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Last Updated: Monday, 29 November, 2004, 09:03 GMT
High cost of Pakistani women's silence

By Nadia Asjad
BBC News, Rawalpindi

Najma is very upset. A man follows her wherever she goes in her home city of Rawalpindi.

Naheeda Mehboob Elahi
Lawyer Naheeda Mehboob Elahi found her advice was ignored

He leers at her, says provocative or obscene things about her appearance or even touches and gropes her.

Najma feels helpless. She can't do anything except ignore him.

But now he's done something really spiteful. He's pulled up his trousers to show Najma her name written with blood on his leg. Najma is terrified.

Najma - not her real name - finally musters courage and contacts a women's rights lawyer, Naheeda Mehboob Elahi.

The lawyer tells her that she's done the right thing by contacting her.

However Najma refuses to act on any of the solutions suggested by the lawyer.

Najma says she's afraid to disclose this situation to others. She fears that any action taken against the man might trigger an even worse reaction from him. She's also afraid of the embarrassment and shame that it would bring to her.

She says her father and brothers are very strict and they would confine her to her house if they found out.

'Keep silent'

The lawyer says she deals with countless cases of sexual harassment but most of the victims refuse to pursue the cases any further because they share the same fears as Najma.

"Right from the moment a girl is born, she's taught to keep silent no matter what happens to her," says Shahnaz Bokhari, a psychologist and chief co-ordinator of a non-governmental organisation, the Progressive Women's Association in Islamabad.

Shahnaz Bokhari
Shahnaz Bokhari - girls are taught not to speak up for themselves

"Girls are taught that it's a sin to speak up for yourself and contradict your father, brothers or husband.

"We have snatched away all the courage and confidence of our girls but when something happens to them, we say 'Why didn't she protest, why didn't she raise her voice?'"

No matter how badly women suffer in conservative Pakistani households, women activists argue that society forces them to believe that it's in their best interest to be silent.

A study conducted by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) suggests that incidents of sexual harassment against women are on the rise, while the data collected officially shows a different, less serious picture.

"It's considered a sin to use the word 'rape' in many social circles. Some years back, even the English newspapers, which are considered quite liberal in their approach, preferred other words to refer to incidents of rape," says Shahnaz Bokhari.

She questions why people hesitate to use the word when this crime is so prevalent?

A major concern for sexually-harassed women is their self-image.

If others find out what is happening to them, they will often suffer shame and embarrassment.

There are certain myths in Pakistani society. Almost every woman who has been harassed sexually feels guilty to some extent.

The "if only" list is endless - "If only I had locked the door, if only I had dressed differently, if only I hadn't gone there alone."

And that, it seems, adds to the pressure not to speak up.

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