Saturday, September 20, 2008

Women and Public Spaces

It was only when I visited Sri Lanka that I realized how far behind Pakistan is in terms of women's lib. On the streets in Sri Lanka, whether in Colombo and Kandy or in the smaller villages, there were women everywhere – and I mean everywhere, not just in and around bazaars as is the norm here. They walked in groups, alone or with other men. They did not seem worried or badgered. One could tell that these women have grown up walking on the streets without fear of being harassed, humiliated or attacked.

There were female traffic police officials and, wonder of wonders, people were not hitting on them or being rude to them.

Equally wonderful was the number of stores owned by women. Photocopy shops, restaurants, grocery stores, all run by women.

I even saw women on motorbikes, something completely unimaginable here.

Well, actually, all these things are unimaginable in Pakistan. The roads are a purely male-dominated space. Most women are kept at home, allowed only to leave to go to the bazaar or with a male escort. Richer women, who are not fettered by these conservative rules, move around in their chauffeured cars. They hop into their cars at the gate of one place and hop out at the gate of another, completely avoiding the need to walk on the roads. And those few women who have to brave the roads and the public transport must tolerate stares and worse.

My maid always wears a burqa when she is out on the road. This, she says, is purely for utilitarian reasons. If she wears a burqa, men tend to harass her less. But she clarifies that even this does not prevent some men from staring or making lewd comments.

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