Another day, another appalling story of a woman getting harassed by men: this time a Pakistani Tiktoker was sexually assaulted while filming a video near Lahore’s Minar-E-Pakistan on August 14, the country’s Independence Day. According to the FIR lodged by the complainant, around 300-400 people attacked her and her companions, stole their money, and harassed them physically and sexually. Her ring and earrings were forcibly taken and her companion’s phone was seized by the mob.
Meanwhile, in response, in what is a classic case of victim blaming, the Punjab Parks and Horticulture Authority (PHA) of Pakistan banned content creators from entering into all public parks of the province.
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The Nightmare Didn’t End There
While the incident is a horrific reflection of the state of women’s safety in public spaces, the media reportage that followed did not make one feel hopeful either. In several media reports, the incident was reported with such insensitivity, graphic voyeurism and violence, that one has to step aside and question how we perceive women and their bodies in the first place.
Here are some of the headlines of top reports that covered the incident:
“Female TikToker thrown in air by crowd in Pakistan, clothes torn, mobile stolen”
“‘Clothes torn, tossed in air’: Pakistani woman TikToker says she was molested by mob on ‘Independence Day'”
“Pakistani TikToker Groped & Thrown into Air, Her Clothes Torn by Hundreds on Independence Day | Watch Shocking Video”
“Clothes torn, hurled into air: Pakistani TikToker says she was attacked by mob on I-Day”
It does not take much effort to feel the underlying violence in such reportage: a glaring evidence of the aloof insensitivity towards harassment faced by women. The graphic detailing of sexual harassment, the keywords strategically used to catch the attention of the readers all indicate how voyeuristic, ironically, the reporting on sexual harassment has been. It is almost like there is acceptance of such behavior in our society. When the media grabs their audiences’ attention by focusing on the voyeuristic description of the nature of harassment, we consciously move away from holding the offender(s) accountable and focus, instead, on the detailing of the act itself.
It also serves no tangible purpose when it comes to the victim: her story remains to be that of another disappointed, traumatized woman who will be recognized as the TikToker who was hurled in the air by a mob. It’s disrespectful, cold, and unethical on many levels. Media plays such a pivotal role in shaping our culture, society, and psyches and because of sensationalized reporting and our society is now conditioned to grimly accept this as the status quo. However, there is another way – a simple shift of focus onto the perpetrators would allow us to process the information without biased media narratives.
“Hundreds of men in Pakistan investigated over mass sexual assault on woman” a headline by The Guardian for instance, could be an alternative headline to the others mentioned above. Here, the focus is on the perpetrators, the act of violation is being reported and there is no dependence on creating a shock value using voyeuristic reporting techniques.
Navigating Public Spaces as Women
That public spaces are most likely unsafe and inaccessible to women isn’t exactly news: it has been a lived reality for us, since time immemorial. In an ideal world, any instance of sexual, physical, mental or emotional violence experienced by women should be an anomaly, yet it is a very likely thing to happen today when she walks out of her house, irrespective of her garments or the color of her lipstick. Her power is a piercing rebellion to the incumbent patriarchal systems, so much so, that entire civilisations have been built upon actively ‘othering’ women.
Public spaces have been historically constructed keeping the cis-gendered, able-bodied, heterosexual male in mind, in design and accessibility. How then can we even expect the ‘others’ to find safety in such spaces? Can we ever imagine women as loitering creatures who, on a Sunday evening, just want to take a casual stroll in the park, and do it unharmed, without getting stared at or catcalled? Can we imagine not being riled up when we spot a woman in a sports bra working out in our local park? How easy or difficult is it to actually do this and not limit ourselves to simply nodding our heads in united disapproval when not confusion?
Will there be an end to this nightmare?
We should be tired of talking about women’s safety because it does feel like a broken record going on and on: the endless headlines spitting bitter ‘truths’ about women’s position in our society. Yet, we are nearly not done; the conversation isn’t about oppression itself, but the underlying themes that drive oppression. Yes, holding the perpetrator accountable is the starting point (which we are still struggling with), however how in the world does a man decide to harass a woman without a care or worry in the world, and then expect no consequences?
The idea of masculinity has been thoroughly tainted, thanks to centuries of conditioning resulting in a fractured sense of self-esteem. When male figures are glorified simply because of being born male and possessing idyllic male qualities, a society such as ours starts to make absolute sense.
And while a radical change in ideologies is unrealistic and may take an unimaginably long time, we can start by not humiliating a victim of harassment further by making a mockery of their trauma. Here is another headline for what we can expect when we continue with our flawed understanding of masculinity:
“Gauhati HC grants bail to IIT student accused of rape, calls him state’s future asset”. It is nothing less than infuriating to see a court of law allow a man bail by calling him the ‘state’s future asset’ thus gravely disrespecting the victim of rape in the process.
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What can we do?
While a radical change in ideologies is unrealistic and may take a painfully long time, we can begin with something as basic and humane as not humiliating a victim of harassment. The responsibility lies in the hands of the media, the thought leaders, activists and influencers.
Here’s something to think about – how can we bridge the psychological chasm between us and another human being on an individual and collective level. Separation is what makes a community ruthlessly chaotic. As a civilized society, we must move beyond separation, cultivate collective empathy, find effective ways of upholding accountability, but most importantly, we must learn to call a spade a spade. There is no place for moral corruption in an ideal society.
As the eminent Philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti, beautifully put:
“We need tremendous energy to bring about a psychological change in ourselves as human beings, because we have lived far too long in a world of make-belief, in a world of brutality, violence, despair, anxiety. To live humanly, sanely, one has to change.”
Featured Image Credit: Srishti Sharma/Feminism in India