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Women of colour aren’t safe from the police — in both Pakistan and Canada

Reflecting on my interactions with law enforcement as a Pakistani woman
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RANIA PHILLIPS/THE VARSITY
RANIA PHILLIPS/THE VARSITY

Content warning: This article contains discussions of sexual harassment and violence against women, as well as explicit descriptions of murder. 

The police cannot be trusted. 

This is one of the first rules that I learned in life. If I were to survive as a woman living in Pakistan, it was essential that I knew this fact. It was essential that I memorized it. 

Needless to say, I haven’t always easily survived in the country I spent 18 years in. 

When I was nine years old, my parents sat me down to have a conversation with me. They talked about how unsafe the world is, and how I should never be alone anywhere. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me, because they didn’t tell me what could happen. They just warned me that something would. 

Now, I am 20 years old and I fully understand what they meant. My teen years were a steep learning curve of finding out that being a woman means that one could experience the worst horrors imaginable, and no one would really care.

A month ago, a woman I knew personally was murdered by her family for being in a relationship. It was a very public incident; everyone in the area knew what truly happened. She had run out of her home, screaming for help, after her parents forced her to eat mouse poison. But no one came to her help. Her family dragged her back to her home and strangled her to death. She was buried in the local graveyard during the night. 

Some neighbours later called the police and alerted them of the murder that had taken place. A couple of policemen visited her home, did some interrogations, and no one heard from them again. The police refused to file a First Information Report against the culprits. Either the culprits had bribed the police, or — as expected — the police officers didn’t really value a woman’s life.

Although this incident happened two years after I first moved to Toronto, I wasn’t surprised when I heard about it. I knew that a woman cannot easily get justice in Pakistan, especially since the police force is often an accomplice to the crimes happening against women. 

That is where I come from.

When I got into U of T, my parents were relieved that I would be going to a ‘safer’ place. They genuinely believed that if something would happen to me here, I could go to the police. I really trusted their delusions; I thought I had entered a safe haven when I landed in Toronto.

My bubble first broke at the Toronto Pearson International Airport in December 2019. I was going through the security checks in a line of people. A police officer near the security desk called me to the side and asked me to open up my bag. I wasn’t very scared, because I had made myself believe that I was safe. 

I asked the officer why he had called me specifically. His answer was that it was routine procedure; still, I pried into why I was the only one being called for this check. The man gave me a look, and I knew what it meant. I looked back at the line and didn’t see any other person of colour there. I told myself to not overthink what had happened, and I showed him the contents of my bag.

I had been trying to forget about that incident for months when I first heard about the murder of Ejaz Choudry, the 62-year-old Pakistani man who was killed by Toronto police last year while he was going through a mental health crisis at his home. 

Choudry shares too many similarities with me: Pakistani, mental health issues, brown person, Pakistani, mental health, brown, Pakistani. It is an endless spiral. Every time I pass by a police officer now, I think of Choudry. I think of my skin colour. I think of my gender. I think of my nationality, the colour of my passport, my mental health diagnosis, my antidepressants, and all the times I have been sexually harassed. 

Now I don’t gaslight myself about what happened to me at Pearson. I recognize that my first instinct — the very bad gut feeling that you get the instant a bad situation starts to escalate — was right. It has only taken two years for my bubble to burst — but now it is shattered. I know that it was the colour of my skin that prompted that extra security check. 

Pakistani women are condemned everywhere: for being women in Pakistan, and for being women of colour in Canada. We don’t get justice anywhere.

I have always been the victim, but to the police here, I am a threat — something they need to eliminate. So how can I ever ask them for help? If I went to them when something happened to me, it would be so easy for them to tell me that I’m lying.  

Being a Pakistani woman means that you cannot ignore the imminent threat to your safety at any time, no matter where you are. Something is always about to happen. I am always just one dark alley away from being the victim again. But when that day comes, I won’t be looked at as a victim by law enforcement — I will still be the threat that they have to eliminate.


If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence or harassment at U of T:

  • Visit svpscentre.utoronto.ca for information, contact details, and hours of operation for the tri-campus Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre. Centre staff can be reached by phone at 416-978-2266 or by email at [email protected].
  • Call Campus Safety Special Constable Service to make a report at 416-978-2222 (for U of T St. George and U of T Scarborough) or 905-569-4333 (for U of T Mississauga)
  • Call the Women’s College Hospital Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Care Centre at 416-323-6040
  • Call the Scarborough Grace Sexual Assault Care Centre at 416-495-2555
  • Call the Assaulted Women’s Helpline at 866-863-0511