Walk in her shoes

Walk in her shoes
In California, a social worker and volunteer Frank Baird, did a novel thing. He started a walk, for a mile. It was no ordinary walk. He started walking in women’s shoes – pointed stilettos. He did this to create awareness about violence against women – rape, sexual abuse and harassment. He wanted to engender not only awareness, but empathy with women. Baird’s idea has since spread to many cities and the simple act of walking in women’s shoes became a small but significant step towards sharing a “woman’s experience”.

It would be too much to expect our proud Butts, Mians and Sheikhs to walk down Lahore’s Mall in high heels, in solidarity with women. Nor can we expect the already well-heeled Seths, Memons or Vaderas to do the same on I.I. Chundrigarh Road in Karachi. But it is not too much to ask them to try and understand what happens to women on the street and even at home, when they are preyed upon. And even if they can’t bring themselves to “do” anything about it, Pakistani men can certainly listen to women.

Listening to what women are saying, listening to their experiences and listening to their travails, with an open heart and mind would be a beginning. This listening is a must if we want to have a stable, productive and just society. But do we? Or are men only interested in business as usual?

Lahore’s population is estimated to be around 11 million. Karachi is touching 20 million. A half of that would be in excess of five and ten million respectively. NGOs and groups like Madadgar helpline put the percentage of women facing sexual harassment at around 70 percent. Some would call that exaggerated. Is 50 percent then acceptable to detractors who are finicky about facts and figures, statistics and evidence? That is still enough women to  cause “some” worry. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan collects data of abuse, harassment and even heinous offences like rape by monitoring 15 newspapers. The reported figures hover around a few hundred. The same goes for police records. So what are we missing?

We are missing the voice of over two millions women; grown-ups and minors, educated and illiterate, and urban as well as rural. Those who are harassed in bazaars and offices, at the hands of near ones and strangers alike. These include privileged and deprived alike. Their voices are often muted. The social cost is high, the risk even higher. Even when someone chooses to speak up, patriarchy reacts in unison. The victim becomes the offender and faces a trial instead of vice versa. The disruption for society becomes unbearable, when there are greater, “more pressing” issues. When the problems have to do with provision, or lack thereof, of basic services to the citizenry, when power equations are a settled matter, no one wants to listen to a disruptor, a spoiler.

And the default response is always this: “surely, she must have been asking for it” and if not that, then, “how can she shame herself and her family before the world?” The preferred option is always silence, or “dealing with the matter” behind closed doors, so as to “protect everyone’s honour”.

In any harassment allegation, the accuser has the most to lose. The accuser loses even if she is proven right and the accused does not necessarily lose even if he is proven wrong. One just has to look around and see that harassers are thriving socially and those who leveled allegation are stigmatized. In no other form of injury allegation, does the victim lose even in the process of enquiry.

The muting of voices discourages victims and encourages harassers. One voice sounds weird because it is just one voice. The more women speak out, the more a system of deterrence will evolve. The courts are filled with hundreds of thousands of complaints. Not all are decided in favor of the complainant. Some fail for want of evidence, some are frivolous. In the court of public opinion spread over electronic and social media, claims and counter claims are made. The victims have the right to choose the forum at which they prefer to express their grievance, just as the alleged harassers have the right to defend themselves.

At the end of the day, a harasser can only be deterred if he fears that his conduct might be on Facebook, his advances be called in to question and his image dented.

Men have a choice. They can show empathy and walk in her shoes, even in their minds if not out in the open. By doing so, they might realize what women go through. The benefits of listening are far more than muting. An issue of such existential import to half the country’s population is an issue with existential meaning for all of us. A society with empathy is a society with justice.