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Harassment and why women are afraid to speak up

Women from across the world are saying on social media that they had been victims of sexual harassment or violence at some point in their lives so far

columns Updated: Oct 21, 2017 16:06 IST
Lalita Panicker
A file photo of  Harvey Weinstein.  In many cases, the men who conduct themselves in this vile manner don’t even think it is wrong. They instead wonder why women make such a fuss. Ugly personal remarks and innuendo are meant as compliments and there is surprise when the woman refuses to accept them.
A file photo of Harvey Weinstein. In many cases, the men who conduct themselves in this vile manner don’t even think it is wrong. They instead wonder why women make such a fuss. Ugly personal remarks and innuendo are meant as compliments and there is surprise when the woman refuses to accept them.(Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Fallen movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s prodigious appetite for sexual harassment all these years will see more victims come out in time to come. And on Facebook and other social media, women from across the world are registering their own experiences or just saying that they had been victims of sexual harassment or violence at some point in their lives so far. Some commentators wondered why powerful women did not report such advances, why some kept quiet, why some felt they could come out with it much later, why some never speak about it at all. Responses to sexual harassment could range from confronting the aggressor, trying to avoid him as much as possible, coming to an accommodation with him by making light of it or getting away from that situation altogether.

For many women who chose to keep quiet, the reason could be fear of retaliation, loss of job or that they might have to continue in the same situation with a man who will become even more vengeful. In the Indian context, a strong counter is very rare thanks to unequal gender equations and the lack of proper implementation of the law or indeed awareness of the law. There are far fewer women in the workforce as compared to men putting them at a disadvantage of having much support. In the home situation, the disadvantage is all the more pronounced thanks to the family structure being heavily skewed against women.

An aspect of harassment is the crushing impact it has on the woman. It is not just a question of the law or the aggressor being brought to book. It often results in low self-esteem, inability to perform daily functions or work properly, damage in relationships and unhappiness with one’s lack of choices.

Many victims suffer from physical manifestations like headaches, sweating, lack of sleep and depression among other things. In the Indian context, social opprobrium is so great against the victim that suicides as result are quite commonplace especially in a rural setting. The latest is that of a young girl in UP whose harassers confronted her in public threatening to assault her in full view of others after having raped her over several days. She killed herself.

In many cases, the men who conduct themselves in this vile manner don’t even think it is wrong. They instead wonder why women make such a fuss. Ugly personal remarks and innuendo are meant as compliments and there is surprise when the woman refuses to accept them. Such a woman is considered a prissy and no fun in many workplaces. This has been so in at least one workplace I have been in.

Then of course there is the ghastly argument of the woman who asks for it. I remember having an almighty row with a male colleague who genuinely felt that Jessica Lall put herself in danger by choosing to serve drinks in a bar for a bit of extra income. Well, he said smugly, she should either not have done so or served the man (who killed her) drinks as she was meant to. No amount of arguing could convince him that whatever she did, no one had the right to assault her, in this case fatally.

One argument that we often hear in the case of sexual harassment, and we certainly heard that in the hideous Harvey case, is why did the woman or in this case women wait for so long to come out and make the accusation. It could be they were scared, they were in denial, they felt they had encouraged the predator, they felt helpless and had no support structure or that they finally arrived at a place where they felt powerful enough to come out in the open. The more pertinent question is why did the man feel that he could harass someone and hope that silence meant that he had got away with it. In cases involving powerful men, they do so believing that their power puts them far above that of the woman to hit back. When she does, she becomes suspect, a pawn perhaps, a person who did not get what she had hoped to and hence had become vindictive. The original sin of having harassed is sought to be glossed over.

lalita.panicker@hindustantimes.com