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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 November, 2004, 17:43 GMT
Pakistan's taboo on sex abuse
By Nadia Asjad
BBC reporter, Islamabad

Rape victim Irshad Bibi
Rape victim Irshad Bibi - few women dare to speak out
A group of Lahore women factory workers complain they are greeted each morning by their bus driver unzipping his trousers.

A university student in Islamabad, Saira, recalls one of her professors: "He would pat our backs, touch our hands whenever possible and stare at us suggestively."

And a woman from Pakistan's most conservative region, North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), discovers that her husband molested her son's wife: "When we all protested, he divorced me and threw me out of his house," she said.

It is clear that sexual harassment is a widespread problem across the country.


Ranging from "Eve teasing" - as sexual taunting is often referred to in South Asia - to disturbing numbers of gang rapes, sexual harassment is affecting women in villages and cities alike.

Women in Balochistan regional assembly
Even women in politics face sexual harassment

Yet the problem has been ignored by society in general and by the government.

Even women themselves have said little in the face of a social value system that makes it difficult to speak out.

The Karachi-based organisation Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Aid (LHRLA) raises awareness and provides legal aid to women victims of sexual harassment.

LHRLA president Zia Ahmed Awan says that even educated women in Pakistan do not understand what harassment is.

"Sexual harassment does not just mean an act of physical offence. It starts from any gesture, stares or remarks that make women feel insecure and uncomfortable - while rape, molestation, incest etcetera remain the most severe forms of sexual harassment," he says.

Sexual stares

Among the most common forms of harassment in Pakistan are the discomforting gazes that follow a woman wherever she goes, as soon as she sets foot outside her home.

Malka Khan, Aurat Foundation, Karachi
Malka Khan is involved in combating harassment in Karachi
They are so common that many women do not even consider them an abuse.

"I often advise girls and women to start wearing sunglasses in public in order to avoid eye-contact with males who stare at them and make them feel uncomfortable," says Zia Awan.

And the unwelcome male attention also extends to the workplace.

Women employees in a range of organisations in the cities tell tales of bosses and colleagues making unjustified demands.

One woman working in a multinational company in Islamabad told me that her boss was pressing her to go on a date with him.

In return, she says, he is offering her not only a salary rise, but a promotion as well.

Suffering in silence

Incidents of harassment and molestation are being reported at workplaces, public venues and universities from all over the country, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

Pakistani women making bricks
Sexual harassment is a problem in both villages and cities

Its figures show that this year between January and August, 175 women including 24 minors were gang raped and 225 were raped, of which 38 were minors.

Ten women were stripped naked publicly - a practice sometimes used to punish women considered to have brought shame on their communities.

These are the forms of extreme sexual abuse. Most cases of sexual harassment go unreported - but some figures suggest cases are increasing.

For example, in 2002, 12 women were stripped in public places - in 2003, the number rose to 40.

Combating the problem is difficult. Women don't want to discuss these issues. They prefer to suffer in silence.

Like the woman from NWFP, thrown out by her husband for protesting when he molested a relative, they fear that if they speak up, they will take the blame and lose face in society.

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