Everyday Sexual Harassment

Ever since the rape and murder of a student in Delhi became publicised in the west, specifically the U.K., I have been besieged with questions about the specific case and the issue in general. It felt rather odd, at least initially, to say that sexual harassment is prevalent in Indian society at a more fundamental level than it can be imagined (misogyny and patriarchy is not exclusive to the Indian society, but that will be a topic for another blog post). That is, it is not about an ‘incident’, rather everyday women and young girls face these challenges on a day to day basis–in public transport, schools, colleges, on their way to work, etc. Every girl and woman I know has faced sexual harassment or assault in one form or the other. Thus, when a friend posted a YouTube link of Anurag Kashyap’s short film, it prompted me to think about women’s issues, rights and their place in the Indian society. My own research on gender identities have prompted me to rethink issues in relation to this. The short film called That Day After Everyday shows three women who face sexual harassment and assault on their way to work as a daily occurrence, learn martial arts and learn to defend themselves. The final scene shows a until then complacent husband of one of the women doing household chores for her the day after she defends herself against her attackers. The comments underneath the video expressed views on men’s fear of women and their expression of power over women through such attacks. Whilst the premise is generally acceptable, this conversation, that women need to learn to defend themselves, has been around for many years.

In the case of the Delhi student, while the lawsuit was in the court, The Hindu published several op-eds discussing the problem of everyday sexual harassment in India. Among these writers, Prof. Ratna Kapur, Global Professor of Law, Jindal Global Law School, NCR, wrote some thought-provoking articles; whilst predominant focus in the public sphere was on stricter laws, Kapur argued that the problem is more deeper than a law and order situation. She alone argued that these incidents are “the crisis of Indian masculinity” (albeit a constructed one!) and that what we need is a societal change, a cultural change in understanding these issues and how to deal with them.

The short film also shows, albeit implicitly,  a sense of solidarity the women in the film develop as victims of everyday sexual harassment. That particular feeling of solidarity is common amongst women in India, in general, who deal with these situations on a daily basis. For instance, girls are advised by parents to stay closer to women at bus stops even if the women are strangers. Our shared gender identity provides us with a sense of safety-a community. Of course, such solidarity is comforting (I can assure, having done my fair share of such waiting in bus stops in the past). But the core of the problem does not change. That men (not all, but some) continue to behave towards women in a particular way, that it is common for them to do so, and that it is women’s responsibility to mitigate or subvert the unfolding of the situation. This includes everything from ‘wearing modest clothes’ to ‘learning martial arts’ and everything in-between. It is common for mothers to teach their daughters to defend themselves in public spaces and public transport. Should the conversation now be about what kind of effort men should put in to treat women as human beings? Shouldn’t the conversation change and the responsibility be on men as well? By laying the onerous on women to defend themselves, men who commit these acts are being treated complacently. The idea that if women didn’t learn to defend themselves, men would still commit these crimes does not empower women but feed into the same misogyny that fuel these attacks in the first place!