The fifteenth of July saw the parents of Halima Rafiq saying goodbye to their daughter. She was seventeen, a small-town girl with talent who made it to the Pakistan Women’s cricket team with what must have been formidable fast-bowling skill. In societies like ours, girls playing any sport is difficult enough. To make it to a national team takes hours of intensive training, expensive coaching, acquiring the appropriate kit and equipment and an intense commitment to your sport. For a girl like Halima, to be playing for her country means that not only was she a determined young lady, but as a minor, she had parents who supported her all the way. In this case, to the very end.

‘Tragedy’ doesn’t even begin to describe what has happened. Five young women from the women’s team came forward a year ago to expose the sexual harassment they were constantly facing at their workplace. It’s no surprise—the team establishment was initially quashed by the government as an immoral and immodest thing for women to be doing. It’s obvious that while the team’s formation was pushed through, the mindset surrounding it has remained the same. That mindset is sadly more or less the same across the board: when women come out into the public sphere, be it for work, study or play, the attitude is that they have automatically exposed themselves to all kinds of inappropriate behaviour because they are bringing it upon themselves. Who told them to come out of their chaadar and chaar deewari? Who asked girls who love sports to seriously pursue their passion? Who asked for girls to go to medical school? To drive alone? Women in public places automatically become public property.

Fortunately there are still sane voices amongst us and intelligent, brave parents who insist on supporting their sons and daughters equally through life. Sexual harassment is an issue widely affecting women, but men are victims too. The five ladies—and later only Halima, who was the last woman standing—alleged that men in positions of authority demanded sexual favours in return for promotions or a place on the team. I’m sure this kind of behaviour is not unknown to the young men competing similarly for places on national sports teams. The Alliance Against Sexual Abuse (AASHA) defines sexual harassment as unwelcome attention that takes on a sexual tone, be it unwanted physical contact of any kind, verbal abuse or insinuations that make a workplace hostile. The most common manifestations of sexual harassment are an abuse of power and authority and the creation of a hostile work environment. It sounds like the Multan Cricket Club was engaging in both. Astonishingly, in October last year, a news report described how a two-member inquiry ‘committee’ interviewed three of the five girls who had alleged the sexual misconduct. They denied any such thing happening, and all five girls were banned for six months. Strangely, Ms. Rafiq did not appear in front of this committee and yet seems to be the one towards whom the subsequent defamation suit was directed. There seems to be no mention of this committee’s further investigations into the sexual harassment; surely five girls stepping forward should mean more than a summary dismissal of allegations just because some of them denied it? It seems too pat—seventeen year old girls from modest families are easily intimidated by people with power, and for them to come forward at all must have taken a great deal of courage. Instead of taking its players seriously, it sounds like this very thorough committee gratefully clutched at a reason to rid themselves of the embarrassment and get it over with as soon as possible.

It is difficult and downright horrible to find the words to describe being sexually harassed, and 99% of us have been at some point in our lives. Think of the times you went to the bazaar and someone tried to touch you, whistled, sang a cheap song as you passed. The stories you’ve heard from friends, cousins, neighbours about that nasty cook or weird maulvi sahib or maali that made you feel uncomfortable when he looked at you. Sexual harassment doesn’t just happen out of nowhere. Girls and boys don’t just imagine it. It is real, and it is scarring and when we tell people who are brave enough to talk about it to be quiet and sit back down, we are telling them that it is okay that someone has taken advantage of them. That it’s all right for someone to tell a child—lets not forget Halima was seventeen when she died, and younger when the harassment began—to do something disgusting in exchange for a position she had a right to. This isn’t just tragic. This is criminal. This is showing molesters and child abusers that they can get away with their sick intentions. This is telling parents to be afraid to send their children into the world to make their lives better. I salute Halima’s parents. They seem like simple people, no airs and graces. And they let their daughter follow her dream. They let her be a fast bowler, to go to cricket camp and put on her jeans and cricket kit and play.

They are the same kind of parents that I saw manifested in my classmates at Punjab University every day—the ones confidently arguing in class, writing competent papers and slinging their dupattas over their heads before they went home on the bus. That was all happening because there were parents at home who wanted their children to do well for themselves. Instead of applauding and supporting amazing, open-minded parents, we let them be beaten down by a system that ignores them on their darkest days. A system that sees them the object of police action because they didn’t file an FIR to investigate their dead daughter, a system that sees them on the losing side of a 20 million rupee defamation lawsuit. A seventeen year old drank toilet cleaning acid in despair because nobody believed her. It’s too late for Halima—she will never run down another pitch, finish school, hold a baby in her arms. But it isn’t too late for the rest. The Women’s Wing of the PCB can still launch a serious inquiry into sexual harassment in the organization, with a mirror inquiry for the men’s side. It can set into place guidelines for the report of harassment with protection for the reporter and clear punishments for perpetrators. It can send a clear message to its players: that they take care of their own, and they aren’t alone.

n    The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.