Management Science which accuses a former law faculty member of sexual harassment has blown this issue back into public focus in a big way.
One of the reasons for this is that the incident took place at LUMS, where, one would assume, no one is confused about the definition and penalty for harassment.
And yet, it seems many are. The case has unleashed some of the worst vitriol on comment forums and on Twitter; involving everything from blaming the complainant to casting aspersions on the accused’s lawyer for defending him.
Among the many other polarities sexual harassment falls under, two key cliques that keep pushing us to just grit our teeth and take it in the stride, include the so-called “boys club” and the “girls have to stick together” factions.
Many of my male friends remark regularly about how “some girls” are so sensitive about such things. This argument stems from the general “boys will be boys but it doesn’t mean anything” trope.
“All this sexual harassment stuff, so does this mean we now have to watch every word and gesture that comes out of our mouth for fear that it might be harassment,” one of my friends asked following the LUMS case.
In a word, “YES,” one should. Especially if one has been socialized not to worry about causing discomfort to another person.
Logically, we know the bounds of acceptable behavior in different spaces. The most obvious factor in play in such a harassment case is the power dynamic between student and teacher. It is odd that advice for caution seems contentious in a culture where even married couples can be called into question for holding hands in public.
The girls club can often prove more problematic. Traditionally, we operate as a society in which women feel an overwhelming need to constantly underscore for other women that “life is tough,” it was tough for them and so it has to be tough for all that follow.
Many women often vanguard a space of power where only the “tough girls make it,” where one feels like she is letting her “sisters” down by complaining. After all, as far as the workplace is concerned, isn’t that a “man’s world” and a woman’s privilege to be allowed in it?
This is why female colleagues and bosses will sometimes be the first to tell someone not to make a big deal about sexual harassment. After all, we all have to put up with things we do not like in the interests of making it to the top.
But what if one didn’t have to?
It sounds nave but that is the goal of weeding out sexual harassment ― to make all environments safer for all people.
Most organizations, like most individuals consider sexual harassment to be one of those “political correctness” monikers that looks good on paper but does not really mean anything. Cases are routinely heard and dismissed on minutiae.
As is usually the case in Pakistan, no one cares about an issue unless someone is made to pay for not having cared.
Sexual harassment is so rampant in the public space that it would be hard to decide where to start decoding it ― the streets, the markets, the classrooms or the workplace.
That should tell us something:
We are comfortable with sexual harassment. We are usually too busy focusing on decoding whether a woman’s wardrobe choices mean she “was asking for it” instead of waiting for her to do so ― which of course she is not allowed to under any circumstances, so the point ought to be moot. If only.
All this just makes “blaming the victim” much easier. We live in a society that thrives on judgment and that judgment is primarily grounded in appearance.
Whether one is moral or not is gauged along dress codes rather than behavior or belief. That is why even though many of us know and say that harassment ― in whatever form ― is wrong; many still don’t truly “feel” it is wrong enough to do something about.
By Maria Amir