Some weeks ago I learnt of a very disturbing incident involving a few college girls and a rickshaw driver bringing them back to campus after a late-night movie. The university in question has a list of officially-approved drivers that are allowed to park outside campus for use by students, and this particular rickshaw-wallah was pretending to be one of those. After the vehicle mysteriously breaking down, the girls recounted how two men on a motorcycle kept driving past them, standing at the roadside while the driver attempted to fix his rickshaw. The motorcycle men seemed to know the driver, speaking to him several times, which put the girls on their guard. Luckily, one had the presence of mind to call the police when the driver attempted to find them another rickshaw to take home, after which the rickshaw miraculously came to life and the driver took them straight back to campus. Of course, because this is Pakistan, at first the police admonished the girls for being out so late, and then several different officers took the trouble to call them every five minutes to inquire after their well-being. When one of them finally threatened (again) to use legal action, the policeman said “aap tou mind kar gayeen, main tou care kar raha tha”—you’re taking this so personally, I was just being nice. Someone calling you for help does not need you to be nice, they need you to be professional and competent officers who can offer protection, not a liberal dose of phone sleaziness.

Sadly enough, this is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to women and public transport. I have no experience of what men have to face, but I can make an educated guess at how often they find themselves stranded by the side of the road whilst their vehicle driver has dodgy conversations with strangers on motorcycles. Women, on the other hand, are the victims of the Great Noble Woman conspiracy: on the one hand, the honour of mankind is vested in them and on the other; they are the focus of all of mankind’s beyghairati. The grand rhetoric of the paak daaman of women’s, everyone’s sister and mother, seems to fly out of men’s heads the minute they see a woman going about her normal business. Put her on a bus, train or wagon and all hell breaks loose. There is a reason why many or the larger buses have a women’s section, or the Metro in Delhi has a separate women’s carriage altogether. Desi men just can’t seem to leave women in public spaces alone.

The logic seems to be sinisterly clear: good women are invisible ones, and that means the one who stay home. The public gaze is one of masculine appropriation, and women who venture out into it are taken to automatically represent a woman of low morals. A woman is up for grabs, because if she has the temerity to be out late (or in a desi context, out at all), then she must be asking for it. Add to that the issue of class and clothing. Surprisingly, it doesn’t seem to matter much. Many lower-income young women who go out to work, from domestic labour to working in shops, opt to swathe themselves in a burka as a shield against the public eye. The idea is to present armour against it by appearing in the most pious, hands-off costume possible short of a blue Afghan shuttlecock. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but at least they are trying. The average college-going, more independent and probably more upwardly-mobile young woman will hop into a rickshaw or bus sans black robe, perhaps with a dupatta covering her hair or wrapped around her denim. The gaze doesn’t change. It might even aggravate the sense of disconnect between a potential attacker and his perception of his victim—that the mobile phone-toting girl with short hair is so far removed from any kind of female he can identify with that molestation is perfectly acceptable; an otherization of the most violent and terrifying sort. It could even swing the other way; that the more familiar female seems more accessible because of her familiarity, and also he contrast she provides to the other ‘respectable’ women in an aggressor’s life. A girl ‘like that’ doesn’t deserve respect.

Shut away in a car I often see men sitting under trees in parks and green belts, chatting or napping or just looking at the sky. I envy them their casual freedom, the confidence with which they inhabit the public arena. As a woman I am on their sufferance; if I’m in Main Market and nobody sings a song when I pass, it is only because some man didn’t feel like it at that moment, not because I am safe in the knowledge that society as a whole has got my back. If two girls can go out to see a film or out to dinner and take a cab back home without feeling afraid, it’s only because their cab driver was a decent man, or just that he didn’t want to be creepy at that particular time. It won’t be because he knows if he tries anything funny he’ll go to jail, that the police will be on him in a second, that he will be a social outcast for being a pervert and a predator. If the police are just as sleazy and disgusting as the aggressor one is trying to report, then you know that you’re not in Kansas any more. Then you better learn a few self-defense moves, carry pepper spray and a rape whistle and never, ever go anywhere alone. In other words, always be dependent on company, and always be afraid, because that is precisely how society conspires to keep women out of the way.

Nobody is ever, ever ‘asking for it’. There is plenty of evidence to show that no matter what you wear, what time of day it is and where you are, an aggressor can get you if he wants to. This is true across cultures across the world: women in public spaces never feel truly safe. The irony is that women will always occupy public spaces as long as there are jobs and educations to be had, children to be ferried around, shopping to be done, lives to be lived. The only defense we have against the perverts is courage and intelligence. And a really fatal groin-kick.