By: Sameera Rashid
The sexual harassment in South Asia arises from the value system of a patriarchal society that looks upon women as ‘sexual prize’, ‘commodity’ and ‘upholder of honour’
After staying in India for three months on a study abroad programme, Michaela Cross, a university student, reported her experience of sexual harassment in India on the CNN website in a story titled, “India: the story that you never wanted to hear.”
Michaela Cross’s experience of India was mixed, veering from “half-dream” to “half-nightmare”, but the bulk of the narration deals with sexual harassment. According to her, she was groped on buses, stalked in the market and faced harassment by a member of the staff at a hotel in Goa, who had earlier tried to rape her roommate.
Being a young, white woman, travelling across the length and breadth of India, exposed her to intense curiosity, somewhat verging on voyeurism, which greatly unnerved and disconcerted her. After coming back to the US, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, suffered a public breakdown, was restrained in a psychiatry ward for two days, and was released on the condition that she would take “a mental leave of absence” from school.
While holed up at her mother’s house, Cross realised that there was only one way to heal her pain and begin her reconciliation with the past: open up to people around her by narrating her traumatic experience; so she ends her story in these words:
“Truth is a gift, a burden, and a responsibility. And I mean to share it. This is the story you don’t want to hear when you ask me about India. But this is the story you need.”
The reactions to her story have ranged from sympathy at her ordeal to outrage at her negative portrayal of India. Many Indian commentators have accused her of generalising her experiences and engendering a negative stereotype of Indian men. Writing in India Today, Jane Von Rabenau, a German student, on a study trip to Delhi, has warned against drawing conclusions from individual experiences: “No one’s account can and should be generalized — one sixth of humanity lives in India; there are many Indias in India; every traveller interacts only with a small fraction of Indians, and can thus only give a tiny fragment of the true Indian experience — whatever that is.”
No doubt, it is a valid argument but at the same time, it cannot be denied that sexual harassment is endemic in India and other South Asian countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh. In fact, Cross’s story needs to be read with care in South Asia, where women face high levels of sexual harassment at the workplace and in public places and, as a consequence, cannot freely participate in public life as workers, students, shoppers and travellers.
The sexual harassment in South Asia arises from the value system of a patriarchal society that looks upon women as ‘sexual prize’, ‘commodity’ and ‘upholder of honour’. To say the least, it stems from their inferior status in society. Therefore, despite strides made towards liberation of women, and their increasing mobility, overt and covert harassment has not stopped.
In the South Asian countries, an accepted response mechanism for dealing with sexual harassment is moral vigilantism and that takes two forms. One manifestation of this response is seen in regulating the conduct of women. South Asian women are advised to behave properly in public places: dress conservatively, don’t gesture loudly or smile in public and travel with male relatives at night. Last year, in the Indian State of Haryana, the Woman and Child Department (WCD) issued a circular asking female employees not to wear jeans and T-shirts and prescribed a dress code of decent clothes. In Pakistan, which is facing wave of religious extremism and militancy, controlling the conduct of women has touched new lows. Militants have banned the entry of women in markets.
Secondly, the state also controls behaviour by policing moral values in public parks, roads and cafes, and even in colleges and universities. Moral policing can target people, largely youth, for holding hands and kissing in public and even boisterously celebrating Valentine’s Day. However, in South Asian societies, where women have low social status as evidenced by female infanticide, low school enrolment rates and poor participation in the labour market, placing of strictures on the behaviour of women and vigilantism against so-called sexual promiscuity creates a moral environment that results in shifting the burden of averting as well as proving episodes of sexual harassment upon women. Hence, the victims of sexual harassment are stigmatised and the perpetrators are exonerated of harassment.
It is time South Asian countries look for alternate strategies and effective institutional responses to combat harassment of women. They can learn from the examples of other countries such as the US and UK, where despite the higher social status enjoyed by women, harassment of women can still occur because of their objectification as ‘sexual beings’. However, the state protects women by institutionalising the notion that ‘harassment of women is a serious crime’. The state institutions responsible for registering and hearing cases of sexual harassment pass the onus of proving the allegation to the accused and a woman is considered a ‘victim’ and not an instigator of sexual harassment. Additionally, practical measures are taken such as setting up of hotlines for college and university students, which are also responded to swiftly by the police.
The state institutions in South Asia need to be gender sensitised at least on two counts. First, complaints of sexual harassment must be listened to from the woman’s point of view. Second, sexual harassment should be treated not as a crime against individuals but as a crime against society. Unless that is done, centuries-old societal prejudices and biases, coupled with insidious sexual harassment, would cramp the public space for empowerment and mobility of women.
The writer is a public policy practitioner based in Lahore