This article was originally published on 31 July, 2018.
It's Sunday afternoon. Three women are hanging out at a coffee shop at Dolmen Mall near Sea View.
They are wearing uniforms, it looks like they are taking a break from work. They are talking and laughing. I pick up some chatter (unintentionally, harmlessly), it’s about everything from shopping ideas to office gossip. Difficult bosses and amusing colleagues are prime subjects.
I'm hanging out with my sister and a friend at a separate table. It's like any other typical day; we are engrossed in our own world, talking politics, economy, post #Election2018. Suddenly, one of the women gets up from her seat and requests the restaurant staff to ask this man sitting past our table to stop bothering them. It's their worrying but timid whispers that make me first notice him, and man, do I know quickly what creature I'm looking at.
She says he's been harassing her friends for a while. They're keeping the confrontation low-key, they obviously don't want trouble. First from a distance, in the form of winks and inviting facial gestures; then later, resorting to invitations like “why don’t you come sit with me?” and “Can I take you with me tonight?”
Here is how women experience everyday life:
This man, a man in his mid-40s, peers through his half-masked sunglasses. He looks influential and wealthy, judging by all the shopping bags by his feet and is sitting alone with a pack of cigarettes, pretending to smoke.
He has not made his order in about an hour. He is neither on the phone nor texting. Not staring at the sky or into the distance. Not lost in his thoughts, but in fact, very focused. His eyes planted on the table across, where three young women are trying to have a good time, his gaze squaring, flirtatious, inviting. This continues after they have complained; asking him to stop bothering them but he is adamant, even forceful.
“Why are you so worried? I just like you, darling.”
In some places like Pakistan, male superiority is deeply ingrained in the culture. A woman's life has become a delicate dance between anxiety and survival.
I stand up to intervene: I ask him to stop bothering the women and apologise for doing so in the first place. I tell him, he is harassing them. He responds with, “Why can’t I look? My eyes.”
Astonished, I assess his type. It was going to be a tough fight and I was right. We go back and forth for a while and then he says, in a pretentiously British accent: “Oh I forgot I was in Pakistan. This is what happens in Pakistan.”
"What do you mean?" I asked him. Where in the world does he expect to publicly make uninvited advances at women?
“Why? Is it illegal to look at women? Is It illegal to talk to women?”
I am disgusted but also way past my tolerance threshold.
I lobby with restaurant staff to make him leave the restaurant. These kind of men make it difficult for women to experience a normal day. They take away a woman's control over her life. They turn the perfectly pleasant evenings with the girls into bad-tasting memories. I tell all this to him and he keeps asking me what my problem is, that he’s “just sitting here.” He remains calm and cool-looking. It's the women who have been affected by this.
The staff is intimidated by his arrogance and at this point, they’re begging for him to move his location. I argue he has to leave. No one listens. I call for mall security.
When women are told to "calm down"
As a woman in my 30s, I have lost patience for this social tolerance for men who take liberties with women. Misogynistic behavior is present in almost every country I have worked in whether it's the West or the Middle East. Men use public spaces as their hunting ground to pick up women; I have seen men whistling at coffee shops in Batumi and malls in Istanbul, the subway in Brooklyn, walking down the street in a parking lot in Chicago.
In some places like Pakistan, male superiority is deeply ingrained in the culture, where a woman's life becomes this delicate dance between anxiety and survival. It could be that as a journalist covering hard places for so long has thickened my skin, that men don't scare me anymore but every woman who carries anger can say no.
What makes people uncomfortable in fact is seeing a woman objecting to the harassment. Whenever I have publicly confronted a man, people tell me to take it easy.
It’s been 30 minutes since and security staff outside is debating outside whether they should intervene or not. The man has finally ordered coffee, he proceed to light cigarettes.
“He is a customer,” one says. “We can’t kick him out,” “Why don’t you seat yourself at distance,” “Don’t look at him,” “Ignore him,” “This is not our problem,” “It’s between him and the girls.”
After batting out their objections, I negotiate how it’s their social and business responsibility and so, they finally move forward.
The first thing the head of security does is shake his hand. Greetings! "Are you enjoying your coffee, sir?" (Not even kidding!). The man does not want to leave, he definitely does not want to apologise. I intervene again, asking for his ID and about a dozen mall and restaurant staff try to stop me.
“Maam, let’s cool down. He is harmless.”
Sadly, this is an all too familiar scenario women face, when they’re told to calm down. This is what the other side of being silent looks like, so anyone who enthusiastically objects to why women don't speak, now you know why, this is why.
The staff and mall security, all men, are holding two-way radio devices; it was clearly embarrassing for them to ask a man to leave. For them, a man harassing women within their cafe really did not seem like an important, pressing issue.
While they did try to help me, they were not on board with me on principle. They evidently did not care for consequences. They said he knew they were watching now, let’s move forward, they said.
To me, this works in defense of the man; exactly the attitude that encourages men to believe that in public spaces they have power over women no matter what their behaviour.
At this point, the staff asks the women to forgive him and accept their apology on his behalf. They have not bothered asking him to do so himself.
The women do forgive him with a smile. Gratefulness in their eyes, they are mesmerised by the fact that people care but really, it’s their fear of asking a powerful looking man to leave. The fear of attention. The fear of being judged. The fear of being heard. The attention! They’d rather be invisible in a man’s world.
They tell me it’s okay. I should rest and let the man stay. They are now lobbying for him. They are gentle, they’re kind, they’re forgiving. Women do that.
The issue has shifted: from letting women freely use public spaces to letting a man ‘freely use public spaces’. Pun intended. The man has not apologised. Still.
These kind of men make it difficult for women to experience a normal day. They take away a woman's control over her life. They turn the perfectly pleasant evenings with the girls into bad-tasting memories.
It doesn’t end. It goes on. I go on. It’s when I start shooting a video that the staff is threatened into taking this seriously. They tell me I'm “not allowed to shoot”.
Great cue for me: “Is it allowed to harass women at your restaurant?”
Around 20 people from the mall join in and finally, the man asks me, “Will it solve your problem if I leave?” I wanted his ID, which I didn’t get but he sure got something from a woman: a lesson.
I want to see a day when I don't have to bring my rage to a coffee shop. If one out of five women in the country are in the workforce, these women leave homes and use public spaces. Household women too leave homes, often on their own.
Are these public spaces safe for women to enjoy? They are not. It is widely acceptable in the country that men can use their eyes and words to harass women.
What makes people uncomfortable in fact is seeing a woman objecting to the harassment. Whenever I have publicly confronted a man, people tell me to take it easy. They say, “You never know what may happen after” or “He could be dangerous” or “Why put yourself through unnecessary trouble?”
The unnecessary trouble is what women have been putting up with in public spaces. It is the responsibility of restaurants, malls and other public spaces to ensure strict policies against harassers. Harassing women and LGBT in public spaces should be socially unacceptable and women should not feel obligated to forgive any man who has made them feel violated or has given them a hard time.
The women thanked me profusely when the man was finally made to leave and the restaurant staff later came by and apologised on his behalf. Oh, the irony.
Kiran Nazish is an independent journalist based between Istanbul and New York. She tweets @kirannazish