“An incident is just the tip of the iceberg, a sign of a much larger problem below the surface.”
Don Brown, author and attorney
I walk the same number of steps towards the building as the other men working in the Corporate Offices, but only the way I walk and the clothes I wear are being noticed. I’m a woman, in my early 30s, working in one of the safest corporate buildings in Karachi, yet I feel unsafe. Men see everything I wear, everything I do, and the way I avoid eye-contact to walk past them. They judge me according to the color of lipstick I’m wearing today, a bright purple, mainly because I felt like it. I see the security guard gawk at the peculiar color, possibly because women in his household don’t even dare to walk outside the house, let alone work in an office space shared with 70 percent of men, and above all, wearing a rebellious lip paint. The only reason no one stares at another man? The biology: it is a crime to be born a female in Pakistan, and you might just regret it for the rest of your life.
As I walk through the hallways into the kitchen for a cup of coffee, I’m noticed by the peons sitting there, along with their friends who work on other floors of the building. One of them asks me if I want to share the croissant he’s having, and I politely refuse. I put my mug under the coffeemaker, hoping it all ends soon so they can give up the silence and start talking again. I feel their eyes seeping holes through me, making me feel as if I’ve murdered, not poured me some caffeine for the hours of work to pass.
I now step out onto the balcony to enjoy the fresh air, a morning ritual I’ve been following ever since I started working again. I’m again joined by a group of men who work in different offices on the same floor as mine, who resort to discussing these women they met up with yesterday and how big their behinds were, ignoring the fact that another woman is standing in the shared space, someone with ears. I finish my mug of coffee and walk past them, but they don’t budge. Intentionally, of course, because WHY make room for a woman who works in an office, isn’t the ‘we want equality’ slogan taped to her forehead already? This is the hostile equality we women have achieved, supposedly. I am exhausted by now, and it’s only the start of the day.
Ever since I was a young girl, I was told to ‘beware’ of men, as if they were born predators ready to grab any piece of female flesh they laid their eyes upon. It was true, I felt, when I grew up to many forms of harassment in my early teens: from the driver to the tailor to the servants, everyone had their way of brushing past me, touching and groping, and at times, even flashing their organs in the middle of the road if they felt the need.
I grew up in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, scared of stepping out of the house, alone. This is my story after 15 years of accepting that it is my fate now, whether I come to terms with it or not.
As I sign out from work and grab my things to leave, another peon walks in, and asks me for a pen. I politely refuse, saying I don’t have any. This time he demands another answer, and continues with ‘do minute k liye chahiye yaar’ (I need it for two minutes, dude) in a very assertive, disrespectful tone. I refuse again, saying I don’t have one. He doesn’t understand the meaning of ‘no’, because that’s what they’re used to: treating women as inferior beings. This part of the ‘tabqa’ usually doesn’t respect women in working places, presumably because of their ‘assumed frank nature and daily interactions with the opposite gender’. I’ve had numerous drivers, peons, helpers and plumbers being disrespectful, until and unless you’re paying them hefty amounts of money.
I step out of work at exactly 7:00 pm every night, walking past groups of men sharing smokes with their colleagues from work. A few cars pass me by, not stopping to let me walk to my parking spot. They do this on purpose, sometimes, just to see my reaction, maybe laugh about it later. These men ogle at us when they need, scare us when they need, and harass us when they need. Why? Because Pakistan is patriarchal to its core, and in a male dominant society that has no law implementation, especially in Sindh, they can do anything they like, and get away with it.
From the color of my hair, to the only parts of my skin which show (maybe the hands and the feet), they want to have a look at everything, leaving nothing unnoticed otherwise they won’t get paid in full at the end of each month.
They light up another cigarette because they can, because nobody really bothers about a man standing in the middle of a parking area, smoking, at this time of night. You see, they don’t fear getting raped, harassed or cat-called, and that in itself sounds like such a relief, it sounds like freedom that we women yearn for. Sometimes, I wish I were born a man, just so I could enjoy the basic things men enjoy without even having to think twice about their safety.
I wear nothing too tight and nothing too loose, to protect myself from the cold winds these days and mainly because I want to appear formal and smart for myself, but definitely not for the gawking gazes of men. When I enter the workplace, I’m greeted with eyes, not words that say ‘good morning’. I resort to smiles till I walk inside my office. I close the door, and breathe out a sigh of relief. For a few hours till I have to go back outside into the parking lot and make my way to my car, I am safe.
This is an average day at work and the drive back home for a Pakistani woman living in Karachi. Welcome to one of the most dangerous cities in the world for a woman to reside in.
- According to the rankings of Women, Peace and Security Index, Pakistan is the fourth worst country for women.
- It also identifies around 500,000 missing girls in Pakistan between 2000 and 2015.
- It also states that 73% of Pakistani men do not accept women in their families working outside their homes.
- Only 51% of women feel safe working in the area they live in.
- According to the WPSI, only Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen are worse than Pakistan, for women to live in.