There is always severe criticism for the “families only” policy which is practiced frequently in Pakistan. Hordes of men have posted on social media against such an inhumane policy that discriminates on the basis of gender. While the families only policy is frequently practiced in Pakistan at concerts, shopping malls and other public places, the recent uproar against it was due to “Karachi Eat” enforcing it. This lead to angry, hungry men, denied of their right to indulge in delicacies provided by some of the best eateries in the city, to crusade on the internet regarding the great injustice meted out towards them. Yes, it seems terrible. No one should be denied such a fundamental right, unless there’s an underlying public interest that outweighs the right in question.

Well, there is such an underlying public interest here; the need to stop harassment of women and provide safe public spaces.

This answer to everyone was provided soon after when girls were harassed at the Atif Aslam concert in Karachi, to the point that the singer had to stop his concert halfway and escort a girl away from the crowd. This highlights a grave problem that plagues our society, the problem which serves as the rationale behind the “families only” policy; the lack of safe public spaces and widespread harassment.

The existence of safe public spaces in a society is vital for its social evolution. These public places serve as platforms of cultural and intellectual exchange fulfilling a vital social function of increasing interaction between different groups of people. They promote dialogue amongst the populace which in turn, harbours feelings of tolerance and mutual respect.

The need to have public spaces which are safe is to ensure that women are not excluded from this integral social process. Gone are the days of women sitting at home, as the world today is committed in its goals of women empowerment and gender equality. An essential component of these goals is to have safe public spaces which allow women to emerge as vibrant members of society.

However, the very purpose of the word “safe” is defeated, when women are openly harassed in public gatherings. Incidents of this nature causes a two-fold problem; first, the victims have to deal with the stigma and trauma that comes with the unfortunate experience, and second, the effect it has on other females, as they are hesitant and reluctant in going to public spaces. Hence, harassment results in the exclusion of women from the public domain, denying them of their right to participate, and denying the society of their valuable input. This analogy also applies to cases of harassment at workplaces and is not limited to public events.

This leads us to the question that what do we do as individuals, as members of this society in the face of this menace? The answer is simple. We look to increase safe public spaces. The creation of safe public spaces is a holistic process which involves effort from different sections of society across different themes and platforms. First, the creation of laws that provide for a safe environment to women, and make justice accessible and expeditious. The recent bill passed in Punjab against women harassment is a step in the right direction and other provinces should follow suit, while Punjab should remain focused on its active implementation. Second, the architectural element of safe places needs to be incorporated with greater lighting and more open space, factors which reduce the probability of such an event to occur. Third, and extremely important is education. Children need to be educated from a young age about respecting women, and how to deal with harassment. This needs to be supplemented with legal literacy and awareness campaigns. Fourth, women need to reclaim public spaces. This needs to be done by increasing their presence in society, be it the workplace, the neighbouring park, or at a concert. The recent Women on Wheels rally in Lahore in which women drove around Lahore on motorbikes, and women visiting roadside dhabas in Karachi and other places, are great examples of women reclaiming the public space. These are some measures which can be adopted in order to curb harassment and provide for safe public spaces.

Harassment, is a grim social reality, which is present in the most developed of societies. It is more widespread in our society due to certain social realities and lack of institutional mechanisms to curb it. While we might not be able to eradicate it completely, we do have a responsibility to mitigate it. The concept of safe public spaces and the families only policy is part of that attempt to fight harassment. Therefore, the next time we criticise the families only policy at an event or a public place, it is important for us to ponder over its need in the first place.