Naila Rind: Locking women up will not help secure them from sexual harassment, Pakistan
We cannot, as a nation, claim progress till our women feel safe everywhere at any time. The life of a woman in a man’s world was never easy, but nothing can be worse than not doing anything to change that. No matter how many steps we manage to take forward, we have just as many people pushing us back. By writing this, I wish to bring to the reader’s attention the way we are handling the Naila Rind case – a student of the University of Sindh, Jamshoro, who committed suicide after being constantly blackmailed and harassed.
Our country does not have harassment policies in educational institutions. The only policy that exists in our educational institutions (and elsewhere) is that of locking women up – this comes from the concept of hiding women from public spaces in Pakistan. Because, obviously, if there were no women there would be no harassment, and our educational institutions would be safer, un-distracted places to learn and get an education. And obviously, it’s more important for a boy to have a distraction-free education than for a girl to get her basic education.
Most universities do not have sexual complaints committee cells, and those that do have them only note their existence on paper and the committees fail to carry out any of their duties in a meaningful manner. The members of the committees are often appointed by the university staff who, going by the tradition of slut-shaming, do not offer any meaningful assistance – especially if the perpetrators are fellow colleagues or seniors. This kind of behaviour further contributes to an unsafe environment for women. The failure of these committees is evident from the fact that no universities in the country conducted gender sensitisation sessions or even felt the need to make their students aware of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, and the rights provided therein.
The institutional space of a hostel and university is supposed to be an enabling environment for students of all genders to experience liberating possibilities. They are supposed to ensure the protection and integration of students into university life. However, in Pakistan, they are structured in such a way that they endorse patriarchal norms through gender discrimination. Rules that are set in place are, many a time, sexist and regressive, and therefore further restrict women’s access to public spaces. The restriction is imposed in the form of early ‘deadlines’, which exist solely for women’s hostels. Prior mandatory parental permission for ‘late-nights’ or ‘night-outs’ is another regressive policy imposed on women alone.
Early deadlines for women residents of university-owned hostels often close-off numerous experiences that a female student can explore on campus and outside in the city. While the numbers of working women and female students are on the rise in our country, it is unusual to see women out by themselves at night. Even if it’s attending a late-night class, studying in the library, experimenting in the lab, taking a stroll in a park, going to a mall or working night shifts at a job – you don’t see women alone late at night. This endless list of opportunities is available only to men.
The concept that women, like men, can loiter in a public space, without doing anything else, is still alien. People immediately assume that she is somehow inviting trouble and so, she must be told off or sent home. It feels as though men and women inhabit two completely different worlds where the struggle of one gender has nothing in common with the other. Have the authorities ever imprisoned the victim and left public spaces open for the offenders? Yes – but only when the victim is a woman, and only when the crime is of a sexual nature.
These regressive regulations are legitimised through the rhetoric of women’s safety and protection. Is the only way the authorities can provide a safe environment for women through locking them up during the night and denying them fundamental democratic rights of movement, liberty, equality and non-discrimination on the basis of sex? Instead of protecting women they are denying them, and in turn, creating a whole plethora of potentially enabling experiences available solely to men.
The humiliating culture of moral-policing female students by the administration and hostel authorities is predominant in these institutional spaces. Incidents where women hostellers are interrogated and shamed about their clothing, activities, interests, and threatened about informing “guardians” about their “misconduct” are things almost every woman experiences. An outfit does not change the world; but it sure helps change the minds of people in deciding whether to harass, molest, rape, or allow us to pass unharmed. The amount of time spent deciding how to wear what we want to wear and still look “decent” has made us women late to college and work more times than we can count.
Women waste so many moments concerned about frivolous details of every outfit they put together. Comparatively, a man’s life is much easier as they don’t really have to worry about clothes. This reminds me of when Obama said that he did not want to decide what to eat or wear because he already had too many decisions to make. These incidents of moral-policing reinforce a certain regressive notion of the ‘obedient’ woman and vilify independent and progressive minds.
What is troubling with how we are handling the Naila Rind case is the lack of appropriate action. From the university authorities, the victim’s families, to the concerned civil society – all the parties are calling for stricter measures taken to tighten security of girls’ hostels. The demand for the installation of CCTV cameras has been agreed to and earlier deadlines for the women’s hostels are being considered. Yet, once again we have failed in calling out patriarchal rules and are suggesting ways that offer no help for girls undergoing psychological trauma of sexual harassment. None of these measures will help empower women. Such scrutinising measures will only further take a woman’s confidence away and invite a discriminatory and sexist attitude from the administration.
Universities have a responsibility to dispel sexism and help students redefine gender. This is the time for the authorities to acknowledge the fact that safe environments cannot be built by locking up adult women or by simply installing CCTV cameras and monitoring every movement of an already oppressed gender. A nurturing environment is only possible when women are encouraged to question and challenge patriarchal norms.
We need to make women more powerful and give them the strength to fight misogyny and harassment. In order for women to contest sexual harassment we need to desexualise ourselves and for that to happen, we need to reclaim our streets and public spaces.
We are 51% of the world population and we collectively pay 51% of the tax and end up getting harassed on the streets which are 51% of our own property. I truly believe locking up women is making them vulnerable to harassment. Locking ourselves up is giving men the impression that we should only be perceived as sexual objects. The first step to desexualisation and sensitisation of gender is to see ourselves as more than sexual beings. For this reason, I believe a woman over the age of 18 should be encouraged to exercise her personal choice on matters of roaming the streets, deciding to venture, and inhabiting her city on her own terms.
It is our universities’ duty to realise they hold this great responsibly. They must extend the deadlines of all women’s hostels till half an hour after university resources, such as libraries, labs and sports complexes close. Caging us in hostels and leaving the city “women-free” for the men to enjoy is the worst kind of discrimination our gender is facing in today’s world.
Here, I will quote Saint Augustine whose wisdom teaches us that “the world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page”. It is a pity that the women of this country are not allowed the opportunity to explore our world. Universities must, at all costs, abolish the concept of parental permission for late nights or night outs for all students above 18 years – for all genders. They must also keep a provision for an emergency contact number.
Through this medium I request all students, women and men, to make these demands from your university administration for the availability of safe, secure, and non-discriminatory policies.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.