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No, ‘Modest’ Clothing Does Not Protect Women From Harassment

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Hijab and burka may be taken due to religious convictions, but in no way do these protect women in the way it is claimed by the orthodox circles. The fundamental reason behind harassment is not merely sexual desire, but also the way men have been raised in our society, writes Raza Habib Raja.

A few weeks ago, a news from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province went viral. It was about the government issuing notification to make hijab compulsory for schoolgirls. The said notification, originally issued with the intention to ‘protect’ women against harassment and rape, led to a lot of controversy. Pakistanis were apparently divided over the step, with some against and some for it.

Those who were for it, argued that Hijab or Burka protects women by inculcating decency which in turn ‘tames’ men’s raging hormones. An extension of this argument is that confining women in the house would also protect them against vices like harassment and rape.

After some pressure, the government withdrew the notification which led to some outcry from those who had originally supported it. Although the said notification was withdrawn, it reignited an age-old debate about linkage between sexual harassment and women’s clothing and their movement in the public places.

It was followed by another news about government distributing burkas in Mardan.

Do decent clothing (clothes which cover them properly) and ‘Char Dewaari’ (confinement in the house) really protect women as claimed by some orthodox circles?

Let’s take hijab or burka first. Any woman, including those who take hijab, would tell you that harassment occurs despite it. Hijab and burka may be taken due to religious convictions, but in no way do these protect women in the way it is claimed by the orthodox circles. This is because the fundamental reason behind harassment is not merely sexual desire but also the way men have been raised. Men have been raised to show needlessly aggressive behavior and are encouraged to put women in their places.

The patriarchal structure of the society conditions men to behave like that by normalising and in fact, at times, even endorsing such acts. “Boys will be boys” kind of justification is still extremely common and sadly, it frames men’s behaviour as something uncontrollable and ‘natural’. In reality, an act of harassment is not just sexual aggression, it is also a twisted expression of patriarchy and shows male insecurity as well.

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The argument that men are just dictated by biology to act like this actually trivialises the issue as it takes responsibility away from them. Harassment is not something hardwired and is not something which men cannot control and yet often our society frames it as such.

Likewise, the argument that women will be safer if they are confined within their houses also demands proper scrutiny. Recently, a woman was raped at her home in Karachi and her rapists included two policemen as well. The aforementioned incident puts at least a question mark over this argument as the said woman was raped inside her house.

Further, two of the rapists actually belonged to police. It is said that a woman should report rape as soon as possible to law enforcement agencies, but what to do when individuals belonging to such agencies are themselves involved? In fact, harassment and rape by members of law enforcement agencies is extremely common in Pakistan. In this case, luckily the woman showed courage and at the end somehow things worked as the culprits got arrested but many cases go unreported due to combination of social stigma attached with rape and fear of the power of such agencies.

Even if one admits that women are safer if they stay at home, this argument is eventually illiberal as instead of reforming men, it seeks solution in restricting women’s freedom. Why should something, for which men are wholly responsible, be addressed by penalising women and restricting their freedom? Women have the right to use public spaces and freedom of movement as much as men have.

Restricting them is not only illiberal but also extremely unfair. Worse, it perpetuates the victim blaming attitude because every time a woman is raped outside her home, we start blaming her decision to go out instead of trying to reform men.

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For too long, we have put responsibility of sexual harassment and rape on women, their clothing and freedom of movement. As a society, we have to address the real source of these vices, which is the way our society raises men and inculcates patriarchal and misogynist attitudes in them. Restricting women and deciding what they should wear, are not the solutions.

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