Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Harassment by the long arm of the law

Within approximately the last two weeks I have observed an over deployment of police on the major roads of Lahore, particularly on Mall Road. One major reason of this excessive showcasing of police in Lahore could possibly be the potential of suicide attacks in Lahore, growing security threats, and consequently the maintenance of the law and order situation in the provincial capital, especially when the President of Pakistan was visiting the city. Although it is only the policemen on-duty who can tell to what extent they were successful in fulfilling these tasks, I can narrate about at least two occasions when I was harassed and intimidated by the police of Lahore due to reasons, which can hardly be linked to security issues.

It is my everyday routine to get dropped by my office car on canal road-Mall Road junction. From there I walk on foot to Lawrence Garden. Even though this walk is always refreshing for me, the vulgar comments passed on me by the on-duty policemen there are an everyday annoyance. The hostile and insensitive attitude of the police towards women is a well-known fact.  However, what astonished me the most was, that even those public servants who are responsible for people’s safety and security seldom miss an opportunity of teasing a woman. In Punjabi this is also called ‘phoondi’.

Last weekend, while walking with a foreign friend of mine on Mall road, we were stopped by four policemen. They took my friend to a corner and interrogated him for quite a long time. When I was inquiring the purpose of this police interrogation, I got an ironic laughter and a ridiculous reply in Punjabi “Taun Bari Toup Cheze hai (What a big gun you are!) in return. Initially, I thought that the interrogation might be a routine check and probably the police is ordered to keep an eye on foreigners, particularly after the arrest of a group of US students in Sargodha.

However, later on I had to find out that my initial speculations about the main motivation of the police’s interrogation was completely wrong. My friend told me that the main emphasis was “my friend’s relationship with me”. One of those policemen went even so far as to say to my friend that the woman accompanying (which was myself) him would be pregnant. My friend’s response to that policeman was “You must be kidding. How could you dare to say that?” They also told him that it is ‘unlawful’ in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan to walk on roads with a non-married female friend and as a consequence both of us could be detained in jail according to Pakistani law. Upon hearing these details from my friend, I realized that these policemen only had the courage to say such things, because we were walking in the open street and were appearing to be an easy ‘target’ to show their ‘authority’. I am sure they would never have dared to interrogate a woman accompanying a foreigner in a big land cruiser; apprehensive of losing their jobs.

On both occasions, the behavior of the ‘men in uniform’ was shocking for me to a great extent. On the first occasion, the ‘men in uniform’ behaved like foolish teenagers amusing themselves with chatting up a passing-by woman for their personal ‘enjoyment’ therewith considering a passing-by woman as a mere ‘sexual object’. In the second incident the ‘men in uniform’ behaved like a ‘religious police’ who takes it as their moral obligation to intimidate people to ensure that ‘Islamic’ laws are being followed, at least by those who apparently do not possess any authority. After all, one thing which I can hardly comprehend is, why the police, rather than looking into very real security threats for the city, was wasting its time and therewith taxpayers’ money  with intimidating innocent couples on the street in order to stop them from hanging out together, because it is ‘unlawful’. I wonder under which Pakistani law walking together on the street becomes a crime and why the deliberate harassment of women is not considered as such; the same goes for ‘phoondi’. If we have not yet moved away from the Stone Ages, then why we are resisting the Taliban and their plan to impose ‘Islamic Sharia’ so hard at all?

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