LAHORE: Although street harassment happens to be a norm all over the world, men in countries like Pakistan are apparently the most uncivil and uncomfortable with female drivers on the road. Along with rampant patriarchy in our society, this compounds the issues women face when they are in public spaces.
Women who commute using public transport have a plethora of harassment issues that can fill a Bible on their own but those who use their own transport experience harassment at another level, coming in verbal, physical and other forms. The threat of tailgating, rude and inappropriate gestures, being subjected to masturbating men, forced handing in of contact numbers, sexist comments, stereotypical jokes among others loom every time women are out and about.
Take an incident from Ramazan this year: Two sisters from Karachi, who were out at noon, were harassed by a man in a black Corolla, bearing number plate BAL 943, as they were getting a refill. This chap decided that the best way to observe a fast was by masturbating in front of the girls at the metropolitan’s DHA Phase 8 petrol station located on Shujaat Road.
Maloney Javed, while talking to Pakistan Today, narrated her ordeal that she had to face as a routine matter when she was in med school. “I used to travel routinely via Canal Road, Lahore. During summers, the men who took a swim over there to escape the heat, almost naked or with wet shalwars outlining their groins, would block my way, call me names and make inappropriate gestures,” she said.
“Another time, a man on a donkey cart rushed in front of my car despite the fact that I had turned on my indicator. As he passed by he shouted: ‘Piyo nu tey lang lain de’ (Punjabi for let your father pass first),” she added.
If you speak to any woman about her driving experience, it is impossible to miss the narrative of ‘road Romeos’. Traffic signals are most popular for this crime scene. Here is how it goes: a constantly honking horn would try to catch your attention. If the woman looks out of the window, she is often subjected to acts of vagary, obscene gestures and catcalling.
Experienced female drivers know well that this is their cue to suddenly look livid and keep their eyes glued to nowhere but the road straight ahead. Outrageously unfair as it is for them having to adopt these ‘safety measures’ in the first place, inexperienced female drivers who fall victim to this type of hoodwinking, are either asked for a phone number or bestowed with the sight of a man masturbating; his half-twisted mouth resembling facial paralysis as he revels in abusive bliss.
Narrating how this happens in real life, Sadaf Sajid, a homemaker and mother of two, shared an incident of similar nature: “Men throw their cellphone numbers written on small pieces of paper in my car when the window is open.”
This impudent behaviour is not limited to any particular area. In fact, they seem to occur in middle class and posh areas with roughly the same consistency. For example, Defence Y-block in Lahore is infamous for being full of teenagers tailgating girls and women like vultures ready for the kill.
And like the famed cinematic patience of vultures circling over carrion, these boys are willing to spend endless time in their ventures, sometimes following female drivers right to their doorstep. It doesn’t end there, unfortunately, as they are often found loitering outside for an extra few minutes and then speed off with screeching tyres, displaying their macho as a power statement of knowing that they can get away with it.
In Pakistan, a majority of boys and girls grow up segregated by a social wall. As a result, they never learn how to respectfully interact with each other, a basic concept in social interaction no matter what the gender. This in time becomes a catalyst in the formation of patriarchal mindsets.
The very root cause of roadway harassment is that men with patriarchal mindsets have a perception that women are occupying public spaces meant for them. This sort of challenges their fragile male egos, and like everything else, they just can’t stomach it.
Freelance artist Hareem Khan, who often travels to the interior city for her art projects, shared the unwanted attention she gets from men when they realise there’s a woman behind the wheel. “‘Look! A female driver,’ they exclaim when they see me,” she said.
This stereotypical sexist attitude towards female drivers stemming from patriarchal mentality actively contribute to such practices and opinions, reminding women of their second-class status.
Driving on the road is a gender neutral issue. If one cares to observe, men too are negligent drivers. The abundance of jokes about women drivers undermines the female gender so that they stay away from what men foolishly consider their domain.
According to various studies based on safety on roads, women fall victim to road accidents when they hastily attempt to get away from other vehicles following harassment, objectification and aggression.
As unfortunate as it is, most of the road harassment incidents, including verbal and nonverbal behaviours, do not get reported. Owing to a strong grip of patriarchy and misogyny over our culture, speaking out about these behaviours doesn’t just fall on deaf ears, it is often punished. This forces women to typically refrain from complaining about road harassment to their families because they might be barred from driving, out of a concern for their wellbeing. Being an independent woman comes with its own share of problems: they have to put up with a lot, none of which men face generally.
We need to make sweeping changes in the way we deal with this issue: changes on both personal and collective level as well as, policy initiatives at the government level. A few policies that do exist to check such practices are in dire need of implementation. However, the government needs to get serious about this issue and plug the legal lacunas right away so that these hooligans can’t get away from the justice they deserve.
One of the better ways to achieve a society that treats its women the way it treats men is to include compulsory road safety education in schools and colleges across the country’s educational institutions. Parents and families need to understand that their women are entitled to as much freedom as their male counterparts. That’s what an inclusive society would look like, ideally at least. Crash courses in how to respond to abusive conduct should be provided by the state throughout the country. Men also need to be taught how to behave on the roads, especially when it comes to their interactions with women.
Road harassment needs to be confronted, discussed and monitored. Or else these ceaseless affronts, if not contained, will eventually achieve what they aim to: the removal of women from the driver’s seat.