To Claim Or Not To Claim!

Establishing Safe Public Spaces For Women

  • 26 Nov - 02 Dec, 2016
  • Rabia Mushtaq
  • Feature

Pakistan, as a nation has twice chosen a female to be their head of state, which is quite an extraordinary decision to have been taken by an otherwise timid society, unlike the United States of America, where a woman still could not make it to the White House. However, women in our country are still struggling to claim safe spaces, be it in public or any other platform such as their workplace, educational institutes and various virtual podiums. Unfortunately, our society still lacks a spine to give equal rights to women; it appears that men have a right to public spaces and women must be confined to their homes. A woman, after stepping out of her house, is not safe. She is often harassed, followed or even groped; her trips to bazaars or malls are usually shadowed by anxiety, as she is uncertain about her safety, especially when alone. Even though it is a global dilemma identified by several feminists and women’s rights organisations, it is time that every woman fights against this male privilege in her own courageous way. Hence, we need to first inculcate safe spaces for them, which certainly calls for collective efforts by those who believe in equal rights.

What are safe spaces?

Everyday Feminism, an educational platform for personal and social liberation, states:

“Safe spaces are places or communities – either online or offline – where bigotry and oppressive views are not tolerated. They are controlled environments in which people can discuss certain issues and support one another. Usually safe spaces will focus on specific issues, like sexism, racism, or transantagonism.”

These spaces commonly have rules to make sure that members know what exactly is acceptable and unacceptable. If they violate the rules, they are normally warned, removed or completely blocked from those spaces. Fundamentally, such spaces offer a network of understanding and support. They are a kind of refuge for those who are often denied respect and safety by the world.

Inculcating safe public spaces for women

Numerous organisations worldwide are working towards making public spaces safe for women, such as the UN Women’s Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces Global Flagship Initiative, which averts and reacts to sexual violence against women in public spaces. Even though the concept is not merely associated with the West, many consider it to be a western ideology which may create hindrances in our social values.

Sadia Khatri, the founder of Girls at Dhabas, a movement that encourages liberation of women in the public spheres, has a significant viewpoint about safe space in Pakistan. “Safe spaces should be something we can take for granted. It’s unfortunate that we still have to ‘provide’ them. But yes, in our country, even in urban spaces, women are rarely given spaces where they can exist without expectations and demands of social norms. So, a safe space can offer much-needed respite and sanity. Safe spaces are also important – we feel – to help us process our lives, to think over things, and to connect with each other about our experiences.”

Despite the many cases of women being deprived of their equal rights, 2016 has been an eventful year for feminists in Pakistan. A landmark bill, “The Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Act 2016” has raised hopes for a better future for women. There even exists “The Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010”; nevertheless, they hold no value if there is a lack of implementation, and the dilemma of perilous public spaces for women remains inevitable.

Shaista Bukhari, the executive director of Women's Rights Association Pakistan believes, “Individuals and organisations should be conscious about adopting laws against harassment and should form committees under their control. For the past two years the provincial and federal government has been working rigorously on this matter and various firms have also taken their lead. We must work immensely towards their implementation and media can play a huge role in the execution of such policies by raising its voice on the national and international front. People can be easily reached through electronic, print and social media.”

Living in a conservative society where people tend to associate every other matter with religion and morals, it seems impossible for women to thrive and succeed. It takes a lot of resilience, tolerance and support for a woman to step outside her comfort zone.

“Moral-policing is definitely a real issue, and often justified by religion. We think you have to meet people on their terms – so, if it’s a matter of religious misinterpretation, educating ourselves and arming us with the knowledge of what’s really up is important. But that’s just one step. [But] knowledge can only take us so far. People around us have to be receptive to the critique of moral policing when falsely justified by religion. Women have to mobilise and fight – something we do everyday, but we have to do it in solidarity with each other. For example, policing comes from women as much as it does from men – so, if we want to rid ourselves of impossible social expectations and roles, we have to have each other’s back. It’s a symbiotic relationship; if women want to help each other in workplaces, we have to help one another as well,” opines Sadia.

The only way to fight this menace is by making men mull over the fact that restricting a woman’s freedom through harassment will in no way satisfy their sense of superiority and this could even happen to women they care about. Therefore, the most appropriate way to end this peril is by not being a pain for women, rather providing them with the space they need to walk, talk and by letting them breathe in a healthy society, instead of cultivating a daunting and hateful one.•

How safe is the virtual world?

Women are as vulnerable in the virtual world as they are outside it. Harassment within the online space is subject to the nature of their exposure, such as women raising their opinions on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, often raises questions about their safety and security online. There are feminists who speak about women rights and often get trolled and threatened for doing so by sexists, misogynists and chauvinists, having their safety at stake even behind the screen. Receiving hate comments are a norm for them and their accounts are frequently threatened by hackers.

“We need to raise awareness among people using technology; more than 70 per cent of Pakistan’s population uses technology. Internet is quite economical in Pakistan, which indicates how easily people can access it. But many people do not know how to use it safely. They make their profile on social media, but never see what they are signing up for, how much data they are compromising while giving their consent to the internet companies. Women can take control of technology, they should know the privacy and security settings of these companies, make informed decisions about the data, who they are adding, who can see their pictures, this is not rocket science, it is all about our own attitude,” says Nighat Dad, the Executive Director of Digital Rights Foundation, whose helpline against cyber harassment is set to cater those who feel unsafe in the world of internet.

The federal government passed the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB) 2015 this year, devised to tackle cybercriminals and those that misuse the internet. Even though the bill has been deemed controversial by several digital rights activists and human rights organisations, its implementation has begun after cases of cyber harassment were reported. But punishment is not the only way out, there needs to be a broader campaign to ensure the safety of public fields online.