Apr 11 2016 (Dawn, Pakistan) – That Pakistan is a hostile terrain for women is widely known. The vast majority of the poor have little choice but to carry on with life as best as they can, holding out in the hope that the state and its set of laws, law enforcement and justice systems will be able to protect their freedoms and dignity.
(And to be fair, Pakistan has over the years made sporadic but significant progress in this regard; in several areas, lawmakers` and the authorities` oft-claimed commitment to women`s rights has translated into concrete action, even if ugly ground realities will take time to change.) For the well-off women of the country, though, at least the niggling, everyday problems that are linked to being in Pakistan and being female are somewhat more easily solved. So it was that when an upscale mall in Karachi started getting complaints that female drivers were being unable to find parking spots, because they were overwhelmingly taken up by male drivers, it was prompt to respond.
Now, some two dozen parking spots located near one of the entrances of the mall are reserved for female drivers. Amongst the more privileged sections of the citizenry, this has produced a general sense of relief.
This is because `being unable to find a parking spot` is a sort of euphemism for a greater, much more endemic problem that every single female in the country, rich or poor, young or old, experiences but is little talked about due to its `everyday` nature because it has, in Pakistan as in most other countries, been `normalised.
The problem was not that there weren`t enough parking spaces in this mall, which has a massive parking lot; the problem was that when the place was crowded, parking spots could only be found further and further away from the entrances a risky business for women who fear being subjected to, at worst, some sort of violence in that long walk through echoing tunnels with silent, dark cars, and at best, the same walk past endless rows of men guards, drivers, parking attendants, cleaning and other staff all of whom the women see as harassing and intimidating with their eyes and language.
(Again, this sort of risk is by no means a Pakistani problem.) No wonder, then, that the move has been widely met with relief. Such gender segregation in public spaces is common around the world. Where Pakistan has its women-only sections in buses and mini-vans, so do India, Brazil, Russia and Japan. Recently, a German train operator introduced women only carriages, citing not sexual harassment but request for more privacy but that again appears the same sort of euphemisms insufficient parking spaces.
The idea has been floated even in the UK a survey of levels of sexual harassment and unwanted sexual behaviour on the Tube produced the shocking figure of one out of seven women experiencing it.
Gender segregation can be a good idea in the short term, and can indeed prove useful in protecting individual women, but it is deeply problematic in the long term and on the societal level. If women have to be shut away from men to keep them safe, where does it end? At the far end of that road lies a system of laws and restrictions on basic freedoms such as those that prevail in Saudi Arabia. And, further, from the male perspective, I would find the idea very offensive, underpinned as it is by the construction of the masculine as some sort of wild, visceral, uncontrollable being that cannot really be taught to behave.
Gender segregation works to further cement the `otherness` of women, their relegation to the margins where they exist as shadows, simultaneously the sufferers of violence and held by society to be responsible for its perpetration. To lower levels of violence against women, physical, psychological and emotional, what states need to do is teach men to lower their gaze and watch their hands. And the means to that is law enforcement.
Transport for London, for example, launched Project Guardian to eliminate unwanted sexual behaviour on public transport, which last year released the hard-hitting `Report It to Stop It` advertisement campaign. Look it up on YouTube; it is powerful, showing as it does the sliding scale going from the vague suspicion of being harassed to indisputable knowledge and helplessness. India ran a similarly powerful public interest ad campaign, carrying the face of Madhuri Dixit, against violence against women.
In terms of Pakistan, then, encouraging signs can be read into increasing levels of women reporting the transgressions of their rights. The poor must wait for the law and its apparatus to reach out to them. But the well-off women of the country can afford to resist measures that end in further marginalisation of their gender, and use their positions of power to lobby for long-term change.
The writer is a member of staff. [email protected]
This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan