In Pakistan, it's an uphill battle for women who report sexual harassment

Image by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

Image by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images.

On paper, the Pakistani law that criminalizes sexual harassment is a step towards protecting women’s rights; however, the extent to which that law is enforced can be an entirely different story. If a woman decides to make a formal complaint, she can face an uphill battle in the form of drawn-out legal processes, social stigma, and indifference as some of these behaviors are normalized.

Despite these obstacles, a recent spate of indecent exposure cases has ended in arrests as uploaded social media evidence led the police to the perpetrators.

In August, Tasina Parwaiz from Lahore recorded and posted a video to Twitter of a man sitting on his motorbike and masturbating on the side of the road. The Punjab police were tagged in the post and within hours the accused was arrested under the watch of Superintendent of Police (SP) Ahsan Saifullah. He also tweeted about the arrest:

Some weeks back a similar case was reported on Twitter with photos of the culprit attached:

This person was also arrested by SP Ahsan Saifullah:

In another incident a CCTV camera in an area of Dera Ghazi Khan caught a man groping a woman walking in the street; the Police also arrested the perpetrator.

Victims face social pressure and public backlash

In Pakistan, behaviors such as these are often normalized and people are not afraid of being reported due to the lengthy legal issues involved. They are also not concerned with the disgrace attached it. Although Tasina Parwaiz got a lot of support on Twitter, she had to delete her account after receiving hate speech from online trolls for recording the video.

Some even used the phrase, “Mera Jism Meri Merzi” (My Body My Wish), a slogan seen during 2018 Aurat March (Women March), to justify the harasser’s behavior.

Despite law, harassment a silent epidemic

According to law, under Section 509 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) “Insulting the modesty of women or sexually harassing them,” is a crime. Perpetrators of this crime may be punished with imprisonment of up to three years or fine up to Rs 500,000 (US$ 3,120) or both.”

In an interview with Global Voices, Superintendent of Police (SP) Ahsan Saifullah, who arrested the perpetrator in the Parwaiz case, said:

This is the first time arrests have been made (in such a case) but that does not mean such incidents have not been happening, unfortunately, street harassment and sexual harassment is part of our society. The only difference is, (this time) it was recorded and reported.

He further said:

The ‘Me Too’ campaign has played a huge role in creating awareness in ladies. Earlier women stayed silent when they were harassed or sexually violated, but today things are changing as there is proof due to cell phone cameras.

After Parwaiz took to Twitter to publically denounce the act of public exposure, many other women shared similar stories about how sexual harassment has affected their lives:

Sana, a teacher in Lahore, spoke to Global Voices and shared her experience:

A rickshaw driver used to stand at the bus stop where she took her bus and would take out his private part as she went by. This kept happening for weeks and when I complained to my family I was asked to quit the job, as this is the norm in most families.

Jannat Fazal, program manager, and psychologist at Digital Rights Foundation spoke to Global Voices:

These incidents have a lasting effect on victims, as their personal space is violated, they feel vulnerable and helpless, and they usually find no support or redressal against these perverse acts because of how our system is rigged against the victims.

Exhibitionism is a type of mental health disorder where a person feels the urge to expose their genitals to nonconsenting adults, but we cannot attribute this behavior to this mental health condition altogether, many times people indulge in such acts because they derive pleasure from making others uncomfortable and also because of the lack of adequate reporting mechanisms to curb it. Even if anyone is suffering from this condition this act still needs to be reported and individuals need to be taught ways to better cope with their sexual urges instead.

While women in Pakistan are far from reporting or following up on all harassment incidents, these cases are the beginning of a new trend.

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