Lahooti Melo reminded me that no festival in Pakistan is safe for women

While festivals need to work on creating a safer environment, men need to work on keeping themselves in check.
Updated 26 Feb, 2020

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.

Why should women always 'let it go'?

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.

Read: A young woman who attended Lahore's Solis Festival recounts molestation, sexual assault

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.

'As night falls, decorum flies out the window'

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.

Related: The Lahooti Melo promised female liberation, but what it highlighted was our constraints

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.

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.

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.

While festivals need to work on creating a safer environment for its female attendees, men need to work on keeping themselves in check.
While festivals need to work on creating a safer environment for its female attendees, men need to work on keeping themselves in check.

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.

Experiencing harassment is an everyday lived reality for women

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.

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 belong to men. 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.

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.

Also read: Multiple Solis Festival attendees come forward with accounts of sexual assault

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'.


Murtaza Kharani Feb 26, 2020 02:30pm
Dear Natasha, Its absolutely disgusting that such things are happening and everybody thinks it's just normal, especially women should not take it normal. They should object. They should fight. They should scream. Until you don't shame a man. How will he stop. Through Showing ones discomfort may some sensible ones come out of there self imposed Toxic misogyny. And others who don't, need a better treatment.
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Mustafa BOZDAR Feb 26, 2020 03:39pm
It was Lahooti Melo, supposed to be hold and handled by the Sufi orientation........but very sad to read this article that, there were no such arrangements to safeguard the women at the event during different programs, where women were not treated well. The writer has braved to bring forth the reality and truth. Very sad about that.
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Parvez Feb 26, 2020 03:41pm
Writing about it helps spread awareness .... but if something has to be done about it, it must be done by women because men will at best just sympathize with you and your cause.
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Gamer Feb 26, 2020 03:45pm
Sorry you and all our female citizens have to endure. I have been witnessing this type of behaviour since the early 90s, and I am ashamed to be a man belonging to this society. I am also ashamed that I have done nothing about it. Apart from not allowing my daughters to go to any of these events. They complain that I used to let them to go to concerts in Abu Dhabi, then why not here. I just deny them without any explanation. I am ashamed that I am part of the problem. But I don't know what else I can do?
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Ind Feb 26, 2020 03:53pm
Damn that's dark
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Farhan larik Feb 26, 2020 05:58pm
One thing which can we do is to raise our sons in a way which makes them a gentleman. Inculcate their minds with a sense to respect woman
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Ibrahim S Feb 26, 2020 06:18pm
@parvez, let’s start with your house. Would you let your daughter, wife, or sister speak up
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Khalid Khan Feb 26, 2020 07:47pm
I agree with the lady. The responsibility falls on all of us. As a father, we have to teach our sun's how to behave, not by lecturing them but by our actions. If we mistreat woman verbally or by physically in front of them, they will think it is ok to do. Same way, as mother or sister, we have to teach our sons and brothers on how to behave with girls.
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Javed Akram pakistan Feb 26, 2020 08:22pm
Welcome to naya pakistan.
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Tahir Feb 26, 2020 10:27pm
I understand the frustration. I am in Canada, my daughter goes to concerns here with her friends, most of them are a group of girls. They too are harassed, but not too much. We we go to Pakistan, there is no way anyone is going to a concert, son or daughter. The atmosphere is just too bad, so its kinda stupid to go and expect everything to be fine. Its similarly stupid for a man to go out alone, walking at 12:00 midnight in Lahore, Karachi or Rawalpindi. Its similarly stupid for any woman to walk in a mall with allot of jewlery in open display, or money in your hand, your just asking for trouble. I know its not fair, but life is not fair. Work towards improving the situation, but just complaining about facts doesnt help.
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hamza khan Feb 26, 2020 10:31pm
this is indicative of the general social breakdown of our ethical moral framework as humans. to simply take this story out of context of what is happening in society would be faulty. guys and girls from a young age have to be taught in school the etiquette of behavior, with severe penalties imposed for violators. we also need to re-connect with our religious obligations as the breakdown in our society probably coincides with the overall lack of religious understanding and how it should drive our morality. its quite sad...
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HashBrown® Feb 26, 2020 10:47pm
There needs to be some sort of state level intervention to combat this kind of disgusting behaviour. Raising awareness is one thing, but if there is no harsh and consistent punishment for these men who leer at women and harass them publicly, they will continue to do so with no real fear. All men who get reported for this kind of crime should be placed on a digital register, which can be checked at every event and perhaps even at shopping malls. If that man's name comes up, either he is barred, or can only attend with the consent of another female. At least let's start to enact a system, which can then be amended to deal with this menace. These victims form half of our society, for how long can we allow them to suffer this kind of abuse?
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Jjacky Feb 26, 2020 11:04pm
No women is safe
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N_Saq Feb 26, 2020 11:34pm
Men are same everywhere in the world because given the opportunity the men in West will do the same. The reason men don't act like it in the West is because they are afraid of the law and the law enforcement agencies. In the West if a man does anything unlawful the police will arrest him no matter who he is i.e. Feudal, Mullah, General or even the President and the law will come down hard on him and even harder if he is an influential individual with punishments because the courts will send out a message to everyone that do not mess with the law. So, my friend, in the end it is the enforcement of laws and carrying out of punishments that deters a criminals mind, if no one is punished then no one is afraid of the law and tis the reason for everything wrong in Pak.
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Sajjad Feb 27, 2020 01:59am
The very reason our award shows are done out of Pakistan. Whatever you mentioned is so true. I always feel disgusted in Musical events be it in organised clubs in Karachi or Hyderabad, there is always that mela crowd trying to gate crash and during that gate crash they dont leave any opportunity to grope women irrespective of their age. Animals!
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Omer Malik Feb 27, 2020 04:27am
You can either make gender-based stands or keep facing these problems, you can't have everything you want in this world exactly the way you want it, we all face problems and yes I agree your problem is real too but that is just how the world is, it is a shame but it is a reality and it cannot be fixed overnight and these events are not a must.
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PaRijatA Feb 27, 2020 07:34am
These are often places where a wide variety of drugs are sold and bought at least in the west
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illawarrior Feb 27, 2020 08:03am
What can you do? Here is a starting list: Firstly, give your daughters the explanation they deserve. Tell them that you are deeply ashamed of the behavior of such men. Next, make sure any sons you might have, know how wrong such behaviour is. Model the behaviour you expect from others. When with friends, colleagues etc, speak out against such things. If you see it happening, call it out.
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illawarrior Feb 27, 2020 08:07am
No, it is the men who must act to rectify their appalling behaviour. Women are not responsible for how these men behave, but they do need to raise awareness and call it out.
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Rao Amjad Ali Feb 27, 2020 09:01am
Trained and mindful teachers are the real triggers of an enduring change.
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Usman Feb 27, 2020 09:08am
A big change is coming to the Subcontinent, ground realities are changing, but unfortunately cultures and mind sets never change as fast as ground realities do. (This is not just a problem for east but west too is facing this problem where people are refusing to accept the changing balance of power between east and west thus we see rise of the extreme right in west ), It will take time and patience to change this culture of male dominance, seeing women as just potential mates and nothing more. Women like you through your rebellion against the status quo will push the society to the tipping point just don't give up.
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warda Feb 27, 2020 10:02am
Is this ever going to change?
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Omair Feb 27, 2020 10:30am
@Pervez she doesn't need your sympathy, she's asking you to keep your hands off her. How is that something that needs to be done by women?
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Akram Feb 27, 2020 02:09pm
the organisers themselves need to take action to ensure that more women come to these events and feel comfortable at them. They need to make male attendees aware of what is considered acceptable behaviour and what is not. The organisers if they are restricting the female half of the population are frankly shooting themselves in the foot. They need to lead on this.
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Khurram Feb 27, 2020 02:58pm
While I completely agree with you that all this should never happen to any women anywhere, what else you seriously expected in interior Sindh? I mean really, this is borderline crazy to expect the general public here there to behave and change their general (aka sick) attitude towards women. I travel a lot and have seen Karachi is the only place where you would find comparatively better treatment as an independent woman. Lahore is a distant second and the less said about all other places in Pakistan, the better. It's unfortunate but that is the reality around here.
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DocBil Feb 27, 2020 03:20pm
I am amazed that you are regularly attending all these events and don't expect This behaviour. All over the world, concerts and music festivals are shadowed by culture of drugs, abuse, crimes and all stupidities. Lot of examples from UK concerts i know but you can explore yourself. So don't blame anybody. When you walk into a jungle, don't expect any civility in there. So my advice, Avoid. Million Gazillion other ways to enjoy life and music
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Amer Feb 27, 2020 03:41pm
I agree, women suffer a lot...However...the writer says, "...Imagine your desi mom squeezing out the last drop of ketchup from the packet...". "Desi Mom"? Give me a break! The author has her own problems which too need to be addressed?
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Pro Democracy Feb 27, 2020 03:42pm
Such lack of respect for ladies in our society, show major fault in our education and up bringing. Being a man I feel really sorry after reading all these details. I am teaching my sons who are teenager, to respect all ladies in same manner they want their mother and sister is respected by them.
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zUlfiqar Feb 27, 2020 06:48pm
The youth need psychiatric help. Pakistan has a mental health epidemic that no one wants to talk about. It’s such a shame. Things have gotten progressively worst in the last 20 years. Vulnerable sections of society women, children and even men are suffering due to their own action or the actions of others. Very saddened by this article.
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Willie Mo Feb 28, 2020 04:12am
I am a male who lives in the U.S. We have a similar problem here, perhaps not to the extent described in this article, but any unwanted touching is too much. Men, treat female concert goers as you would want your sister treated. Let them enjoy themselves without fearing for their dignity and without having to "let it go!" We can all have a good time.
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AAM Feb 29, 2020 03:02pm
Why just can't you women punch or slap the person who touches inappropriately, at least this would cause some commotion and would at least find the attention of the event organizers or some security team and they will deal with him or them in an instant.
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