The battle against sexual harassment is far from over but no harasser is safe anymore
Gender rights and equality could be pushed in schools much more so that a generation of young men doesn’t grow up with notions of entitlement and superiority. Since we are so big on our culture and traditions, respect for women should feature very high in the school curriculacolumns Updated: Dec 31, 2017 08:36 IST
There are many things to not like about 2017: the creeping rise of fundamentalism; massacres facilitated by lax gun control laws; and the sight of the world’s most powerful nation diminished by its tweeter-in-chief. But for women’s rights, it has been a positive year. The courage of women like Rose McGowan has led to a veritable rash of powerful men being named and shamed, knocked down from their powerful positions, and, in some cases, being banished from their high paying professions.
Many people have been wondering, among them some of my friends, whether this outing of sexual harassers is going too far? Will there be a backlash, say, companies discriminating against hiring women? Will men now feel nervous about expressing interest in a woman? Will men stop paying a compliment to their women friends or no longer put a friendly arm around a colleague’s shoulder?
These are valid worries, but for too long, women have put up with a permissive environment where few boundaries are respected. I recall a particular colleague in my office who thought nothing of using the filthiest language. This was dismissed by some as part of his natural ebullience but many of us found his behaviour deeply offensive. I have found that the problem with gender relations in India is that many men are not even aware that their actions or remarks are offensive.
Indeed, many Indian men think it is all right, at work, to comment on the colour of your clothes, your weight and on how you are not looking your best on some days. None of these constitute any physical threat but nevertheless cross many red lines of conduct.
Tackling the menace of sexual harassment, at work and elsewhere, in India will be tough simply because Indian society is more accepting of various forms of harassment. The obvious one is the hideously named eve-teasing. Glorified by a powerful cinematic culture, the message is that no really means yes if you can wear the woman down. So we have the hero stalking a reluctant woman, at times becoming physically invasive, popping up at her home or on her way to work. Instead of reporting him to the police, the woman finally gives in to his entreaties. This glorifies a really dangerous trend of stalking, when saying no could lead to violence, even death. Perhaps, our stars in eternal search of causes should take this up.
Harassment in public spaces often leads to women dropping out of the workforce, something India can ill-afford. Then, there’s harassment at work. Women in the unorganised sector have no safety net at all and are vulnerable to all sorts of abuse and harassment. The prospect of the loss of income and jobs ensures a conspiracy of silence. The outpouring of revelations following the MeToo campaign was telling; it seemed that few women in India had escaped unwanted sexual attention either in public spaces or at home or in the workplace.
It would be Panglossian to imagine that the sort of fight back by women in the US can happen here in a hurry. But there are things that the government can do to insulate women from harassment. One would be to at least make sure that the sexual harassment committees which all organised sector workplaces are duty bound by the law to have should be constituted and function effectively in favour of women. Stalking should be made a non-bailable offence; it is not a harmless past time and there are no happy endings.
Above all, gender rights and equality should be taught in schools so that a generation of young men doesn’t grow up with notions of entitlement and superiority. Respect for women should feature very high in the school curricula. There might well be a backlash but that does not mean that women and men should abandon or dilute the cause. It will be a long hard battle against all forms of sexual harassment but it has now been proved that no harasser is quite safe anymore, anywhere.