Stay home, stay safe: Dissecting the mysterious South Asian way of protecting women

This wouldn’t have happened if you were not out. 

But why did you go alone? 

Please be mindful on roads. 

Ride in groups only. 

This is the gist of the well-wishes cum advice that came my way: questioning my competence and inferring that my gender played a role in a bad crash that happened last week.

Life as a female biker is adventurous, but at the same time bumpier than the roads of Karachi. Competence doesn’t help: you have to develop a thick skin in order to survive the roads and society as a female bike rider.

The repulsive realisation after running a girl's cycling group and doing road biking for about two years is: discrimination is always part of the deal. Riding a bicycle isn’t a big deal unless it’s a woman riding. This invisible bias isn’t new, in fact it's normal.

Women throughout the country live the same fate. In case anybody wonders it must be better in other cities. In a personal conversation with an Islamabad-based national athlete, when asked if the Islamabad’s crowd was any different, she stated: "No part of this country is safe for women." If this is Islamabad, the elite capital where education and money are abundant, it’s not hard to conceive what it is like in other cities. 

In the East, the safety net for women starts and ends at home. Home is your sweet, safe spot. Stepping outside is an invitation to harassment. Any female who bypasses this chartered territory absolves her right to ask for protection, security and safe access to public spaces.

The standard protocol is: “Hidden is safe.” 

This prevalent South Asian way of protecting women has never gone through any scrutiny whatsoever. The parameters of which deem only a woman at home worthy of honour and security. In Pakistan, a country run by Islamic laws, there is a culture of gauging actions against social norms, which were shaped by living in union with neighbouring India for centuries. This further translates into societal standards with zero Islamic value.

Islam prides itself on bestowing special rights to women. However, women are expected to be contented with this entitlement but never exercise any. Muslims in particular are only interested in assessing how good women are in dispensing their duties. Any discourse or radical conversation to exercise their rights are either shamed or shunned.

Men lauded as guardians of women aren’t the only ones perpetuating crimes against women. A huge chunk of society is lopsided on extending the courtesy of safety to “morally good women” only. The standards are screwed, being violated is socially accepted, but reporting it isn’t.

The feminist efforts are just a facelift, as the conviction rate for violence against women is only 1–2.5 per cent. UNFPA found that one in two Pakistani women who have experienced violence never sought help or told anyone about the violence they had experienced. From the list of non-existent support systems, ineffective legislation, and a patriarchal society- women end up taking the blame.

Gender-based violence happens globally, but culprits are empowered in a culturally patriarchal society like ours, where abuse is normalised and seeking support is discouraged. In any unfortunate event, rationality takes the back seat, the onus is on the woman while the other party walks free. Accidents can happen to anyone.

Men aren’t immune to it but are also never advised to be at home as a strategy to avoid incidents like these. Women on the other hand are expected to go incognito in order to be safe. If there’s one word to define this, it’s invisible discrimination against women. Change in minds and behaviour is the call of the hour but challenging the status quo requires a lot of legwork- mainly unlearning. A phenomenon our society is yet not ready for.