Between September 25 and October 5 this year, 13 women were stabbed on the streets of Karachi’s District East. A man whizzed past on a red motorcycle, slapping them on the lower body and stabbing them with a sharp instrument. The media became captivated with these incidents; police started looking for the ‘mad man’ behind the violence. Similar events were recalled in Punjab, between 2013 and 2016.
These incidents baffled many. As hate crimes against women, they require an ‘othering’ of someone we all have an intimate connection with. The crimes were of a violent sexual nature. Women were hit and stabbed on their lower body. As one victim reports, “I felt a hand on the back of my thigh. I was shocked and froze – with anger and embarrassment – as the motorcyclist sped away … I hurriedly entered the house and it was when I felt pain in my thigh area. My clothes were wet with blood.”
The attacker’s selection of victims was indiscriminate, shutting up any lazy explanations stemming from the ‘good woman/bad woman’ narrative in our society. The victims included a housewife and mother of three children, a 13-year-old girl going to school and a female domestic worker stepping out to work. The only thing these women had in common was that they were out on the street.
Media reports suggest that these incidents instil fear in women trying to access public space. The reports also indicate that women from lower and middle classes were disproportionately affected by the attacks and that decisions about how to respond were taken by heads of families, mostly male. Where they had the means, families withdrew ‘their’ women from the streets.
The identity of the perpetrator is still shrouded in mystery. Who could this person be? What do they have against women? Police are convinced that the suspect is mentally ill. The discourse in the media is largely sensationalist and ignores the root cause of the incidents. These are not standalone events, although horrifically more violent than many others. Every day, there are incidents, some violent and some not, many sexual, that attempt to erase women from public space, make them invisible and mute their voices. As we saw with the #MeToo social media campaign, everywhere – in political parties, work places, marketplaces, the street – women are fighting both externally and internally, to operate outside the char dewari. To confine these 13 events as just 13 incidents in Karachi’s District East cuts them from the larger struggle.
These incidents call on us as women to step back and take a long hard look at what we are up against. Those who assault women do not discriminate on age, or clothing, the shape of your body, whether you are married or not, or have children or not. The fact that you are there is enough. Any internal voices that say that you or other women “invited” assault are not yours but of the patriarchy that lives around and in you.
These incidents call on us to push against the very real fear when something this horrible happens to ourselves or other women. The trauma is real but we cannot let it silence us. This is our collective problem and we have to act collectively. But for us to do that, we will have to stop judging ourselves and each other, and experience our shared womanhood in a space of internal and collective healing.
These incidents call on us to collectively defy, one more time, any attempts by anyone to push us back in the char dewari. Patriarchy can be violent and cruel; I am not advocating being unsafe. But we cannot be accomplices in our own invisibility. Of course, there are times when we must turn inwards to restore ourselves, but when we feel ready we owe it to ourselves and each other to come back out and take the space that belongs to all of us as human beings and equal citizens of this country.
Noorulain Masood works on fostering leadership for social change as the Founder/CEO of the Center for Social Innovation in Developing Countries, and as Director, Research to Action at the Collective for Social Science Research. She was also the CEO of an educational non-profit called Teach For Pakistan and worked on the themes of equity and gender at the World Bank Headquarters. She has studied International Development at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.