By Komal Ali
October 25, 2013
As I climbed the stairs to my apartment, I could feel my legs giving up and my heart throbbing in my throat. I did not know if my friends realised what damage I had just incurred as we exited the bar nearby our apartments.
The experience rendered me silent in shock, which is why I only walked away, hoping to reach home safe and sound, instead of smashing the faces of those two men who stereotyped, harassed, heckled, and belittled me in broad daylight.
After dinner, two of my American friends and I left the bar for home. At the doorstep, two guys (one in his late 20s and the other in his late 30s) stopped us and added,
“Hey girls, the weather forecast is bad, so be safe.”
It had been pouring all day and it was obvious that the weather was awful, but we took their warning as a kind gesture and thanked them before we began walking out again. That is when they attempted, once again, to initiate a conversation with us. This time, they asked my friends where they were from. Although something about the people’s behaviour seemed off, it is not unusual to strike conversations with strangers in Amsterdam; hence my friends casually answered the guys. They were delighted to know my friends were American students studying abroad in Europe for a semester, and now they directed their attention to me.
I do not wear a Hijab, but yesterday I happened to have my head covered with a Pashmina shawl to avoid getting soaked in the ruthless rain. One of them assumed I was Muslim and said “salaam”, which is an Islamic greeting. I smiled and answered their greeting. Their next question was where I was from; to which I replied, Pakistan.
I think my answer further sparked their interest in me. Surprisingly and rather rudely (because my friends couldn’t understand Urdu – native language of Pakistan), the men switched from English to Urdu and noted they were from India.
I politely nodded, but did not say anything.
While the older man asked my two friends (in English) where in the US they were from, the younger man asked me (in Urdu) if I, too, studied in the US. I said I study in Massachusetts and I, too, am here for only a semester, just like my other friends.
The younger man mocked me because I drew a comparison between my American friends and myself. He stepped closer to me and derisively laughed, saying (in Urdu),
“Hah, you don’t study in Massachusetts or even here. You are seeking asylum because you have run away from your home you were locked inside by your parents.”
His words pierced through my ears and hit me like stones before I went numb. My friends of course did not understand a word of what he had said.
My voice failed me in that moment; I stepped back and uttered a feeble
This time, the older man stepped forward and tried to present me with his business card. He added (in Urdu), while disgustingly smiling and scrutinising me from top to bottom,
“We have hotels worldwide. Recently, we opened a hotel here in Amsterdam as well. You should definitely come over. We need people like you.”
I flushed as blood gushed through my veins. I had done nothing wrong yet I felt filthy, embarrassed and dizzy.
Puffing at his half-smoked cigarette, the younger man spoke again,
“Come with us or take us to your room. That’s what you do, don’t you?”
My legs quivered and eyes welled as I hastily turned away from them. My friends followed in confusion.
The younger man forged ahead and grabbed at my wrist to stop me from leaving.
I hurriedly pulled my wrist back and started walking toward the bicycle stand really fast. I could hear them in the back laughing as one of them yelled (in Urdu),
“Come back! We are just kidding.”
By now, my friends had realised something was awfully wrong and I was not just killing homesickness by conversing in my native language to people I met from my part of the world.
One of my friends put me on her bicycle’s carrier and we drove away. During the small five minute ride back to the apartments, I could only feebly attempt to deconstruct what had just happened and why it had happened to me. I also kept looking over my shoulder to make sure none of those men were following us or monitoring our route back.
After being home, I told my friends what had happened and they were greatly shocked and sympathetic. Still when I tried to sleep last night, I could only get flashbacks – not just of this one time, but of all other times I have been in similar situations where I was gawked at, grabbed at, cat-called at or worse, masturbated at in public. Not just in Amsterdam or my hometown Karachi, but several other places regardless of their geographical, cultural, religious or other confines.
Sometimes I retaliated, like that one time in Karachi this summer when I literally threw a stone at a man who licked his lips while gawking at me from across the street, while I waited outside my internship office to leave for home. However, countless times such experiences left me frozen and stuck in moments and disallowed me to think or normally function for days.
Before I travelled abroad in 2008, I always thought that it is only the conservative societies like Pakistan that are plagued with harassment targeted at women. However, it was only after having travelled across the United States for high school and college, and here in Europe that I realise that sexual harassment extends beyond geographical and cultural boundaries.
Recently I read a heartbreaking account of Michaela Cross about being perpetually targeted as a sex object in India because of her white skin, blue eyes and red locks (a brown man’s dream). I concluded that Cross’s dilemma was not drastically different from mine. While she was categorised as “promiscuous” for being a white woman in India, I was targeted and harassed by those two men for being Muslim and Pakistani hence vulnerable, oppressed and good for nothing but their sexual pleasures in the most liberal city of Europe.
The truth is, women are stereotyped and harassed independent of their religion, culture, skin colour and sexuality. Women are harassed for being women, and the sooner we realise that and raise our voice every time we become victim of harassment, the sooner women will hopefully cease to be second-class world citizens.
Born and raised in Pakistan, Komal Ali is an International Relations major and Law and Public Policy nexus minor at Mount Holyoke College. She is currently doing a Pre-Law certificate at University of Amsterdam.)