It has happened to every Pakistani woman who is alive today. You get on a plane or a train or a bus or sit down in a waiting room or a restaurant. A man takes the seat next to you, or in front of you. As soon as he does so, he feels the need to assert dominance over the space, to make sure that you are aware that he is a man and you are a woman and public space belongs first and foremost to him.
Or, he notices, you but finds your presence forgettable. In either case, a series of actions begin: he takes up as much space as he can; he drapes his arms over the backs of seats so that they too take up the maximum space. And then, quite often, seemingly absentmindedly, he reaches down to his shalwar or trouser. All of this, somehow, is considered acceptable behaviour in a country that prides itself on being pure.
This past weekend, this sort of routine scene happened to a women’s rights activist who had just boarded a flight. Just as she had done so, a man wearing a shalwar kamiz came and sat down next to her. Just as everyone had been told to fasten their seatbelts, the man in question began reaching down. He did so without any embarrassment or apology, and without ever considering that it would make the woman seated next to him uncomfortable. Then he did it again, and again, and yet again.
We know this because the woman began to record on her phone what was happening. Within the span of five short minutes, the man touched his private parts, not once or twice, but literally 15 times. All of this took place in a small space and in a situation where it was almost impossible for her to leave.
The FIA’s officers met the man when the plane landed. To the woman, one officer simply said, “But he didn’t actually touch you, did he?” It was a typical reaction. Women, after all, are supposed to tolerate, not castigate. So it was here. A woman’s discomfort is not ever enough for any Pakistani man to be told to end his lewd behaviour, to behave differently, less like the animals who are routinely touching and licking and scratching themselves, and more like a human being.
The man admitted to the act, and offered an apology, which the woman accepted. However, in most cases, women don’t complain, because there is no one to complain to. Where does one go to call out men who, intentionally or unthinkingly, feel the need to touch their privates in public? When will men, so entitled to dictate the rules and manners of public space, realise that these behaviours make women intensely uncomfortable? Sexual harassment, all the women who have ever undergone this humiliating experience can tell you, does not require touching or even knowledge of who the other person is. Why must men and their need to touch themselves take precedence over the extreme discomfort women feel when forced to be in visual or physical proximity with a man who insists on carrying on with this practice?
When the video from the aeroplane was posted on social media, many men (and even some women) insisted that touching was owing to a physiological need. However, if this were true, then the behaviour would occur all over the world and with the same frequency. This is not so. In countries where gender equity is a priority and women have been a part of public spaces for a longer time, men do not engage in this behaviour; touching one’s private parts in public so many times is simply unacceptable, uncouth, and not within the bounds of public decency.
Nor is it that other cultures have not had problems eradicating such behaviour. In Italy, for example, this despicable practice was outlawed only in the last decade. The court in that case recognised that sometimes men engaged in it because it was a cultural practice to ward off the evil eye. It was time for the practice to go, the court declared, regardless of what it was based on.
It was time to move ahead. It is time to move ahead in Pakistan as well. The fact that it makes all women uncomfortable should be enough of a reason for this sort of behaviour in public to be banned and fined. It is all very well to say women deserve equality and should be permitted in the public sphere. But if they do not get this basic level of respect when they are in a public space, all the homage given to women’s emancipation is simply a lie. There are many men, of course, who will disagree, insist that it is their right to behave however they want to in public spaces. Hopefully, however, a few men will read this and check themselves, consider that their conscious or unconscious habit is making women who have to share space with them intensely uncomfortable.
A just and equitable society cannot exist until both genders are treated with respect. It cannot exist when men feel so entitled to dominating and controlling public space that any appeal to change their behaviour is met with a shrug and a smirk, a said or unsaid what-will-you-do-about-it. They know after, all, that very little can be done about it. Those men likely stopped reading this article many paragraphs ago.
To everyone else, take note. If there are men who support equality for women, their equal access to inhabit public space, then the course before them is quite clear: when sharing public space with a woman, they should refrain from touching their private parts.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.