Street harassment in Ramzan: No does not mean “yes”

Ramazan is the one month when everyone shops with extra passion; compared to other eleven months when everyone shops mostly out of need or fun. Considering the new beautiful malls being opened in many places, shopping turns into an entertainment for many families including children – or even an opportunity to just beat the heat and power outages. In Lahore alone, this development has really upped the city’s vibe. One of those malls is a brand new beautiful Packages Mall, little further down Walton Road.

As soon as you enter the big gates, your car is thoroughly checked by the security staff – unless you are all females in the vehicle and accompanying kids, you get some leniency. That’s probably out of respect, or that the security staff is all male so they hesitate in being macho with females. Amidst the organised parking lots, with marked spaces, stand a few multicoloured glistening tree decorations; a decently decorated place it is. Once you get inside, it’s a well-lit and clean place with plenty of room for children to run around and shoppers to shop from a variety local and foreign brands along with, of course, a big food court with plenty of delicious choices. A very pleasant addition indeed.

Visiting Pakistan after seven long years I have noticed many such changes in terms of economic development along with a few other positive changes – for instance there are many more young women out in the working environment. But I have also noticed that the image of males is still pretty darn dark. Local women, mommies, aunties and older sisters, especially think that ogling, being creepy and being sexually pervert is a prerequisite of being a man in Pakistani culture. Whether they be that way or not, it is an assumption and considered very true. With it comes the woman’s responsibility to cover any skin showing under the neck. This is especially true for a person like myself, coming back after seven years, because to them, I don’t know what they are capable of since I have been so Americanised and am open-minded towards other humans.

I was more forgiving to the idea, and have despised the discrimination that has turned man into an inherent sex offender, primarily because my male friends that I have grown to know and mingle with here in Pakistan are all very decent human beings just like any other men in America or Canada that I have encountered. They are not sitting with you or in the same shop just to look down your shirt or just looking for any chance to grope your ass. These men come from diverse social backgrounds and are educated. We, their female friends, feel very relaxed and safe around them.

Just two days ago in the evening I too went to Packages Mall with my family and a friend. Our group included three women and four kids with youngest being nine years old and another a young 12-year-old girl very dear to me. For the sake of privacy, let’s call her Snow.

Walking around I made a few general observations that were expected such as younger men, boys, were caught staring at the girls smiling, including a few women with hijab and in much more conservative clothing than us. Aunties were especially giving judgmental looks at the comparatively less conservatively dressed females or the ones wearing “modern attire” such as jeans and blouses. I wasn’t wearing a duppatta with my shalwar-kameez, and it was a sleeveless shirt just like many other women there were wearing. Shalwar-kameez is a traditional clothing, loose pants with a long shirt covering your butt. None of those looks bothered me until we were sitting down at the table at the food court to eat.

After we were finished devouring the flavorful food I noticed that the Snow shifted uncomfortably in her chair towards me. Upon seeing what she saw, I asked her if he weirded her out. She nodded in affirmation. What I saw was that a young boy, in his early to mid 20s, had just come and sat at the table right in front of ours looking straight into my eyes staring without blinking. His demeanor was so intimidating for Snow that even though he didn’t look at her she still felt very uncomfortable.

He had a smartphone in his hands, which he was constantly operating. I thought maybe he is just being creepy and might take a photo or two. I told Snow it’s okay and we were just leaving. Right then we got up, grabbed our bags and walked towards the nearest escalators to leave the mall. When I was turning to get on the escalator I noticed he had left his table as well and started following us, still constantly staring at me with his phone in his hands. Snow noticed it as well. From there I turned my head a few times to see if he was still behind us and sure enough, he was.

I don’t believe he had blinked yet and he followed me to out of the mall to my car.

I hadn’t told anyone anything yet just to prevent any kind of drama, just so it doesn’t scare Snow, since it was her very first interaction with any type of harassing behaviour like that. On my way out I thought about confronting him or telling the security guard on him. Still indecisive I walked out quietly holding Snow’s hands.

Once we got into the car I briefly told my sister and asked her to go around so we can see if he is still there just to make sure that if he follows the car home we should know. My sister freaked out when I told her and stopped her from behaving like a Pakistani brother because I didn’t want the already weirded out Snow to get scared. Living in Unites States all her life she has never encountered anything like that. She knows that if someone misbehaves she doesn’t have to ignore it and she can go to any adult or police with a complaint. Kids are taught at the young age the importance of unwarranted behavior and the word “No.” This was new to her and very scary.

It was unsettling for me that I couldn’t confront him or tell on him to the security just because I did not want any drama – and it is still bothering me. I wasn’t expecting this type of street harassment in a place like this upscale mall. Maybe I wasn’t expecting it at all considering I wasn’t walking in the streets, which used to be very popular platforms for stalking like this.

I don’t mind men looking, I don’t even mind someone approaching a woman and expressing his feelings or fondness for her, or vice versa. Heck, I don’t even mind someone approaching a woman and giving his number to call. But I do mind and draw a strict line beyond that: stalking, following, catcalling, pasturing her for attention, singing cheap Bollywood songs or throwing indecent remarks at her are absolutely unacceptable – not to mention quite unflattering.

I didn’t even encounter such behaviour when I was teaching the law class of over 50 students with only 10 to 12 girls, a few months ago. Most of them were from rural backgrounds where men are raised to be special and rulers of women and from the same age groups as that creepy stalker from the mall. It’s amazing that men and young boys like him still use lowly tactics like this to get women’s attention.

What drives these men to such a behavior? What are they trying to achieve? And what do they believe they will get out of this? What is in a woman’s unresponsiveness or resistance that makes them do it more? So many questions I had for that young man that I couldn’t ask.

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