I am just a girl standing in front of music fest organisers, asking them to love me as much as they love calling themselves "an event to remember."
I know you love making money more than you love my presence at your events because after all, I am just another headache you need to take care of; a potential liability and an inflammatory social media post just waiting to happen.
But in my defence, I come armed with everything I can muster just so I can enjoy my favourite music for a short three hours and still go back home with my dignity intact. But at one point, all my methods of protection seem to fail.
My tiny purse does not have enough space to hold mini weapons to protect myself.
I do not have enough friends to form a bubble of safety around me at every public event.
I didn’t pay so much money just to pause my scream-singing every five minutes only to whisper to a friend about the wandering hands I can feel on my body.
All I wanted was to enjoy my outing.
Festivals in Pakistan are known as much for their content and lineup as they are for how they treat their female attendees; whether it’s Solis or Lahooti or even Karachi Eat, you cannot scroll through a single news piece on these events without coming across anecdotes about harassment.
I have been attending the Lahooti Melo for the past three years. That's three years of putting on my 'let it go' armour.
Men leering at you because you're wearing jeans? Let it go.
Men drawing the scarlet letter on your back because you have a cigarette in hand? Let it go.
Men invading your space as their fingers hope to make contact with any part of your body? Let. It. Go.
Why did I think that I was entitled to space in an event where men reign supreme? How dare I step out in public and have fun while not fulfilling the prerequisite of being a man? Why? Why did I let it go? Because if I hadn't, then I'd be the one being questioned.
It’s not as if at the creation of life, when gender-specific experiences were being itemised, public festivals were put in the man shopping basket; men claim entitlement to these events, thinking that If I, a woman, am here, obviously I must be very desperate for attention and that is why I have offered myself up in this open-for-all body buffet.
Last year’s theme for Lahooti Melo was called “An Ode to a Liberated Woman”. But a festival that highlighted the liberation of women from political, economical and gender-specific norms, could seemingly do little to nothing to protect its female attendees.
My work meant spending the whole day at the event. So for the past two years, I was a solo female attendee for the festival. That’s one checkmark in the “loose lady we must objectify and harass” checkbox that men seem to carry around at public events. I smoked. That’s another box checked off.
I wore an off-the-shoulder shirt. I greeted my male friends by hugging them. I danced. I sang along to the music. A lot of boxes are being checked off at this point. I listened to men and women rage about how women are being treated in this country and the festival organisers pat themselves on their backs for being better. I listened to all this as men called me names, “accidentally” brushed up against me or gave me unwelcome touches everywhere I went.
Imagine your desi mom squeezing out the last drop of ketchup from the packet; the sheer force it takes to push that last bit out. That's how I felt navigating crowds at Lahooti Melo last year.
The area in front of the stage was cordoned off where families could sit and enjoy the festival while men were packed outside the barbed wire, surrounding the attendees inside on all sides. So you're safe. As long as you're inside the circle.
But eventually, you must venture out. You get out and pass through a throng of men whose hands are out, hoping to make contact with the female form in any way possible. You don't walk out of that circle of men. You are squeezed out, literally.
Previous editions for the festival were held at Hyderabad Club, a venue in the middle of the city. Easy to commute to and relatively safer and secure option for all attendees in my opinion. Due to space constraints, the event was moved to Sindh University last year. A university located outside the city. A university with a campus so sprawling, you had to walk for miles to get to the actual event area.
This year too, the event was held at Mehran University of Engineering and Technology (MUET). The parking space was a good 10-15 minute walk away from the main event. Due to security concerns, you couldn't walk right to the gate. So you walked from the parking lot to the event area. The only concern you have with this walk during the day-time is the nagging feeling in the back of your head that told you to wear more comfortable shoes. Because it’s the morning, men still like to maintain the little pretence of decency they carry around. However, as soon as night falls, decorum flies out the window.
Of course, they didn’t mean to ram their whole body into yours, they were just dancing.
Of course, they didn’t whistle at your dancing, they were just whistling at their friend.
Of course, they didn’t mean to tap your backside, the space constraints made it impossible to dance without getting their hands all over your body.
Whatever happens, it’s never their fault. The blame rests on you and you alone for wanting to have fun. Sure, Cyndi Lauper sang about how girls just wanna have fun but she didn’t specify that the fun came with a lot of unpleasant consequences and side-effects.
Imagine walking down a dark, poorly lit road alone. There are hordes of unruly men behind you, next to you, right in front of you. Everywhere you look, you are surrounded by them. You reassure yourself that this is a university and there may be guards around the corner and you’ll be safe. Of course, no man would be dumb enough to pull something like this off. But the thought is always in the back of your hand as you hear men whisper and giggle behind you.
As every frantic footstep reminds you of how easy it would be to be grabbed or groped or to become another by-line in the evening news. Events like these are meant to be enjoyed in a care-free manner. You are supposed to sing your heart out and dance the night away and not constantly worry about your safety.
You can’t have your own little posse of men acting as bodyguards for you wherever you go. You cannot think of all the ways you can repurpose the items in your purse as weapons every time you feel unsafe.
I had a friend who was moved to tears when someone put their hands on her bare waist when she was dancing during FDVM's set last year. Another found herself being assaulted by an army of hands as men rushed towards the front during Suhae Ali Abro's performance. Another found herself being followed to her car by a group of intoxicated men who told each other that “laal dress mein teri bhabhi ja rahi hai."
This is not even a fraction of the instances that women faced during numerous editions of this festival, just like others.
Festivals in Pakistan need to do better. If you have the money and resources to fly in international artists or accommodate thousands of people without charging any money, then you can obviously spend a little extra money on security. Your gate-check procedures are as useful as your proclamations telling me that “harassment will not be tolerated.”
While these festivals need to work on creating a safer environment for its female attendees, men need to work on keeping themselves in check; public places do not only belong to you.
Because we are done. We're done asking friends to walk us back to our car after concerts, we are done dialing down our dancing when our favourite song comes on. We are done living under the constant attention of the male gaze.
We are done hearing 'let it go'.