What Pakistan’s Sexual Harassment Problem Really Looks Like

Photographed by: Sara Farid
What does it mean for a woman to take up space in the world? In Pakistan, it’s complicated. If you do so in the way you’re inclined — speaking publicly about your right to an education, navigating your marriage the way you prefer, expressing your sexuality — all too often, it seems the results can be disastrous, even fatal.

Of course, the repression isn’t always so dramatic or headline-worthy. It trickles down into everyday life for many Pakistani women — simply strolling into a public park on a sunny afternoon turns into a negotiation. Don’t show too much skin. Don’t smile. Don’t walk alone — or else you’re basically asking to be harassed. Even on designated Family Days, when males aren’t allowed inside the gates unless they’re with family, men leer from just beyond the fence. Sometimes they whisper, shout, or even throw pieces of paper with explicit messages, a practice that’s referred to here as “eve-teasing” (which is also used to describe groping and other physical forms of harassment and assault). The problem, many women say, is a lack of education; too many men have no understanding of women’s rights or why it’s important to treat all people with respect.

Refinery29 sent a reporter and photographer to Gujranwala Park in Lahore this spring to interview women about how they navigate public space, and how they’d like to see things change. Read on to explore their stories.
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Photographed by: Sara Farid
Asma Javaid, 35, housewife

Asma spends every Sunday here with her husband and 11-year-old daughter. “I won’t even come to a park like this without my husband. He is my security guard,” she says with a laugh. “I don’t go out alone, not even in my own neighborhood. And if I have to, I ensure that my face expressions show no sign of friendliness. I keep a stern face.”

She also dresses differently when she is in public, even if her husband is with her. “He cannot be by my side all the time. I try to walk with him, but if he gets ahead of me, I make sure that I don’t make eye contact with other men. Also, I always go out wearing the dupatta [traditional scarf]. I don’t wear a lot of makeup also and try to look as simple as possible,” she adds.
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Photographed by: Sara Farid
Even as Asma is forced to teach her daughter the same tactics, she has big dreams for her future, saying she hopes the girl will receive a degree, something Asma could not achieve. “I got married at a young age. I never met my husband [beforehand]. Love marriages are not allowed in my family,” she explains.

Has Asma ever been "eve-teased"? “Thanks to Allah, it hasn’t happened, but it is because I don’t invite such attention. Some men have passed remarks but I try to ignore what they say,” she adds, refusing to expand on the remarks she’s heard.

She also feels that harassment depends on education and social class. “If a man is educated, he learns to respect women. Also, if we go to posh areas, such things don’t happen. But in a park like this, it is possible,” she concludes.
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Beena Kali, medical student

Beena moved to Lahore from a northern region of Pakistan five years ago. She is working to complete her medical degree and plans to specialize as a surgeon. At university, she fell in love with a fellow student, and they got married last year. “My husband is my support system when I go out in public. I do travel alone, because one has to go out, but only with trusted rickshaw drivers or in public transport. I don’t use cabs. Me and my husband are in constant touch when I’m out alone, so as to know I am fine,” she says.

Beena is here with her husband and her younger sister — she used to come to this park alone but no longer feels comfortable after what happened to her recently: “I was walking on the track when I noticed a young guy following me. He kept following me for 20 minutes, and kept saying ‘I love you’ to me whenever I was in his earshot. Eventually, I got angry and I went up to him. I asked him for his sister’s number and said my husband will like to have it. That embarrassed him and he then left me alone,” she says, visibly angry. “I did not tell my husband about this because then he would get concerned and may tell me not to go out. Some things are out of your control, and harassment in public is one of those things.”
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Photographed by: Sara Farid
As for wearing different clothing in public versus at home, Beena says it doesn’t make a difference. “Dressing does not matter. Even women in burkas get harassed. You can only see such women’s hands at most, and yet men don’t leave them alone. Why does this happen in Pakistan? In the West, women can even wear miniskirts and no one looks at them,” she complains. “Parents need to teach their boys how to behave with women. Educational institutes should do the same. And the government should have awareness programs too.”

Beena feels that more opportunities for men and women to interact as part of normal life would be beneficial as well: “Our society needs to open up more. That will help. There should be sex education at schools, too.

“Also, the mullahs (religious clerics) — what’s their issue?” she asks angrily. Beena mentions their opposition to the Women Protection Bill, a recent provincial law considered to be a landmark legislation that would severely punish men for domestic abuse and violence reported by women living with them. She says the law is a step in the right direction. “Such laws will give the courage and strength to women to speak out more. I hope they implement it well,” she cautiously adds, knowing that the weak policing system in Pakistan, with its ingrained patriarchy, is one of the main hurdles for women to report violence.
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Photographed by: Sara Farid
Noreen Ali, development specialist

Beena’s sister Noreen feels much more unsafe when out in public. “I never go out alone. The boys touch you and tease you any time you are alone,” she says. Once, Noreen says, her friend was walking down the road in Lahore when a boy rammed into her with a bicycle, knocking her down. “My friend had a fractured jaw. The boy just ran away,” she says.

Noreen believes in dressing conservatively when in public. “You have to cover your body completely. Wear the dupatta, too,” she explains.

But timing also matters. “I don’t go out after 7 p.m. For women, it’s only when there [are a lot of people outside and it’s] daylight, that we are safe,” she adds.
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Noreen has a message for all the men out there. “When you look at us, do not forget your mothers, sisters at home,” she suggests. But she also wants security at public places. “There should be strict vigilance and punishment for anyone found involved in eve-teasing. And complaints should be taken seriously,” she adds.

Noreen isn’t involved with anyone romantically, but says it’s a possibility, within certain boundaries. “Having a boyfriend is fine as long as you are mature about it. Don’t do anything stupid,” she warns, adding that “in Pakistan, dating is looked down upon.”
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Kinza Khurshid, 19, student

Kinza and her cousins — both male and female — are in the park today with a borrowed professional camera, taking portraits of each other to share on social media. But they’re only here thanks to the protection of the park rules and their male family members. “We rarely go out. And never alone. Boys give us really dirty looks. They whistle sometimes too,” she says. Recently, she was out in her neighborhood with some friends to buy ice cream when a boy on a bicycle stopped next to them. “He came up to me and said ‘Give me a lick, too,’ and laughed,” she recalls. Kinza and her friends walked away from him. “If I had said something to him, he would have responded with even a worse remark, so I did not want to engage,” she says.
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Photographed by: Sara Farid
“We are equal to men but the ones in our society don’t treat us that way,” she says, estimating that two-thirds of men she has interacted with have not treated her with respect: “Don’t they have sisters at home? Don’t they think [about] how they will feel if someone will do this with their loved ones?”

But Kinza also believes in conservative values. “Being in a relationship before marriage is wrong. I will never do so because my parents trust me,” she says. Her reasoning? “Religion doesn’t allow it,” she explains. Still, she says, “women should work and be out in the public more. That way the repression in the society can be vented. The men need to liberalize their outlook towards us and respect us too. That’s all we want.”
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Faiza Rasheed, 19, student

Faiza is tagging along with her cousin Kinza. As she sits down on a park bench for our interview, a boy passes by and sings a line to her from a famous Bollywood movie, “Sanam Teri Kasamsong”: The line is “khench meri photo” which translates to “take my photo,” but the song is about sexual intimacy and therefore meant as a harassment. She makes a face and looks at me and says, “Did you hear what he just said?” She’s visibly disturbed: Her face, which was all smiles for the camera, is now sullen. “This is why I only go out with family. I don’t go out alone ever. And I don’t even go out with friends,” she adds.

That rule isn’t just about harassment — part of her reasoning is that many of her friends use their outings as an excuse to go on dates. “Their boyfriends would come meet them. That could have landed me in trouble with my folks, so I don’t hang out with friends in public as such,” she says.

She has also been physically harassed. “[Men] try to come close and feel me up. It has happened many times when I have been in public. Some have even thrown numbers at me in a piece of paper,” she narrates. She recalls an incident about a man on a motorbike who came up to her when she was out in the street where her home is. “He was really dirty. I cannot even talk about what he did,” she says. But while these encounters have been scary, she doesn’t want to let them keep her out of the public eye. “We should be confident. We are no less. Women should be courageous,” she says. She also suggests a new rule: “The authorities should not allow single men to come inside parks."

Faiza, too, believes that men in public should respect women and behave like they would with their sisters. “Although we cannot all be sisters. Otherwise, who will they marry?” She laughingly remarks. She believes in having a relationship before marriage. “It has its pros and cons. But one should be careful. And keep their hormones in control,” she adds.
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Zaira Syed, corporate worker

Every Sunday, Zaira and her friends go cycling on the roads of Lahore, early in the morning. The groups, which can be as large as 20 to 30 cyclists, contain only a handful of women, including Zaira. She makes sure that she is with the cycling group all the time, and even when she is out otherwise — such as today, in the park — she wants to keep company around her. “If I'm alone, I don’t feel too safe. Thankfully I haven't had a confrontation with anyone yet, but I've had my fair share of being followed around and being ogled at,” she adds.

It happens when she’s out on her bike, too. “Some [men] jeer. Some call out insulting remarks. Others stare in awe,” she explains — but she adds that some men react positively and encourage the women in her group to continue cycling.

Zaira feels men should understand that women have as much of a right to public space as they do. “It's not their place to demand how a woman is to act or dress or be while she's there,” she says. That said, in Pakistan, dating and sexual intimacy is “everyone’s business, not just the couple's,” she points out with a laugh.
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How can society change? She says it's a collective struggle. “The Women’s Protection Bill is a step in the right direction, but it still needs a lot of work. People who face harassment should speak out and address the issue. It is only when you address a problem that the society can take steps to resolve it,” she suggests.

But she also has a suggestion for her own gender. “I also think women need to stand up for themselves and challenge the patriarchy as well. We need to reclaim public space, and one way to do it is to normalize the sight of women in public. We need to make people understand that a woman shouldn't need to be accompanied by a man every time she goes out. Her individuality lies within her, not with her father, brother, or son,” she adds.

In addition, Zaira says reporting sexual harassment should be made easier. Typically, “[Police will ask,] ‘why were you cycling alone?’ or ‘You were inappropriately dressed,’” she says. “Law enforcement agencies should be educated on how to deal with harassment cases, and not lay the blame on the victim.”
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Aneeqa Ali, 31, IT professional

Aneeqa has been cycling on the roads of Lahore for the past five years. Her time on the road has been mostly uneventful, until one morning in March. She posted publicly about what happened on Facebook, and the post went viral, even being published by a local newspaper. This is what she wrote:

"It was a regular Sunday morning that typically starts out with an early morning bike ride — a routine that I have been following for the past four years. I was enjoying the chilly morning breeze and empty roads when I realized that some boys in a white Cultus were tailing me. At first, I did not take them very seriously because it is common for men here to get excited when they see women cycling. But it started bothering me when they persisted. Eventually I decided to turn into the nearest service lane, hoping it might deter them. But, they followed me there too. I felt a sense of panic and tried to look for someone, anyone around I could approach for help but the roads were completely empty at this hour. After howling and hooting at me at the top of their lungs and honking non-stop, they realized that they were unsuccessful in soliciting my attention. They then hit my bike and sped away. The push sent me hurtling forward; I fell flat on the road on my face. My helmet thankfully saved me from any head injuries, but there were other minor injuries and scratches on my body. Dazed, I tried to recall their license plate number, I couldn’t. Their car was behind me the whole time. The only time they pulled up in front was when I was lying on the road after which they sped away.

"Admittedly, this was not the first time I was harassed on the street. It has happened several times before but I avoided talking about those experiences, even with close friends and family, because I did not want them to worry about me every time I went out cycling. Another reason for not sharing it publicly was to avoid discouraging other female cyclists from pursuing this activity."
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"After many years, the number of female cyclists in our group had recently seen a spike and I wanted the numbers to keep growing. I gave it a lot of thought and decided that remaining silent about this incident was not the solution. I needed to speak up.I wasn’t going to let this deter myself or other women from cycling, with this thought, I shared the incident as a public post on my Facebook profile.

"I wasn't sure what reaction my revelation would bring. I was expecting to receive some negativity. But only comments and messages of support poured in from all corners of the world.

"A lot of people suggested that I have a male accompany me whenever I was going cycling, as it is not safe for girls to cycle alone, and while I respect the concern, that is not the solution to this urgent problem that requires profound cultural change. What if I want to cycle alone? What if I don’t want the company of men to make me feel safe in my own city?

"While campaigns are being devised to empower women in public spaces, such as the ‘Pink Rickshaw Scheme’ and ‘Women on Wheels’, none of these initiatives will fully empower women until the root cause of the problem is addressed.

"And to address it, we have to talk about it. Those harassing women do it in a culture of impunity. [As long as] they are not called out...not punished, street harassment will not see any signs of abating in Pakistan."

In our interview, Aneeqa explains how she thinks society can change: “Educating the masses is the only tool that has the power to change the behavior of society in general, but it will take generations to get some fruitful result through education,” she says. “The immediate cure is to improve the security system, and make sure that the culprits are always punished for their actions. As long as people know that they can get away with stuff and will not be held accountable for their actions due to the loopholes in the system, things will never change.”
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Maida Ashraf, 21, university student

Maida says creepy behavior from men happens constantly: “It is literally everywhere. Be it rural or urban. You go to a grocery store and the salesmen would rather talk to your chest. You take a walk and you hear the men saying sexually explicit comments, following you, crossing path, even masturbating [in front of you] at times. You go to a coffee place with your friend, and people come asking you for your number. You go to a music concert and you may experience unwanted sexual remarks, touching. Even rape and femicide,” she says.

Maida’s worst incident of harassment happened last summer. Here’s what happened: “I was hanging out with my female friends and sisters. We had a great dinner and after roaming around, we decided to stop by a coffee shop to get some coffee and dessert. It was almost 8:00 p.m. We picked up our coffees and took the door out when my friends suggested to take a walk and I nodded in agreement. That is when my eye caught the worst scene I have ever seen or will ever see. I got sick to my stomach and scared beyond imagination. I took the decision to leave the place that very moment. But my friends didn’t understand why. I yelled at them to get them in the car without them asking me any questions. I did not want them to see what I had seen — but once in the car I told them about it. Two guys just a few meters away from us were leaning on a car. They had opened up the zippers of their pants and were masturbating while looking at us. None of us spoke about it until we went back to my house. That incident has created a vacant and fearful void in all our hearts. And I don’t think we will even be over it,” she says.
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Like many of her peers, Maida believes the change that needs to happen will start at home. “Parents must teach their sons the correct behavior and must induce a mindset to never be the oppressor but rather must be the one to stand up against it. Then comes education, teachers must make this a compulsory, major, and influential part of the education starting from the very start of student life of children,” she says. “The government must take all the possible measures to ensure that. Laws should be made and strictly followed to ensure safety and the freedom of movement. Government must ensure women are not ashamed when complaining because of the fear that it might bring a ‘bad’ name and harm to them and their family.”

And this is the message she’d like to send to men: “I wish the men were aware that such behaviors change our life in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. For them it might be just a few minutes of entertainment but it could be life-threatening to the victims. To me harassment is a crime that everyone should consider unacceptable. I wish men could consider that women are more than just their bodies. They’re human, just like any guy who is trying to mind his own business. [Harassment] reduces women's ability to participate in school, work, and public life. I wish men could respect women and their privacy just as much as women cherish their freedom of movement and their self-confidence. Because harassments are not just physical abuse — they’re emotional, psychological, and spiritual. And could drain out the soul leaving a mere body behind.”
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Aamna Nazir, 20, university student

How safe does Aamna feel when out in public? “On a scale of one to 10, I would say four. The thing the makes me feel unsafe is the fear of being harassed by men. Most men mistreat girls especially, with their dirty gazes and vulgar comments. Also, whenever I go to public places, I ensure that I’m dressed appropriately, and I’m always with friends or family when visiting such places. I never go to public places alone. I’m too scared to,” she says.

Has she been harassed? “Yes, a lot of times. I wouldn’t really like to describe what happened, but it was the worst experience of my life. At first, I thought that it was my fault. Maybe I wasn’t dressed appropriately. But later I realized that it’s not all about how you dress up. Even the girls in burkas experience sexual harassment,” she says.
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Aamna’s message to men: “I wish men could understand that we are not mere objects which they can use for their entertainment or pleasure. We have got feelings too. They have no idea how badly sexual harassment can affect a woman physically and mentally,” she says. “We have every right to move freely and feel safe in public places without always fearing being harassed or without always feeling the need to travel with a man to feel protected.”

She adds that men should be taught to respect women. “Having no respect for women is the major reason of sexual harassment. Men have been blessed with more strength than women. They should use it for protecting women, not for hurting them,” she says.
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Aisha Gondal, 18, high school student

Aisha says she doesn't feel safe at all when visiting public places alone. “It scares me. Men here in Pakistan, they never take their eyes off you, no matter what you wear. It's not about women's dressing; it's about being a girl. If you're a girl, you'll face things like that,” she says. “If it was only limited to staring, maybe it would be a little easier for us to live with it, but along with this, we get eve-teased by men, especially in places like tourist spots and concerts.”

But of course, the experience changes when she is with male companions. “I don't have to face all this when I'm with my brother or my father. I feel safe. I don't feel uncomfortable. So in a country like Pakistan, to avoid eve-teasing in public places, we really have to be careful and we need a man with us because they usually start following when they see girls on their own in a public place,” she explains.

Aisha says she has been followed many times, and worse. “I've been molested, too. I remember once I went to a concert with my friends and we got a chance to meet the singer backstage. The way to backstage was narrow and crowded and we had to pass through a crowd full of guys to enter the backstage door. Sadly my friends managed to get in but I was unable to pass through. I was left behind. A bunch of guys touched me and one of them groped my chest. I didn't even have the courage to face them. I wanted to just disappear. It felt like a nightmare. I managed to push myself out and ran to my sister but I never talked about it. It's very disturbing, and it's pointless to talk about it, because we can do nothing to stop it, and I'm sure thousands of girls go through this every day, but they don't talk about it. They have to face it — even if we talk about it or not, raise our voices against it or not, it wouldn't make any difference. The sad truth is it's never going to change; all we can do about it is stay home,” she says, disappointingly.

Aisha knows giving up is not the solution, though. “Educated men are different. They respect women, and if we want such behaviors to change, education is the only thing that could bring that change,” she says.
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