Today I participated in a Twitter chat with Pakistani NGO Aahung, an award-winning non-profit organization (winner of the Dutch Human Rights Tulip back in 2013) which works to provide sexual and reproductive health information services in Pakistan. Aahung engaged me on issues regarding women’s access to public spaces, sexual harassment and online harassment, and possible solutions to the issues women face in public and in private.
Here is a transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity. I was speaking with Tooba Masood on Twitter for an hour in a question and answer format. We used the hashtags #hercity #womeninpublicspaces #twitterchat in our chat.
Aahung: Let’s start our Twitter chat today with @BinaShah on #hercity #womeninpublicspaces #askawriter #twiiterchat. Hi @BinaShah, let’s start with women and sexuality in Pak and why does no one want to talk about it?
BS: Pakistanis are constrained by purity culture: women’s sexuality is unspoken of, beyond privacy and into the realm of the hidden and the shameful.
Aahung: As a writer, how do you deal with it? What sort of issues does one face writing/talking/tweeting?
BS: Silencing is the biggest issue: of the voice, the body, and the mind. I refuse to play by those rules, but it comes with a price. Still, there’s nothing I won’t talk or write about: honesty is the writer’s biggest weapon.
Aahung: What is the price?
BS: The price for speaking out about women’s issues is a lot of online harassment.
Aahung: Could you elaborate a little, maybe an incident that stuck with you?
BS: The recent case of Ayesha Gululai’s sexual harassment allegations against PTI leadership. Anyone defending her got slammed on social media.
Aahung: What is online harassment?
BS: Please clarify: sexual harassment? Online harassment? Against women? or in general?
Aahung: Focus on harassment against women and online — ie women in public and online spaces
BS: I think we all know what this looks like.
Aahung: Taking this further, how do women in Pak navigate public spaces? Do they have designated spots?
BS: Yes, but it’s very class-based: upper class women are driven or drive, middle class drive, use Careem or walk; working class women use public transport and walking.
Aahung: Are women taught how to navigate public spaces – what are good/bad spaces?
BS: Of course: every girl & woman in Pakistan is told where she can and can’t go, never alone, there must be a male member accompanying her, etc. Women told to stay away from Internet, public spaces, lecherous bosses or uncles, but nobody ever tells men to stop.
Aahung: Why is that so?
BS: No one wants to disrupt male privilege. Nobody dare get in the way of the Pakistani man and his almighty virility. The phenomenon of the male libido overpowers every social, Islamic, and human right belonging to women. In Pakistan, male virility powers the nation: from army and military might to authority in the home. Look at the murder of teenager Tania Kashkeli. She was killed because a man was told he could not possess her.
Aahung: Do you think thats going to change? What can we do?
BS: I would suggest castration but that would be a human rights violation. #sorrynotsorry
Aahung: Are there any cases reported in the media that stand out for you when talking about harassment against women?
BS: There are so many cases of online blackmail with women’s faces photoshopped onto pornographic images. The @DigitalRightsPK talks about them in their reports; FIA has slowly begun to jail offenders.
Aahung: There are so many honour killing, revenge stories in the media these days — could you comment on how they are reported? #hercity
BS: There is still too much sensationalism. The Urdu press is terrible in this way – it always implies a “love affair” was going on.
Aahung: You’ve written a lot about social media failing Pak women – could you discuss this in terms of Qandeel Baloch, who received a lot of harassment online?
BS: They rarely take action against harassers, merely suggest “blocking” as if those harassers can’t get multiple accounts Pakistani activists have asked Facebook and Twitter to be vigilant about this but no results so far. Also, they don’t employ people with Pakistani regional language skills in which many threats are made.
Aahung: Qandeel’s provocative posts were appreciated by some, mocked by many and drove some to send her death threats,
BS: Nobody should be killed for writing or posting anything on social media. It is simply absurd.
Aahung: Love affair, paramour, lover are common words used in the press when reporting — what words would you suggest?
BS: Gendered words beyond man and woman, he and she are unnecessary in reporting on honor crimes.
Aahung: Isn’t that what ppl do tho, they always say: ignore them, how do women respond when someone says that
BS: Why should we ignore them? We should highlight their harassment and enforce the consequences for their crimes. If someone came up to you in the street and punched you, should you ignore them. To be honest I’m totally sick of the men who pretend sexual harassment/violence isn’t an issue, and the men and women who support patriarchy. But when I discuss sexual harassment, some idiotic man always tweets: “What about women harassing men?” as if blind to the fact that women are murdered by men in far higher numbers than men are even close to being harassed by women.
Aahung: Many times women don’t say anything because they feel scared of the consequences or family’s response
BS: This is like assaulting them all over again. More men need to stand up against sexual harassment. There is a conspiracy of silence that men need to break.
Aahung: What should we tell young girls to do in such situations
BS: Confide in someone they trust – a teacher – call the @DigitalRightsPK cyber harassment helpline, tell a friend. Solidarity gives courage.
Sanam Maher: Speaking of which… “The ministry thought it would be unfair to just highlight the plight of women…” https://tribune.com.pk/story/1509282/ombudsmans-office-five-men-report-harassment-women-workplace/ … #sohelpful
BS: Women who support misogyny hoping for crumbs from the patriarchal table earn my particular disdain.
Aahung: You’ve also covered the forced conversion issue – what sort of position are these women in?
BS: It’s an interesting issue: many women marry of their own free will but their parents cite kidnapping in order to bring them back home. If a woman under the age of consent is said to have converted and married, it should be treated as a forced kidnapping, though. Women must be given space and safety to make their own statements about their marital/religious status free from parental/spousal pressure
Aahung: Why do most parents hide that their daughters have run away etc?
BS: Out of shame.
Replying to @BinaShah
ڈیئر سسٹر ۔۔۔۔۔۔۔۔۔۔۔۔۔ آپ اپنے نام کے آگے سے شاہ کا لفظ ہٹا دیں پلیز۔۔۔۔۔۔۔۔۔۔۔۔۔۔۔
(“Dear sister, you should remove the name “Shah” from your name.” He went on to explain that Shah implies lineage from Bibi Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet SAW but she was a woman whose dupatta never came off her head.)
BS: Here’s an example of a small online microaggression. Why does this man think he can tell me what to do with my name? Pakistani men will often use religious justifications to harass, cajole, and intimidate women in online and offline.
Aahung: How many of these do you deal with in a day?
BS: I have had dozens if not scores of men tell me to remove my photograph, change it, smile, look pretty, etc. I have also had two very aggressive women harassers post my photos on Twitter and use them to abuse me. They were both PTI supporters (the women) who got upset at my criticism of their Dear Leader.
Aahung: How can schools empower girls to make better decisions?
BS: Involve the parents in the education process. Get them in to talk to them about being better parents to girls.
Aahung: Bina, one last question, could you talk a little about being a woman writing about women – especially in Pakistan? What do male writers miss out on?
BS: Pakistani male writers have to be careful not to use women as props or accessories to the stories they tell about men.