Pakistani Women’s Stories need to be part of policy

Over a thousand women are killed for honor in Pakistan every year. At the Women of the World Summit in New York this month, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker from Pakistan spoke about honor in Pakistani society. She said her films on the culture of honor have helped start a discussion about how women are valued in society. For the first time, honor killing is being condemned at the highest level: “The prime minister of the country watched my film and said ‘there is no honor in honor killing.’”

As often the case with change, personalized stories, like those in Obaid’s films make all the difference in creating an understanding of threat that women face.

In Sindh’s Jacobabad district on March 18 there were three horrific cases of honor killing. A woman called Ashram Khatoon was gunned down by her husband when he suspected that she was cheating on him. She was only 22. Another woman, Seher, also 22, was stabbed to death by her husband, again, on the suspicion she was romantically involved with another man. Neighbors say he overhead Seher speaking to her alleged lover on the phone and was enraged. The third woman was a mere child – a 16-year-old girl who was shot by her own father because he felt she shamed his honor.

It is by telling these stories that we can convey the urgency of how desperate the country is for lasting solutions to protect women from ghastly traditions. Despite the rhetoric of taking the women along, most governments in Pakistan and their international partners have failed to turn around the status of women.

Pakistan is among the top ten recipients of aid from both the US and UK and women are supposed to get a big part of that pie. Still, there are too many Ashram Khatoons and Sehers. The international donor ecosystem is pouring funds for women in Pakistan continuously. United States disbursed USD 782 million to Pakistan in 2014/2015 out of which USD 174 million was allocated to gender equity focused aid. The UK gave Pakistan USD 221 million in the same period, out of which USD 132 was gender equity focused.

When designing USAID Pakistan programs, their rules stipulate that it is mandatory that women make up 33% of the beneficiaries. For DFID funding in the country, this target figure is even higher. The scale and priority placed on women is evident, the results not so much.

All of this put together, we are talking of millions of dollars that are allocated specifically to elevate the women of Pakistan. Reality, however is lackluster. Scratch lackluster. It is an abomination. Even though there is money allocated, it is not spent on deserving women, or even women.

World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2016, Pakistan ranks 143 out of 144 countries worldwide. Of course, the Prime Minister needs to do more than state the obvious but one also wonders what blocks all the aid from translating into results?

Violence is one of the key inhibitors of women’s progress in the country (90% face violence in Pakistan according to the Thomas Reuters Foundation) and it is on a steady rise. Now it is taking up modern expressions on the Internet in the form of cyber harassment for women who dare to have an online identity. It seems like the more Pakistan advances, the wider the echo chamber and amplification of misogyny. There is a severe push back both from the right wing.

This is dire – the money that does go into the cross cutting theme of gender gets spilled and wasted by going to the wrong people. Often aid money bypasses the mandatory inclusion of women beneficiaries. Aid officials use a gender justification to come up with excuses on why trainings, grants or capacity building programming will almost always go to men.

They say culture, religion, value systems do not allow for women to be part of the development programing in Pakistan. These types of excuses are the bane of why already allocated money for women ends up where it shouldn’t – to men and to women who are securely part of the elite.

Violence and the potential threat of violence gets aid to only those who are above it – those who need it least.

The government says the right thing but doesn’t do much either.

This is where this money should end up: the 15-35 year-old women. 50 million or more and more of this bracket of women and girls need safeguards, support and props to help them crawl out of abject poverty, patriarchy and financial and educational exclusion. This is where we need to focus our policy and resources. This is a high-value group that is both talented and switched on to changing their destiny.

Women are often asked to learn needlework instead of computer graphics or innovative work. Somehow Pakistanis and the people working in development think of women as an after-thought. Perhaps that they take up more aid man-hours than women deserve. This is dangerous.

Women in Pakistan are moving in a diametrically opposite direction from women elsewhere – widening the women empowerment gap instead of narrowing it with tools like tech and modern education.

There is a global urgency on setting up a feminist foreign policy and a need to build sustainability – particularly with SDG goal on gender equity. Women internationally remain the pivot, here, however we don’t even want to know who they are.

Honor killing cases are growing in Pakistan. With more awareness, more cases are coming to light and these numbers seem to rise every time the earth revolves around the sun. Mere condemnation can only save so many lives. We need to cater to the ones who somehow plod along despite the barbed wires of tradition around them. We must enable them to be more mobile, self-reliant, have more access to heath and be violence-free. These are big dreams for a country that seems to build lots of roads but does not bridge that crucial gap between opportunities for a girl child versus a boy child.

If only the problem could be solved with more money. It can’t. Several architects of small and medium sized grant programs say that when women at grassroots are offered money to empower themselves with it, they reject it. The caged-bird syndrome is a long game and needs invested policymaking that is both holistic and data-centered. Women’s financing programs need to be coupled up with training programs to build internal capacity.

Women reject help for good reason. They face more violence as they tread towards empowerment and social uplift. They disturb the power lopsidedness. Men like their privilege. Giving it up is no fun for them, at all. Taking back power is not so easy in Pakistan because men get away with violating a woman almost always. Despite a changes in the legal system where women now have more recourse, but due to the ingrained culture there is a hesitation to press charges against men to whom women eventually have to return for support.

If one could wish for two things here: an end to lazy aid architects and a realization in Pakistan’s government that women’s exclusion makes no political, economic or social sense. Women must not continue to be footnotes anymore.

To help the women of Pakistan you have to do the scary thing first and get involved. Getting your hands dirty in understanding intersectionality, race, class and other handicaps that women battle on more than one level.

It all begins with letting women tell their own stories. Preferably while they are still alive.

 

KP’s anti-dowry act

As if it wasn’t already difficult enough for a woman in Pakistan, there is this bile-inducing custom to have a woman weighed in against what material and monies she brings into a marriage. Dowry determines a woman’s worth in this culture. About 95% marriages are said to practice the custom that is not built on functional need but a status symbol and a show of women’s subservience. Seemingly the more dowry a woman the more her takers will be and therefore the less dispensable she is. Less dispensable women are apparently treated by in laws with more kindness. Not really.

Whereas India has the highest number of dowry related deaths, it is Pakistan that has the highest number of dowry-linked deaths per 100,000 women. We murder and hack to death, via stove burnings and poison ingestion than any other country in the world. No amount of money gets in-laws to stop torturing new brides to seek more cash from their families. No wonder there is a funeral-like feel to a household a girl child is born to. Our customs are meant to stifle the caretakers of girls as if they bear the burden of a curse and the only way to make it up is cough up dough to marry off the girl.

This is not just a class issue. The elite in our country – do check the latest few destination weddings in our social magazines – are just as marred by it. Show more love and dote with money, flounder it across the far seas so everyone knows not to mess with your daughter. Why not equip them with the law instead? Teach them to stand up for their rights first.

Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa in a landmark move has barred a bride’s family from making dowry payments to the groom and his family. So basically the groom and his family have to make alternate means of extorting money, or for a change find a job or start a business. The KP law restricts value of gifts given by the bride to PKR 10,000. It is enough to buy a good juice blender, a hair dryer, a low-end vacuum cleaner or a few good books.

It’s time for men to seek out women for who they are and not what they bring. Dowry is an evil custom. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Dowry, Bridal Gift and Marriage Functions Restriction Act, 2017 has thankfully put an end to it as far as the law in KP. It’s one of the few sensible pro women’s legislation to come out of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI).

Last year in December a woman called Shumaila was forced to consume poison in Multan when her father could not pay her husband and in-laws the promised PKR 50,000 in dowry. Shumaila, like the estimated 2,000 dowry deaths per year in Pakistan, are an abomination and tell that we are a nation on the brink. Don’t be fooled by the mere gains in our standing – women remain a severely neglected all parts of our society. Rights experts say that this number is hardly reflective of how many women are actually tortured because of the heinous custom and many of their deaths remain unreported and marked falsely natural.

Pervasive in the middle class, we are extremely proud of the list of things we bring with us into our marriages – our cars, our washing machines, our furniture and the godforsaken toaster – these are spoils of the war on women. Reject it. Reject it as the girl bride, reject it as the father of the bride and certainly reject it as the groom. There is nothing dignified in it. Women must only be armed with one resource that is the real true asset for any family – their education, their aptitude, their ability to brace uncertainties like death and disease and more importantly their sense of justice. Don’t compromise on this. Everything else can be acquired, especially the toaster.

Now that we are making strides in banning dowry, can we look to please increase the haq mehr that the groom needs to pay the bride. This amount is to be allocated according to the groom and his family’s social standing but instead it is set as a pathetic token amount. This amount is payable to the woman on demand according to Islamic law. Fix the haq mehr according to the intended standard and notice how the balance of power shifts. For a start, fewer women like Shumaila will be dead by poisoning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of rogue men and hijabs

Where did Syed Raza Ali Gillani’s toxic masculinity come from? His all-boys education that can only breed contempt and bone-chilling fear of female sexuality; his feudal roots or his deep-rooted sense of insecurity about being a pious devout. Wherever it came from, it was rewarded with a valorous title of Punjab Higher Education Minister. Slow clap.

With the confidence of someone who speaks as the admin of one of those psychotic WhatsApp groups, he went on to say a few damning thing, that too in front of live media: Things that glorify the policing of women’s clothes. He said that it was incumbent upon him (not clear how) that he makes all women in his province’s education institutes wear a mandatory head covering or hijab because he claims that the Quran said so. He also, perhaps inspired by a local sermon says that we have lost our traditions, culture and religion and he must bring us back to it. Notably, by telling the women of the province what to do first. No such instructions were laid out for men.

He also seemed a bit unsure of how many takers there would be of this mandatory hijab policy so he sweetened the deal with a 5% marks to be added for free and no effort to women who only chose to hide their hair from the wanton eyes of men who had dirty thoughts. As if that ever stopped them.

Amidst applause of people there, who were probably high on meth, and would also applaud if a possum gave the speech instead, the respectable minster decided to add a few lines about how there ought to be an assembly where it will be mandatory to quote religious scripture and such. Standing ovation.

Women’s clothing historically started being policed as a result of patriarchal structures very tied to land and land ownership. Women had to belong to men to be clear where the lineage lay and who the rightful heirs were. To belong to men you had to first be contained and the veil helped then.

Well, take your land and do with it what cattle do to grass. Eat it. Curd it. Regurgitate it. Digest it. Pass it out. Leave us the hell alone.

We cry out foul when France bans the veil, borne out of the same bravado and fear to clothe women as to unclothe them. Yet here we are. The veil or hijab is an identity symbol for women around the world across several cultures but here is the thing with identity. There is an “I” in it. So stop telling women if they need to wear it or not.

Even with the 5% extra marks there are women who don’t want anything to do with it. Even without the 5% marks some women wear it like it were a limb, sacred to who they are and who they want to be defined as. No education minister who’s done a degree in Textiles can take it or hand that identity to them, certainly.

Education and particularly higher education has everything to do with nurturing a sense of independence and free-spritedness – that is where the innovation and ideas come from – and very little to do with how women dress. It doesn’t take much to know this, except perhaps being a good observer.

The scientific process, the logical architecture of the mind and rational intellect all stem from observation. Also from the data and facts that good observations bring.

The problem with men is that they explain things to women without observing what women want. That they explain things about women to women. This minister by telling women how they ought to dress is telling them essentially that he is thinking on their behalf like a true patriarch. Yet the women are being sent to get an education, precisely to squash the so-called culture and tradition that has kept them so backward in the first place. Bottom most numbers are what we boast globally on women’s empowerment across the board.

We send our girls to school precisely so that they can see through the confusion and machismo that wants them away from their plushy politics, positions and perks. They know the women will displace them so bad they won’t know what hit them.

Thankfully the Punjab Government in all its wisdom called his attempt at policy “wrong,” and distanced itself from it. The next step: call men like these for what they are: “rogue.” They are dinosaurs on their way out.

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Tanya Tania by Antara Ganguli

Antara Ganguli’s Tanya Tania is like being in Karachi and Bombay at the same time. It is like being there at a time when these two cities were both ugly and beautiful. Reading it you have that same feeling you have when you butter your toast and it falls butter-side down. As you read the deep soulful and fun letters Tanya from Karachi writes to Tania from Bombay you know this can possibly not end well, for wherever there is a deepening of friendship there is envy; jealousy and, well, also evil. As these two girls come of age they also want to belong to each other, except Tanya wants to belong more to Tania more. This is a story about what happens when love is lopsided and skewed and how much damage you can create for the one who loves you slightly less.

Whereas Fatima Bhutto found the book to be a page-turner, I found it very intense and I put parenthesis in my readings just so I could make the inevitable pain of the two pen pal’s separation bearable. I had to armor my heart before I raced to the end. Each letter made you dive into its response with fervor. We can recall how we waited endlessly for letters in that era of postage stamps and mailmen. The letters reminded you of how intrusive emails and WhatsApps are now – they give you no opportunity to crave them – instant messages settle into your life like dust in your eyes on a beach.

Ganguli could have let us know how similar Bombay and Karachi are but instead she showed us. She showed us with the sea, with the streets and with the people who manage our houses. The backdrop against which these letters were set was tenacious and wanting – the mess one’s parent’s generation creates because they know not how to navigate intimacy and ambition.

Ganguli was equally descriptive in defining how marred these two young girl’s lives were with the politics of India and Pakistan that sat in each other’s laps but never looked in each other’s eyes. She defined with varying color, hue and light how countries turn fascist and how utterly normal lives turn grey and murky overnight almost. In just a few strokes of her paintbrush, Ganguli shows us everything utterly putrid about class struggle; religious bigotry and the disregard with which South Asian families raise their daughters compared to their sons. It doesn’t matter what side of the border you find yourself – almost always a neglected child will be a girl.

You go through two thirds of the book thinking it is about Tanya Tania but it is not. It is about Nusrat. Nusrat in her silence and her meditations and her words is so utterly beautiful. You are haunted both by her softness and her smell. Ganguli’s wordsmithing is evident throughout, but the part where Tania wonders why Nusrat smells so good despite being poor, is the most reflective of all.

You know you’re reading a good book by the number of times you toss a finger in it and stare at walls: for me it was over a dozen times in this book. You think you know the girls and then they go ahead and do something that makes you realize they are far more abysmal than the letters they write. Like when Tanya cut up her brother Navi’s tennis racket. We’ve all felt the absence of parents, even if it was emotional absence. In Tanya Tania’s life you inhale it till it settles in your lungs like a metastasized ball of cells – there to stay on till you end up how Nusrat did.

A letter back and forth would have been boring. Ganguli never let that happen. Like a fast bowler who changes pace, she flipped them around just so you’d love the results, but not so much that you were dizzy. Everything changed so gradually about these girls lives that they became the exact opposite of who they were when they first wrote each other with the reluctance of a child being dragged to the first day of school.

In the first day of a writing fiction class I took, I was told never choose similar names of characters in a book. Tanya Tania tossed that rule into the sea that people crapped in. It was a wonderfully refreshing experience to get to know that these two girls were as different as night and day and yet only an alphabet separated their first names.

Makes you think, more than anything, how words grow to be so powerful, how friendships become obsessions and how dearly we hold on to the idea of someone loving us enough to write to us.

 

 

 

The province in the lead for women’s empowerment

Divulging in to the state of affairs for women in Pakistan is an unsettling activity. Currently ranked at 143rd in the Gender Gap index among 144 countries, Pakistan is among the worst countries to live a life as a woman. Conditions here are worse than in Syria at 142 and slightly better than Yemen at 144. Both these countries are at the epicentre of a global war against terror. It is an unfortunate fact for which the government is culpable and faces regular scrutiny. As we approach this international women’s day, introspection is even more necessary.

International women’s day was commemorated in the memory of 129 working women in 1908 who lost their lives in a factory while protesting for flexible working hours; equal pay and the right to vote. In 2017 our women are still fighting for those rights. I feel the reason we have strayed is because we have not put in an onus where it needs to be — with the government. While I’ve often used this space to take down inaction, it is also important to acknowledge when governments do step up and make women’s rights a priority — albeit after a push from the conscientious civil society.

Despite the prevalence of gravest circumstances with regard to privileges and freedoms women enjoy in Pakistan, there is a strong commitment of the government, both at federal and provincial levels, to empower Pakistani women. The prioritisation of women-friendly legislation at all levels indicates the general will of both the public and the government to address women’s issues. At the least the compass is being fixed.

The best way to go about evaluating government action is to identify and characterise the policy tools employed to address the problem. Categorisation of these policy tools into key dimensions guides the progression of our current analysis. First, what is the nature of activity the government is currently engaged in to address the problem. Then, what is the structure of the delivery system being employed? Then, how centralised is this system? Lastly, does the program require detailed administrative action?

While there is a protest regarding the inactivity of the government to address women issues, particularly at the provincial level, the Government of Punjab has seemingly brought a renewed focus on the subject. They have delved right to a core issue and have come up with notable policy initiatives to empower women in the form of legal protections; outright grants; penalties for violators of women’s rights and provision of key services for their health, education and mobility.

With the creation of a dedicated Women Development Department (WDD) the Government, of Punjab has established a sound institutional mechanism to transform its policies towards gender mainstreaming and equality. A model that ought to be adopted by others.

To tackle the issue of much needed legal protection for women, various amendments and legislations have been signed into law in Punjab. These protections cover the contentious issue of women’s right to inheritance; the issue of harassment at the workplace; child marriages and crimes against women, which include but are not limited to acid burning.

Money disbursements to women contribute in improving the condition of economically disadvantaged women. With the establishment of the Punjab Working Women Endowment Fund Society there is a provision of financial assistance to working women, especially those residing in hostels. This economically strengthens the women who face the worst of orthodoxy, patriarchy and pseudo-religious fanaticism on a daily basis. These contributions though meagre in their value provide a much welcome economic cushion to these women who compete with men in a very hostile environment.

Via this department, the province has made contributions for the provision of services needed to ensure women empowerment. Take for instance the 16 working women hostels that were operationalised to address the concerns of outstation working women in major cities. To address factors that restrict women from active participation in the economic activities the initiative to provide day-care services for working mothers has been launched. With 61 operational day care centres at various public and private sector institutions there is a phenomenal change in the lives of working mothers in Punjab. We are told, 14 more day cares are in the pipeline. Punjab needs thrice that number and more, but it is, at least, a start.

To address violence and litigation issues the Government of the Punjab is establishing Violence against Women (VAW) Centres in Punjab to protect women from physical, economic, and psychological violence. Along with providing VAW centres a dedicated helpline has been established to support women accessing justice and litigation support. More data needs to come in to see if there truly is a follow through.

There is no denying the fact that a lot needs to be done for equality and empowerment of women in Punjab particularly in the areas of poverty alleviation, universal primary education reduction of child mortality, improvement of maternal health, elimination of gender-based violence, mainstreaming of gender perspective in policies and programmes, enhancing training opportunities for women and girls and increasing the participation of women in leadership and decision-making.

It is critical that we garner public support behind government initiatives to improve women’s rights, not to merely trumpet them, but give real support because the development sector can only go so far. Also real on-ground change will come when the government itself realises its mandate towards women and works within its existing infrastructure and system to provide for them.

Anti-Harassment Ombudsperson Unappointed KP

I was in a hotel in Islamabad invited by a friend whose friend had a farewell. It was Ramzan of last year. We were opening our fasts at the sit-down dinner so I chatted to the person next to me who turned out to be a sitting minister of an important development field in K-P. Glad to be in the company of someone who was a decision-maker of a key province, I brought up women, how could I not — how well they are doing there; why you don’t see them on the streets when I recently visited Peshawar; why that is an indication of what agency they hold in all other realms of decision-making and what role they have in the electoral process. After my passionate questions and mini monologue, I realised I was being sort of ridiculed by the men on the round table. All I did was ask for his thoughts — why were they finding it amusing instead of feeling an acute sense of responsibility.

It took me a while to figure out that the minister and his cronies, who also happened to be his relatives, and also interestingly, happened to hold high positions in the K-P government, were openly mocking me and sharing familiar glances, arched eyebrows and all. When I probed, the sitting minister’s cousin said and I paraphrase: These “NGO women” know nothing about the realities of our culture. All they do is sit in five-star hotels and theorise. I’ll tell you a story. A similar woman came to my office to talk about women’s rights and such, I made her eat her words, and I told her: “you need to have a broom handed to you and you also need your tongue cut off. That is your place. Don’t forget that.”

Laughter from them. Out of sheer shock, I smile. Half confused, half eating dust.

A heated argument ensued. Others chipped in. We were told that we need to watch it because we are talking to ministers, not servants. To which we reminded them, they are actually servants to the people they are under contract to protect and to be answerable to. Not running a monarchy. After much ado, we left with the first five minutes of the conversation that went going south at the speed of breeding rabbits. Like all other aggressions, this one too was buried away. What could be done? A few tweets of outrage and then what — some more silence?

Until now, when I learned that there is a petition filed by an NGO person, God bless, Khurseed Bano who runs an aptly named organisation called Da Hawwa Lur (Daughter of Eve). The Peshawar High Court has issued a notice to the K-P Government after his petition, to immediately appoint a suitable person to the position of the anti harassment ombudsperson. This position has remained vacant in K-P for years even when the Protection Against Harassment of Women in the Workplace Act enacted in 2010 stipulates that this is to be done as a priority.

Sindh and Punjab understood that this was imperative. They appointed people to the post. The petition stated that the refusal to appoint someone to this position only spells out an “ulterior motive” on K-P’s part.

K-P’s government, right from its head honchos down to its staff seemingly want to either stay secure in their privilege by keeping women indoors, hidden from public space and civic engagement or certainly modified to have no voice. It’s terribly inconvenient if the status quo is changed. This petition, for instance, is terribly inconvenient.

K-P is abuzz with harassment complaints from women at hospitals, government institutions, and particularly at its universities. Take the University of Peshawar and the Khyber Medical College for instance and track only the harassment cases that make it to the news alone. It’s appalling. A travesty. The way these cases have been patched up is even more unbelievably — completely bereft of due process and justice for the women who dared to come forward. Currently there is no mechanism to address a grievance against men who choose to abuse their power even despite the milestone act protecting women from harassment. What good will acts do if there is zero political will to work towards an equality of all genders.

The women of K-P with the exception of several power-houses who break barriers, have been largely disenfranchised and remained a quietly whimpering group. Maternal mortality; lack of women in the workforce; nutrition deficiencies of the girl child; lack of education opportunities; domestic violence; non-financial inclusion and mobility restrictions are all definitive attributes of most households.

The requirements stipulated in the hiring of the anti-harassment ombudsperson have now been further eased. Now the requirements are loosely defined to include “any woman with 10 years of experience in matters relating to the protection of women against harassment.”

I am sure if you ask the K-P government why they couldn’t find a single woman in the entire province to take that position on all these years, they’ll say because she held a pen instead of a broom and had a sharp tongue instead of a spongy noiseless one. These ombudsperson positions can be lethal to a misogynist government. It is time to ask the K-P government to now finally obey the court order and start the interviewing process and get the person who can expose them for what they are.

Women Harassment App

A woman in Bengaluru, India was walking home one night when she entered a secluded street. Two men on motorbikes turned onto the street. One got off and grabbed her, molested her and then both of them attempted to carry her off. When she resisted, they threw her on the ground with a menacing thud and rode off. All this was caught on CCTV. Then there was the new year’s event in Banglore, India where there was mass groping of women.

Feminism in India’s Japleen Pasricha began a criticism of the Twitter hashtag #NotAllMen that began as a response to claim that not all men are harassers, gropers and rapists. The biggest criticism being that it was neither the time nor the place for men to try and hijack the narrative of women’s outcry over the harassment. We know not all men are criminals and perverts but perhaps remind us of this when there is a lull on the continuous onslaught of offences against women. #YesAllWomen face harassment.

The reason I mention what is going on in India is because it is extremely pertinent to our context here. It is a veritably South Asian mentality to think women who are isolated and unprotected are fair game. That the onus is on them to fend for their security when they are out solo. That somehow it will be too tempting for men to devour her as if she were prey and they were the hunter and that this was a jungle and not a city. That somehow women are sugar and men are ants. As ludicrous as the latter sounds, this was actually uttered in Indian national TV by Abu Azmi of Mumbai, the state leader of a political party. He mirrors only the absurdities our very own politicians and common people mouth on a daily basis.

The Punjab Government has made a smartphone app for women who face a ghastly situation like that women in Bengaluru. This app has the functionality to not only mark safe and unsafe places for women but it actually is linked to a first response law enforcement team that would show up in times like this with the press of a panic button. Instead of lauding this effort, Pakistan’s religious right are calling it unislamic. They say it is in conflict with the Muslim holy book and the constitution based on Islamic principles. What they are essentially claiming is that an attack like the one in Bengaluru should be dealt with silence, inaction and passive observation. Sadly, there are actually many takers of this insanity. What is even sadder is that the mighty women of Islam fought wars and led merchandise caravans on their own, and yet the so-called custodians of our religion want women to be unlike women in Islam’s history.

As spectacular as technology is in providing women safety in public spaces and allowing them to reclaim it, it can also be a bit limiting. Smartphone penetration in Pakistan is amongst the highest in the world, but when you look at the gender breakdown, women own less smart phones than they aught to. This app does leave behind a more rural spread granted, but it is also important to note that it is in the urban landscape where most of the harassment actually takes place. The everyday kind of harassment particularly – the groping, the pinching, the lewd comments and the threats of rape. Perhaps an SMS integrated panic mechanism for women who are non-smart phone users will be a better addition in phase two of this project.

The government is in the best position to put such a mechanism in place because it integrates three essential aspects for this app to be effective – the Police Integrated Command Control and Communication (PPIC3); the geo location and the invaluable data that is being collected on the helpline that is dialed into. Over the years it will help the government zero in on the problem public spaces and transform them into areas where women can be mobile without worrying that they will be assaulted. With women like Fauzia Viqar at the helm of this initiative it seems likely.

By making this app, the Punjab Government has signalled to the ants of the province that women may be sugar but they are not your sugar, they are their own sugar and there is a social contract between them and the government to have and hold them in protection. I see that with this app we can stop equating women to things and prey and equate them to human beings who deserve to thrive in harassment-free environments.

My guess is that many times the app’s panic buttons will be activated against women’s own families and acquaintances – that is where the bulk of abuse takes place. Hopefully the app’s response team is adequately trained to not brush these calls as domestic disturbances and private matters. Technology only goes so far. The mindset is the real challenge in South Asia. Punjab has taken a lead.