As a man, I was oblivious to the reality of women getting harassed in public spaces, until that one night at Data Darbar changed everything

Published: November 24, 2017
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Devotees gather at the shrine of Sufi Saint Data Ganj Bakhsh in Lahore. PHOTO: AFP

Two weeks ago, on Friday night, a friend and I decided to go to Old Lahore for dinner. It was the last night of Data Sahib’s Urs, and all the major roads in Lahore, from Mall Road to Azadi Chowk, were blocked. Hence, we parked at Anarkali and took a rickshaw to Lohari. From there onwards, we decided to walk, through the Data Darbar precinct and towards the old city.

Most of the streets in the area were barricaded. We passed a small check-post near Mori Gate, and saw an even bigger one just outside the Darbar precinct, where I asked a police officer for directions to the ‘family’ entrance.

Aap ne kahan jana hai?” he asked.

(where do you want to go?)

“To Fort Road,” I replied.

He told us to wait, and a few minutes later, ushered us through while another officer held the line back.

As we made our way past the Darbar, my friend pointed to a young man in a red shirt who she said was following us. I didn’t think much of it at first, but suddenly, the man moved past us. As he did so, I saw my friend kick him in the back.

“What happened?” I asked, alarmed.

He touched me,” she answered.

A braver man than I would have confronted the offender. Instead, I forced us to retreat towards the Darbar itself, where I had seen a police mobile earlier. As we walked, we saw the man in the red shirt again, but this time, he was accompanied by a group of at least 15 men. They formed a semicircle a few metres in front of us, forcing us to move further away from the Darbar.

Eventually, we tried to push through, but all in vain. The group surrounded us, and for several minutes, each man moved towards us turn by turn, with their hands stretched purposefully in my friend’s direction, while she shouted “peechay ho” (get back) and “choro” (leave me) repeatedly.

At last, a few others noticed what was happening and decided to come to our rescue. They fought to break up the group while my friend and I kneeled, which I thought would help. But I was wrong. Soon after, I felt someone pull on my collar. What followed were more knees to my head and my back – someone wanted access, unfettered access, and they wanted it badly.

I didn’t know what to do; I was having trouble thinking. Luckily, my friend wasn’t – she insisted we stand and try to move out this situation, which we did. I heard a man behind us yell, “yahaan” (over here). It was hard to tell if he was one of the ‘good guys’ or the ‘bad guys’, but we took a chance and followed him anyway.

“It didn’t look like we had a choice,” my friend said to me later.

Two, maybe three minutes later, having pushed and ran through crowds, we finally reached a group of police officers who immediately noticed our distress. They offered us food and water, and repeatedly asked us in extremely concerned tones,

“Where are you from? Where are you going?”

Upon hearing our ordeal, they agreed to escort us out. With 10 officers, in uniform and undercover, flanking us, we moved towards the exit. As we walked, the officers kept telling us to move faster, perhaps sensing that if the mob were to come again, they might not be able to stop it.

They were right to worry. Just before we exited, I noticed people in front of us suddenly turn and look behind us. I glanced backwards too, thinking there might be a car coming. Instead, I saw several police officers charging a group of men, including the man in the red shirt; incredibly, he and his friends were still behind us.

Soon, we were out. We thanked our protectors and took the first rickshaw we saw back to our car.

The next day, I detailed the incident to my sister, and at one point, she said,

“These things happen all the time!”

Her tone and casual manner made me wonder if she had gone through something similar herself. I didn’t ask her to elaborate, which I know was selfish, since a revelation like that would have made matters worse for me, mentally. Nonetheless, the notion is incredibly distressing. I realised that if this is true, which it probably is, then it’s very likely that a significant number of women in my life have suffered a profound and terrible indignity, and have been forced to keep it secret. That alone is a difficult thought to bear.

Difficult, because this incident proved to me that women get harassed everywhere – it doesn’t matter if a woman is alone or surrounded by people, whether it is day or night – this problem is endemic and women face it every day. However, men remain oblivious to its prevalence, unless it happens in front of them, to someone they know, or if they are the ones doing it.

It took this experience for me to witness first-hand how unsafe it is for our women to step out of their homes. Men don’t wonder if it’s safe before we step outside, don’t stay alert and on guard as we enter public places – because as a man, you pretty much take security for granted. Being there and feeling unsafe alongside my friend was thus an eye-opening moment for all the privileges I take for granted.

Something must be done, but what I don’t know. For now, I am writing mostly in the hope, however faint, that my words reach at least some of the people involved in this story. To the antagonists, especially to the man in the red shirt, if you are reading this, know that I wish you nothing but pain and misfortune, in this life and the next.

More importantly, to the people who helped us that day – you very likely saved two lives that night. I would especially like to thank the police officers; more often than not, we highlight the flaws of our police forces and criticise them. However, that day when I needed them, the police officers were not only there for me and my friend, but they also ensured our safety. For that, and for their your help, I thank them!

Omar Ali Khan

Omar Ali Khan

The author is a graduate of Duke and Yale universities. He is currently the Executive Director of Operations at Gloria Jean's Coffees Pakistan. He previously spent a decade working in the healthcare industry, and enjoys reading, writing and collecting art in his free time.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.