Jan 7, 2013 - published work, women    19 Comments

The importance of sisterhood

Last week, I wrote an op-ed for Express Tribune on what needs to be done in the aftermath of Delhi gang rape. I wanted to write a lot more but was constrained by space I am allotted in the newspaper.  The piece did not receive many comments either on the Tribune’s website or my personal blog where I cross post my work, but I got a lot of emails. Some from regular readers who liked my ideas, one from an Indian grandfather who wanted a safer Delhi for his two young granddaughters. Some emails from women in Pakistan saying that things are worse in Pakistan and that at least Indians are protesting and have taken to streets and had this incident happened in Lahore, we would not have even known about it. A few emails came from sisters from across the border appreciating the support and concern from their neighbours. I want to thank you all for reading it and feel humbled by your responses. 
While people generally appreciated what I wrote, I got a few emails and tweets (all from Indian men) saying that I should focus on women rights violations in Pakistan and leave India to Indians. One even pointed out that I have never written about the plight of Hindu girls like Rinkle Kumari and chose to write about Jyoti Singh Pandey. Another likened me to Ajmal Kasab and said some choice words about Pakistanis butting in their noses where they are not needed.
Indians with narrow nationalism are not the only one who question what I write. I get asked by Baloch dissidents why do I not write about them, I get asked by the pan Islamic zealots why do I not write about atrocities in Gaza and American aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq. While I do respect anyone fighting for liberty and dignity, I am not a professional bleeding heart and would not write about everything that is the hot topic of the day. I don’t touch Baloch issues because I feel I am not equipped enough to write about them and there are far better writers who take on that cause in a much more effective manner. I don’t write about struggles in Bahrain and Palestine because they are far removed from my reality and writing about them just for the sake of writing about them is kind of pointless. Honestly, I feel flattered when people tell me or expect me to write on issues that matter to them – as if me writing about them would make a difference – but it is impossible for anyone (unless that person is Ansar Abbasi) to write about everything under the sun so I refrain from doing that. 

As for the Indians who believe I should first write about the Rinkle Kumaris of Pakistan, I do feel very strongly about the minority rights and have written about them repeatedly, but Jyoti’s plight moved me like Rinkle’s couldn’t. Probably because as an urban resident of a big city who has used public transport and faced threats like harassment, insecurity, robbery day in, day out  on the streets of Karachi, I empathize more with Jyoti than with Rinkle and feel strongly about it. It may not be correct and perhaps Rinkle deserves the same attention but as a writer, I feel more confident when I write about things I strongly believe in or empathize with. Perhaps it is my inability to transcend the personal but that is who I am and that is how I write. 

I also want to point out the importance of sisterhood to those who are willing to understand that women draw strength from each other and if one of them stands up to reclaim their space or seek their rights, others also stand up either in support or to claim their respective rights. I may not benefit directly from the rights movement in India right now, but if the rape laws get amended in India, I would be cheering up for my sisters there and will try to campaign for similar change here in Pakistan.

As far as significance of sisterhood is concerned, let me share a recent example. A fortnight ago, my elder sister and I were flying to Karachi. The plane was packed and the flight attendants were busy serving the passengers. My sister pointed out that a man sitting in the lane in front of us is trying to get fresh with one of the flight attendants. I too started following their conversation. Initially it sounded like a bit of harmless chit chat, then he started asking inappropriate questions and the flight attendant became uncomfortable. She moved away quickly but then every time that girl would pass our section, he would stop her and ask her for something. When she went back to the galley, he followed her and said something to her after which her facial expressions changed and we gathered that it must have been something very improper. Let me also point out that she was very young and probably joined the airline recently and was not sure how to approach the matter. I was quite incensed and wanted to take up the matter but my sister said that we should not intervene and let the flight attendant handle it. Though I was not too happy with it, I said okay.
A couple of minutes later the man who was harassing the flight attendant started chatting with his family member on the other side of the aisle with their bodies hanging out making it almost impossible for the flight attendant to move without touching them or addressing them to move. My sister who asked me to practice restrain lost it at the temerity of those two Lotharios, and asked them if they can stay seated properly so that the others can move freely. The main aggressor turned to my sister and asked her to stay out of it at which I too lost my cool and told him in no uncertain term what kind of a creep he is preying on a young girl who cannot tell him off because of her professional duties and just because she is serving him tea and coffee does not make her his personal chattel and how any woman who works in public space is not there for his unwanted advances. When he said that I am insulting him, I said, even more loudly, that yes, I am publicly humiliating him so that other women should also see how one should deal with a cretin like him and everyone on the plane should know what a miserable excuse of a human being he was. At this point, his mother who was traveling with him but was sitting separately went up to him and asked him to be quiet. A senior citizen suggested that he should be handed over to the airport security. Most encouraging was the fact that no one including the man’s family stopped us from standing up for the flight attendant.  
A few minutes later the senior flight attendant who was at the other end of the plane came up and asked him if he was harassing the junior flight attendant and told him off that he may have bought a ticket but that does not give him license to misbehave with the staff.
When the flight landed in Karachi, it took a little bit longer than usual for the doors to open and for the passengers to disembark. We found out that the senior flight attendant had called the ground security staff who detained the harasser from getting off the plane. The senior flight attendant at the gate who was seeing the passengers off thanked me for standing up for the junior flight attendant. My sister and I don’t know what happened to that guy after we left the aircraft but what I do know is that incident helped a lot of women.
All the flight attendants got to know that passengers barring one view them as individuals with right to dignity at work. The junior flight attendant drew strength from the incident and I am sure that if anything inappropriate will happen to her in future, she is now better equipped to deal with it. Other women who witnessed the incident learned that keeping quiet is NOT the answer and when you raise your voice, things change. My sister who has lead a very sheltered life stood up for someone else. Not only she felt great about that afterwards and had a sense of accomplishment, she understands me better and respects my need for this crusade. That man and others who witnessed the incident will think twice before doing something like that because they know that someone might retaliate and tell them off. All in all, one stood up and other sisters drew strength, lessons and understanding from it all. 
Sisterhood is important and I dedicate this post to all who understand it and stand for it. Misogyny is best fought in company of the sisters who are fighting it out on their own turfs no matter what part of the world they live in. 
PS: This is a rather long personal rant, apologies if you did not know what you were getting into before you started reading it.  

PPS: Express Tribune Blogs took this one after it was published here with a couple of additions. It can be viewed here.

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  • Nida : Hats off to your sister for standing up for the flight attendant. Brave girl I must say. May we all stand up for ourselves and others against such lecherous acts.

  • I loved this piece. Thank you for posting it. Your experience on the airplane is exactly the type of thing that we all need to stand up to and yet so few will. Although my situation is different I share a similar thought: http://ingridkeizerwilson.blogspot.com/2013/01/join-our-gang.html.


  • Reminds me of a similar incident on a Karachi – Bangkok flight. Drunk desi guy tried to get fresh with one of the crew. When she told him off, he started verbally abusing her.
    When the security came for him at Bangkok, he started crying and begging “sister, sister. I’m sorry”

  • Loved your piece. It was quite an eye opener. I am really happy that you and your sister took a stand. Bravo to you. Proud of what you did for that girl. This piece really moved me and I can totally understand your point on view on not writing about topics which you have no knowledge of. People seem to think that they have the right to dictate their terms. A writer only writes about stuff he/she can identify with.

  • We want more like you in India. I would like people with some kind of thought process , some pragmatism over women harassment issues to come up and debate in India. as of now, we have stooges of politicians who have no idea of these issues.

  • Tazeen, my apologies for the narrow minded email messages from our side of the border. Personally I have been very impressed with the concern and empathy expressed by many folks from Pakistan who spoke out abaout the Delhi gangrape.

  • I’m so glad you did this. I always raise a voice, when I get harassed. Harassers are one step away from actually raping – they deserve public castration .

  • Dear Tazeen, A very heartening blog! Yes, sisters power is so very important to fight the battle for rights. Keep writing and fighting. In solidarity!

  • Dear Tazeen:

    Initially I thought this to be a brother-sister narrative and thank you for not keeping it on those lines. I have read many people from Pakistan condemning the Delhi Gang Rape and I understand that those are very sincere voices. Violence against women is not a nation specific or religion specific issue as it is more of a repression deriving from patriarchal society. As a person living in Delhi, I feared that it could have been my daughter or sister or a colleague or a friend. Your anger or reaction too comes out from the same fear and it has nothing to do with Delhi or Lahore.

    Keep writing… not to oblige a country but to raise a voice…

    I really loved reading your anecdote. More power to you and millions like you… Love…

  • Great to have intervened inthe flight and spoken against harrassment.

    However, I disagree for it to be a ‘sister’ job. It is incumbent upon every human being to rise against injustice. If a man had stood up and told him about the air hostess harrassment he many more would have come forward.

    It is everyone’s responsibility.

    See the latter part of the piece I wrote for Aman Ki Asha:

  • Ek tau yeh Ilmana Fasih sahiba har jagah apnay aap ko plug karti nazar atee hain

  • Kudos Tazeen, till the voice of women becomes a movement for social change in the region’s patriarchal set up – Rant we must and stand up to the injustices

  • I typed a long comment from my mobile yesterday which did not get posted :(. First of all, very brave of you to stand up for the airhostess. I’ve noticed that there were instances when men were beaten up because a woman raised an alarm. Like you, I felt Jyoti’s pain, not that I don’t get disgusted when other such incidents are highlighted. But, she was so like most of us who live similarly and have same aspirations. The brutality on her and her courage were something else. Even her friend was extremely courageous. We need to mobilize people and ensure that the issue does not die down with at least some real changes in legislation, policiing and sensitization happen. Appreciate everyone who speaks for the cause in India or globally.

  • You made a wonderful point! It’s about time we stop taking this lying down (any kind of harassment) and learn to speak up! Thank you very much for your commitment to the women’s and to humanity’s cause!

  • It might hurt you but India now calling to implement Shariah to avoid such rapes. *FacePalm*


  • This post made me very very happy. Thank you for doing what you did.

  • Hi Tazeen, it’s great to read about people like you and your sister who have stared down harassers and got them to back down. Bravo to you and your sister. Hopefully I’ll have the courage to follow your example if and when I come across any similar incident. Reg the negative messages you have recieved from some Indians, I request you not to waste your time on their narrow minded comments. For one thing, you have the right to talk about any issue taking place in any country and no one has the right to try to shut your voice by guilting you. Also, I’m from India and we need all the help we can get from anywhere in the world to help fight this deeply entrenched misogyny in our society.

  • Your write up is great.As an India I welcome your write ups which are not only to the point but also with lot of humour. Keep up the good work.

  • What is funny is how much ever the sub-continent inhabitants might seek an unique identity but the rest of world sees them as one culturally decayed backward community!

    A culture that doesn’t respect its women and forever embroiled in infighting in the name of sects, religion, region, rituals, blah blah….. even cricket!!

    Not saying that the rest of the world is of evangelists but the subcontinent has fallen below basic humanity.

    Before you start judging my opinion, i must declare, I am an Indian atheist speaking from experience.

    Sometimes i wonder what great purpose will be achieved by either sides over Kashmir!! Will they come out of their internal troubles and be model nations!! Either ways the plight of people in the region would remain unchanged, because we as people will be the same mean narrow minded folks wasting our lives in religious and sectarian jingoism.

    Probably China has it figured and they have prospered economically and those who would jump in to point out the lack of freedom of speech there, ask yourself what sort of freedom do you have in your own countries?

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