Likening women to uncovered candy or screaming about the virtues of the hijab or issuing thoughtless circulars regarding schoolgirls and what they should wear — none of these can be solved by a quick-fix order from a government.
I don’t know about you but I’m not particularly keen on being likened to a lollipop — or any other candy, really. But, judging by social media posts and general attitudes towards harassment and women’s bodies, men in Pakistan seem very (disturbingly) comfortable with being likened to the house fly or the common ant.
In keeping with the way women are seen (as candy that needs to be covered up, in case you didn’t get the idea), a week or so back schoolgirls in Haripur were instructed to cover up lest something unfortunate were to happen to them.
“Instruct all students to use gown/abaya or chador to veil/conceal/cover up their-self in order to protect them from any unethical incident.” With these words, District Education Officer (DEO) Samina Altaf put the onus of sexual harassment or anything else that comes under ‘unethical incident’ on young girls. Altaf’s Haripur circular was followed by one for Peshawar. The usual debates ensued on social and traditional media and — as is now pretty much what is expected from this government — the circulars were taken back.
That the original notification was issued by a woman needs to be unpacked in a whole other article, but let’s just say that the patriarchy and right-wing morality we all grew up with is not confined to one gender and needs to be fought from within.
Child rights organisation Sahil has said that from January to June in the current year, 1,304 cases of sexual abuse of children have been reported by the media in the country, which means that at least seven children are abused daily in Pakistan. Let the numbers sink in: seven children every single day are either raped or sodomised or otherwise abused — and some are then even murdered. That is not a joke and no number of inane circulars can help correct this without some deeper corrective measures.
We live in a country where a district in Punjab — Kasur — has almost become synonyms with child abuse, and yet nothing seems to be done about it other than some ineffectual and bizarre reshuffling in the police order. We live in a country where colleges in a big city like Karachi find it perfectly normal to police girls clothing by checking if the kameez/shirt they’re wearing covers their posterior. We live in a country where the only solution to child rape is the death penalty for the rapist (which is not a deterrent) but never a campaign to raise awareness regarding child sexual abuse or sexual harassment generally.
It is not odd then that in this same country we would have a ‘#HijabIsProtection’ Twitter trend soon after the Hairpur/Peshawar circulars and smack in the middle of three fresh cases of abuse and murder in Kasur. The only thing that reinforces is the absolutely incorrect belief that covering up is the solution to harassment — whether in school, on the street or at home. And it reinforces all the guilt, shame, fear that women here (and in other parts of the world too) grow up with when it comes to their bodies and what harassment is all about (hint: it has nothing to do with what you’re wearing).
Likening women to uncovered candy or screaming about the virtues of the hijab or issuing thoughtless circulars regarding schoolgirls and what they should wear — none of these can be solved by a quick-fix order from a government. We need a change in attitudes, in the way women are perceived and what little girls are taught about themselves and their ‘virtue’. That requires a change in how society sees ‘safety’. And that then requires a change in how the state perceives issues of security and safety — not of the state but of the people it is meant to serve.
You will not protect our little girls and boys by asking girls to cover up, or asking parents to employ guards at homes and at school. That’s not deterrence, that’s fear and state’s incompetence. You will not protect our little girls and boys just by hanging one rapist and thinking your work’s done. It’s not. The monsters created by a sick society won’t go away if you just close your eyes. We need your eyes open, your minds working and your people — state representatives — doing much more than issuing ill-thought-out circulars.