November 20, 2023
ISLAMABAD – Walking has to be one of the most mundane things any human being can do. Yet around half of our population — women and other marginalised bodies have to think twice before engaging in this seemingly simple act.
Having been born and raised in Karachi, I have always associated public spaces with diverse groups of people, meaningful interactions, and of course, the constant fear of things going awry.
Growing up, I was taught to be vigilant while walking on the streets, to conceal any valuable belongings, to walk confidently without giving strangers a reason to approach me, and in case someone did approach, to hope that they wouldn’t physically harm me.
I have now learned to ignore the stares and occasional catcalls and consider myself fortunate if I return home with all my possessions intact. If you are a woman, you are considered even luckier if you make it home without someone harassing you on your way.
For most of us, this encapsulates what living in Karachi is like.
Perhaps this explains why when I set foot in Kathmandu, one of the oldest cities in the world, I felt an inherent wave of hesitancy while walking on the streets for the first time. My conditioned brain was on “alert mode” as I tightly clasped my phone and looked for directions on Google Maps. The fear of mugging aside — something natives of Karachi have learned to live with — I was wary of any and all forms of public harassment I could potentially face.
Yet as I walked during my week-long visit to Nepal, I felt an indescribable joy — the pleasure of merely walking and claiming a public space. It felt like I finally understood what Lefebvre and other urban planners mean by the “right to the city”.
Depending on where you’re staying in Kathmandu — in my case, Thamel — everything can be within walking distance. Even when it didn’t seem very close, the city’s walking culture encouraged me to stroll to markets, restaurants and cafes. Before I knew it, I was walking to nearly every destination, with my tiny digital camera in one hand and my phone, with the Google Maps app open, in the other.
A couple of days into navigating the city’s narrow streets and alleyways on foot, I found immense joy and satisfaction in this simple act. I began to ponder: why was I so content while doing something so ordinary?
As I contemplated this thought over the next few days, I came to the realisation that it wasn’t merely walking that brought me profound pleasure; rather, it was the fact that I could walk safely in an urban space.
Perhaps it was the fact that I was in an area popular among tourists and somehow that had something to do with safety in the area. Or maybe the reasons for this were deeply rooted within the place’s culture and history.
Intrigued by this, I initiated a comparison between two South Asian cities, Karachi and Kathmandu, both situated in the same region and following similar developmental patterns.
Women in the public sphere
Throughout history, there has been a clear dichotomy between the public and private spheres, which has often led to the confinement of women to the private domain in many societies. Ironically, it was around the age of Enlightenment in Western Europe, when progressive ideas around liberty were circulating, that a socially constructed distinction emerged between the public male political “culture” and the private female apolitical “nature.”
This binary concept of public and private was not confined to the West. Through colonialism, these ideas seeped into the colonies, and India, known as Britain’s prized possession, inherited many of them. While these ideas amalgamated and took on a local character, the fundamental notion of women primarily belonging to the home persisted in postcolonial Pakistan.
The many shades of Kathmandu
If I were to encapsulate Kathmandu’s culture in a phrase, I would describe it as a fusion of heritage sites, temples, and a vibrant nightlife scene.
Wandering through the bustling markets was one of the rare occasions where I felt a sense of familiarity. Partially resembling the streets of Saddar, possibly due to their old infrastructure, bustling traffic, and motorcycles darting from all directions, Asan Bazar and Indra Chowk in Kathmandu didn’t seem so different from the likes of Hyderi, Karimabad and Tariq Road in Karachi.
However, what set them apart was the absence of the intrusive male gaze at these markets. Everyone appeared busy in their activities of buying, selling, and haggling — something I greatly appreciated.
Another intriguing phenomenon I noticed was that on every street, regardless of its size, whether it was a tourist hotspot or a local hangout, people — especially of the opposite gender — strolled while holding hands. Now, I must acknowledge that holding hands is by no means a revolutionary act. Yet, having been raised in Karachi, any public display of affection, be it between partners or even friends, I am conditioned to see people giving it a second glance.
Consequently, the mere act of walking hand in hand seemed revolutionary at that moment. The absence of moral policing, the absence of people casting judgmental glares — these factors were sufficient to make public spaces feel free and secure for everyone.
Conversations with locals, along with my personal observations, revealed that markets typically closed by 8pm, while restaurants and eateries shut down around 10pm in Kathmandu. After these hours, the streets would largely be empty, with the exception of areas hosting clubs and bars.
From establishments like the club Purple Haze, which caters to rock and roll enthusiasts, to local clubs playing classic Bollywood tunes, the city’s nightlife has something for everyone.
What particularly caught my attention was the feeling of increased safety while walking in this foreign city, even though Karachi’s streets don’t necessarily become as deserted and quiet, at say, 10pm or 11pm.
It’s possible that my sense of security stemmed from the fact that I was exploring a tourist-friendly area. Perhaps, it was also a stroke of luck that I spent only seven days in the city without encountering any unfortunate incidents.
The ability to stroll safely down quiet streets from restaurants and clubs late at night felt like a privilege.
What are they doing right?
To delve deeper into the issue, I engaged in a conversation with Sonam Lama Hyolmo, a young journalist residing in Kathmandu. “I have spent more than two decades in Kathmandu and I can say that it’s pretty safe for women, especially during the evening hours,” she remarked.
Given her profession, she often finds herself working in the field at unusual hours, frequently requiring her to take a cab home late at night. However, she emphasised that she has “always felt safe” doing so.
“This is not just my experience; my friends share the same experience as well. They feel really safe walking around in the evening,” she added.
When I inquired about the primary reasons behind the city’s safety for women, Hyolmo attributed it to robust legal frameworks, effective law enforcement, and frequent police patrols.
“Generally speaking, Kathmandu is really safe but there’s always an exception, you know. We have had cases of harassment but they are few. Because we have police patrolling going on at every junction of the road, and particularly in the tourist areas, the patrolling is happening 24/7. That’s what, I think, it makes it really safe for women to walk,” she explained.
Nevertheless, despite the overall utopic picture so far, she acknowledged that there have been a few cases of harassment, though they are very rare. She even recounted her own experience of being harassed on public transport a few years ago.
However, she noted that conditions have improved dramatically for women in Kathmandu. “In my experience, the city is much safer now. Looking back, I remember experiencing harassment on public transport a few years ago, but that’s no longer the case. Nowadays, I book rides and travel on my own,” Hyolmo stated.
She stressed that the country has enacted stringent laws addressing violations of women’s rights. “In Nepal, the cases of women rights violations are taken very seriously. In terms of sexual harassment, there are strict legal frameworks. For example, the National Penal Code 2017 strictly prohibits sexual harassment in public places.
“If a person is found harassing someone in a public area, they can be sentenced to up to three years in prison and fined up to 30,000 NPR (Rs65,864). These legal frameworks, I think, make it comfortable for women to move around freely whenever they like,” she highlighted.
While acknowledging that implementation can be “tricky” at times, especially in identifying harassers, she emphasised that once culprits are apprehended, the law is uncompromising.
Furthermore, there are police stations and posts strategically situated in every tourist area, facilitating women in reporting complaints.
However, it’s important to note that laws aren’t the sole factors contributing to women’s active participation in the city’s public sphere.
A broader cultural shift is also playing a crucial role, resulting in a growing collective “intolerance” towards street harassment and women’s rights violations.
“There is increasing communal awareness among the people. Young people are coming up with different technologies and apps to make public places safer for women and free of harassment,” she elaborated.
Education is also a significant factor. Not only has the female literacy rate increased since the last census in the country, but the working culture has also made significant progress, “demanding more secure public spaces for women workers”, the journalist noted.
This cultural shift is exemplified by recent court cases in Nepal involving attempted rape and sexual violence, where the hearings were “quite progressive in terms of safeguarding the rights of women”.
The women’s movement, as a whole, is advancing in Nepal, ushering in cultural and social changes in society. Taking cues from the Himalayan country, Pakistan needs to look beyond mere legislation and undergo a paradigm shift, where all societal institutions must reflect and reconsider the way they perceive women’s safety in public places.