As a child, I enjoyed reading the Words of Wisdom column. I gave those sayings a lot of weightage, as I believed people shared these jewels after going through plenty of experiences in life.

 One day, I came across a saying that said, “Girls should be seen and not heard.” I did not understand, and went up to my mother to ask her to explain it to me. She said that girls should not be loud and should only be visible from far away. I did not delve any further. Her explanation made me visualize a girl draped in a duppatta (long scarf), walking quietly; her face barely decipherable and her presence indistinguishable from the background she stood in.

Even as a child, I was not that girl. I was loud and everyone in my neighborhood knew me. I wore shorts and a t-shirt, matched them with my older brother’s. I had short hair similar to my brother’s— we both went to the same barbershop. I ran faster than all the girls in my neighborhood and school, and competed with boys during race and cycling. My brother and his older friends did not think I was good enough to play cricket with them, but I still made my presence felt by fielding.

As a teenager, I was often advised to modify my personality, be soft tempered and more reserved. I dismissed these suggestions. I never understood what “behaving more like a girl” meant, because in my honest opinion, I was not rebellious—I just trying to live at the same level as my brother. I accepted the rules that were applicable to both of us, not just to me. I was not seeking to challenge authority; I just would not accept rules that only arose because of the difference in our genders. My gender should not pose any hurdles in my life.

I remember being told that after my marriage, my husband would be the one to wear the pants in the house. Shalwar kameez (which the majority of girls Pakistan wear) had been deemed a sign of domesticity while pants were a sign of authority. This meant that I should understand that my future husband would always have the final say.

 As I grew older, my choice to stay defiant grew with me. I felt invincible: I believed I could navigate and negotiate my presence in society without the need for men to hover and guard me. I think part of this confidence has to do with the fact I was sheltered by my family from the outside world. I was always cushioned, told to be careful as I did not “understand” society. I was never put in a position to be on my own. Occasionally, I had dealt with catcalls and stares from strange men on street as I passed by, or honking and speed driving by men while I drove by. I always confronted men in such scenarios to challenge their belief that a woman will stay silent and not respond. My confrontation did scare them and they backed off and avoided me, leading me to be convinced that I could take care of myself. I really had to start rethinking this belief of invincibility, though, when I took on my first job.

Three different coworkers—under three different circumstances—told me that men would likely misunderstand me, exposing me to uninvited male attention and advancements. After hearing it for the first time, I nodded; the second time, I raised my eyebrow; the third time, I was surprised. What was I doing that was so radically different from other women that men would likely misunderstand my intentions? I was talking to them on equal terms, without using my female gender as a crutch. They were not used to that. Men expected me to be reserved while talking to them; better yet I should avoid talking to them. I spoke to them as I would speak to any of my female co-worker. Perhaps this made them question my intentions: if I was bold enough to speak to them without hesitation, would I also be okay with their uninvited advancements?  

Other women in my office would keep to themselves and only talk when it was needed. They gave limited information about their whereabouts and background; they would not share their thoughts and opinions. They were seen in the office, but not heard much. I did the opposite. I was promoted to lead the team that was majorly composed of men: I was heard and followed. I had a point of view regarding how the organization should run and I not only communicated it but also redirected the tasks to achieve that end. 

 My visibility unfortunately also made me the target of an intense harassment from a former colleague after I did not reciprocate his feelings and ended all forms of communication and contact with him. Just to push me to agree, he emotionally manipulated me, blackmailed me, threatened me with physical and psychological harm. He disrupted my inner peace. I was emotionally exhausted by continuously having to ward him off and contain his blowback—I had a difficult time keeping my head held high at times.

I endured his actions against me for sometime: he reached out to my family members and people I interacted with on Facebook to speak ill of my character; he stalked me; made fake social media profiles to publicly defame me—to show that I have loose morals. He did this to put pressure on me so I could change my mind, or bear the consequences for hurting his fragile ego and feelings. In the face of this harassment, I was advised to become invisible: to deactivate my Facebook account; to change my phone number—not be seen or heard for some time. I questioned my actions: Did my naivety regarding the society cause me to get entangled in this mess? Did I deserve this abuse?

I confided my ordeal to an expert who has overseen cases of harassment and abuse against women before. Reluctant and embarrassed, I asked her if people would blame me for bringing this onto myself? She said:

“You never know. You can never be sure about people’s reactions even if you had put an end to it early on. We do not prepare our girls to handle situations like these.”

Her words comforted me—I felt unburdened by the guilt that I should have known better and should have been able to handle it better. Her words unhinged me from my mask of invincibility.

I was always told how I should be careful about society, and told to hide away, rather than being given proper advice or tools to handle such circumstances. I was ill prepared to handle such abuse. After tolerating his behavior for a while, I again did what I knew best, I spoke against it. It was his words against mine: I knew if I was unafraid of judgments that I would likely face then I would win this war against him. My silence would embolden him, and it would be considered my weakness. I was no longer staying silent to not complicate this issue further, to brush it under the rugs. I had to break the taboo by speaking about the harassment I faced. I asked another acquaintance of mine: what would he achieve by character assassinating me? My contact replied that from the standpoint of your harasser, he is playing all the right cards. His line of defense and point of attack against me was by deploying patriarchy. 

Patriarchy has reserved certain roles for women, mostly as caregiver—the most important job a woman can have is to be a mother. Those who step out of line by being anything more are looked down upon-- they are already making themselves vulnerable by stepping out of their homes. Women are protected by being policed on how they should dress and behave, and restricting their movement and contacts. It is considered an acceptable fact that society is unsafe for women thus women are burdened with the responsibility to not attract male attention and be invisible, not to be seen and heard. The responsibility to protect the honor of women, who follow the path that has been charted for them since birth, lies on the male members of their family.

If a woman’s visibility gets her in trouble, then she is to be blamed. She should have known better, followed the laid down rules and behavioural conduct. Most women stay quiet while facing abuse and harassment: they are afraid to turn to their families for support as they would be blamed for stepping out of line and bringing it onto themselves; their freedom will be taken away.

Patriarchy justifies violence against women who are labelled characterless, and deemed to possess loose morals. This is what my harasser was trying to achieve; just because I did not budge into his demands, he wanted to throw ink onto my character so my family could rebuke me. 

Patriarchy considers women meek, thus it is unmanly to fight them. The best way to take revenge against them is to drop hints to her family of her immorality, arousing men on “ghairat” (honor). Their own families are left to deal with them as they had brought dishonor—women have to justify their innocence as their mere visibility in public spaces has led to this. My harasser wanted to communicate to my family and friends that I am to be blamed for his “justified” behavior against me. Male family members who do not punish their women in such scenarios are “beghairat” (shameless), open to rebuke from society. When my family who are educated pushed back, he had the audacity to claim that my family is shameless.

I have come to the conclusion that harassment and abuse in our society will only stop when women will be considered as equal, fellow human beings: their worth will not be defined by their relationships with men, or the family they stem from. When their breathing and sense of reason will be enough to grant them equal status and consideration. When they will no longer be responsible for uplifting or bringing down the dignity and honor of their families, through their behavior and actions—when they will no longer be expected to fit a patriarchal mold. 

Recently, I was tutoring a few girls English in my neighborhood. As I bid one of the girls’ mothers goodbye when she came to drop her off at my place, she asked me to let her know when it is time to pick them up; do not let them go alone. I empathise with her: our society will remain unsafe for girls and women until all of us make a conscious effort to teach our sons about consent and respecting women. It will also remain unequal until we teach our daughters how to develop strong backbones and speak up for themselves.