The recent attack on a woman in Jinnah Park, Islamabad is a reminder of how unsafe and unwelcoming public spaces in the country can be, especially for women. The woman was walking in the park with a male friend when she was accosted by men who claimed to be security staff of the park. They proceeded to rob the duo and sent them out through separate exits, after which one of the men reportedly raped the woman. The crime itself is alarming for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that the perpetrators had the time to rob, rape and escape without the incident being noticed for the next four days, until the victim filed a First Information Report (FIR) in a police station.
In a situation like this, it is almost impossible to imagine the trauma that the woman went through – that it took four whole days for her to file a report tells us about the psychological impact of the assault. The worst part about this is that recovering from an ordeal like this is never easy and tends to stay with the victims for a long time, if not forever.
The notion of women being in public spaces has become more unfathomable to some over the course of Pakistan’s history; where a woman dares to step out of the house, her presence is met by stares, catcalls and worse. To exacerbate the problem, in many cases the police is not much better – many women that are in public spaces with male friends are asked what their relationship is and whether her parents or family know that she is in the presence of a man. Women are seen as having no agency of their own, and only exist in relation to the men of their family.
Finding the culprits and punishing them as extensively as possible under the law is imperative, and it is heartening to see that the police already has suspects in custody – three CDA personnel and two employees of a private security firm. Following through on the investigation and a trial is necessary to provide justice to the victim. Punishment for the culprits and deterrence from future crimes of this nature are also important, however, as far as the last aspect is concerned, our justice system does not seem to be achieving the deterrence principle, judging by the number of crimes of a similar nature that are perpetrated often and with impunity. This is down to the number of crimes that go unpunished, poor investigative skills that do nothing to bring convincing evidence against perpetrators at the time of trial, inefficiency and incompetence of the justice system and other issues.
There is no quick fix solution for the problem of safety in public places, nor is there an easy target to lay the blame on. Sure, the police could be reprimanded for not following through on security protocols or not having enough personnel in or around the park, but laying all the blame at one institution’s feet is actually not helpful either; this is a societal problem. Crime is commonplace across the world, but the fact that domestic and sexual abuse against women in South Asia is so rampant tells us something about deeply embedded traditions of violence against women.
Beyond this, there is an outright failure of the state to make public places feel safer for the average citizen. Acts of terror at the hands of the militant extremists is a separate issue, but the feeling of not feeling safe in one’s own city due to crimes of this nature is just as big a factor in making public spaces feel unwelcome for the average citizen.
My time in a foreign country has taught me to appreciate Pakistan for a multitude of reasons – the country is not far behind its European counterparts in many ways, except for this one important point. Protecting the lives and property of citizens takes precedence above all else, and part of the charm of European cities is the fact that spending extended periods in public places that are not restaurants or other enclosed spaces makes these cities seem more lively than ours back in Pakistan. Using parks and other spaces designed for the public is essential to give citizens an outlet where spending money is not necessary and the average person, regardless of their status, spending power or gender can feel like they are welcome and safe in the place they call home.
The writer is a former member of staff.