The gang-rape of a woman on the Lahore-Sialkot Motorway in front of her children has shaken everyone. While men have sympathised and feel fearful for women they know – and some of them for women in general – women as a result of their anatomy, the entrenched perceptions and attitudes towards their bodies and gender, and own experiences, felt the vulnerability and devastation in a way men will never be able to.
Women go through life, hoping, praying and ‘trying to avoid’ being harassed, groped, abused, molested, assaulted or raped. On a spectrum, it’s probably safe to assume that every woman has experienced acute discomfort or had her body violated in some way, whether privately or publicly, at least once if not multiple times in life. And who knows what will transpire before the end of her lifespan.
Women are told to be wary of strangers. That predators exist outside the four walls of the home. But not about those who dwell inside homes, have access to our homes and us. We are conditioned to confine ourselves: told how to dress and conduct ourselves – right from when we are young children – because that will somehow protect us from harm and violence. And yet it does not.
Women are infantilised as adults. Protectionist narratives present control as concern for safety. ‘It’s not safe, don’t go there, not at this time, not without someone, not this profession.’ We’re told this is for our own good. When a man facilitates the exception to the norm, it’s made out as a favour. Appreciation flows his way for ‘allowing’ or enabling it. It’s okay if women live a little less, or achieve a little less than their potential allows, so long as it is not cumbersome for the men in their life. The emotional burden falls upon women to navigate and manage their conduct and lives for the benefit of men so as not to be a constant liability and inconvenience.
Mostly, men’s responses to incidents of violence against women are in relation to women they are related to and feel – or are made to feel – ‘responsible for’. In this equation, it is about them more than the women they seek to ‘protect’ or show concern for. When a woman is violated, it becomes about an attack on the honour and respect of the men she is related to. And even those who don’t consider women as repositories of their honour in the same way as society at large, they espouse paternalistic responses in favour of curtailing mobility and restrictive lifestyle choices to avoid the inconvenience of being in such a situation and dealing with it.
Instead of investing in playing their part to make society just a little more endurable and breathable for women, they choose to leave it at condemnation, dispassionate sympathy and protectionist responses. Very few have the ability to feel and respond on a human level and consider a woman an individual in her own right, someone entitled to the same rights and freedoms, yet denied the privilege a man is accorded, on the basis of gender.
While many men will express sympathy and outrage when such incidents transpire, they do not go on to evaluate their daily actions and attitudes that make women uncomfortable or unsafe. The everyday harassment and misogyny, which make women unsafe and force them to hold back, give up opportunities, remove themselves from spaces, so as not to completely fall apart and safeguard their mental and physical wellbeing. Men do not acknowledge the emotional and physical asks they make of women in their lives that enable them to achieve personal and professional milestones, but keep women back.
Can we expect anything beyond self-gratifying outrage? When will we assume an equal status as humans, not bodies to be ravaged or protected? When can we stop thinking about how to avoid being assaulted, when the next incident will be or what form it will take? When will we receive unconditional support when acts of violence are perpetrated against us? When will our experiences be accepted for what they are instead of downplayed and negated?
When can we stop obsessing over our wardrobe choices, manner we choose to express ourselves, what time of the day we step out, where we go and what mode of transport we choose, so it is not misread as an ‘invitation’ to violate us or used to blame us for what befalls us? When can we celebrate our achievements and successes without public and private sniggering about how these are the result of our anatomy, ‘loose’ character or trickery, not merit or intellectual prowess? How do we experience what it is to live like you for even one minute? Not because we aspire to ‘live like men,’ but as equal members of this society who deserve the same opportunities and regard as any other person, but do not get it.
Women who make strides, achieve anything personally and professionally, do it despite these odds. Not for a minute does the vulnerability go away in public and private spaces. Women live with this burden every day. Every incident revives old wounds and we anticipate news ones. We relive horrors, confront them or push them aside, muster the strength and go on. Condemnation of an act of violence perpetrated against another and sympathy for them is basic humanity. It need not be lauded even if it stands in sharp contrast to the more prevalent victim-blaming and shaming.
There will never be equality till the time attitudes remain what they are. Till transgressions continue with impunity. Till the time we are told to take measures just short of breathing or ceasing to exist, to protect ourselves, while predators roam freely and men are privileged over women and all other genders. Till the time women remain physically unsafe and psychologically on edge, equality remains a myth.
The article was originally published in The News, September 15, 2020.