It was a typical morning – I woke up after hitting the snooze button of my alarm for the tenth time, and as per my daily ritual, groggily opened the Facebook app on my phone. A couple of memes later, I saw the first #metoo post on my newsfeed. “If we use this hashtag enough, we might be able to demonstrate the magnitude of this problem called sexual harassment”. To be honest, my initial reaction was condescending sarcasm – “Yes, posting on my Facebook timeline will make the lecherous autowallahs at Huda City Center take note of my plight”. I didn’t believe and am still cautious of the notion that talking about the issue on social media could affect any real change. I decided not to participate in this trend – there was no point digging up repressed memories, the whole thing would die out anyway, and we will be back to square one. Clearly, inside this woman who loves to give positive gyaan, there resides a cynical feminist.
But it didn’t die down. Over the next few hours, scores of female friends kept posting stories of how they were molested by servants, drivers and even relatives – a lot of these incidents happened when they were kids. The women described how they were groped and abused, in crowded areas and so-called safe spaces, by people they trusted, inclusive of friends, cousins and uncles. I was much discomforted by these stories – partly because I feared that they would feed the voyeuristic tendencies of our society (remember how graphically we discussed the details of the Nirbhaya rape), but majorly because much of it was relatable. By evening, I was seething with anger and buzzing with thoughts.
I felt that the #metoo campaign may not give people a sense of how big this issue is, and honestly, one shouldn’t need a full-blown campaign to realize that an invasion of personal space is wrong. But the campaign could sensitize people about the behavior or habits women adopt to prevent repeat instances of such incidents. For example, the reason women go to mall/station washrooms in pairs is not to gossip about guys (don’t believe everything movies tell you and read about the Bechdel Test). Often, it is to be a guard against a creep we may encounter in the corridor that leads to the restroom. Do women pack a huge suitcase? Ask them how many clothes in there are a supposedly safer/more appropriate alternative to what they really want to wear. We set multiple alarms on an overnight bus/train journey so that we don’t sleep too deeply. We are willing to pay more and take a longer route in an Uber just so that we stay on the main road. We don’t take the cheap 5 AM flights because we would have to commute at 3 AM. Many parents don’t allow all-girls trips to places with low phone connectivity. It is not about one or two incidents; it is about major lifestyle changes that come as a result of the unsafe environment created by our perpetrators. We move on but don’t really forget.
I was amazed by the shock expressed by some of my male friends. How did they not know that sexual harassment is pretty common? What kind of utopia were they living in? Why did it take a friend to come forward for them to realize that it is serious (kind of reminded me of A Wednesday)? Would they still be as sympathetic if a Barkha Dutt or a Sagarika Ghose or a Sunny Leone came up with such stories? I know many of these shocked men did not empathize when Barkha Dutt told her experience. I also laughed at the disbelief people showed on finding out that students from “elite” colleges also misbehaved with their friends. As if education or class determined character. I recall a supposedly bright college-mate who dismissed clearly inappropriate behavior as playful banter. Harassment is so normalized that people don’t even realize when they are indulging in it.
I was also annoyed by some folks who were dismissing the campaign on the grounds that feminists are neglecting men who have been abused. Firstly, it’s not a competition. Secondly, it is an opportunity for men to come out and share stories of how they were abused but their cries were not heeded. Many men have done so, though it’s a shame that there are some who make fun of it. I’d like to know if they would find it funny if something like that happened to their children. Thirdly, and most importantly, sexual harassment is not about a gender – it is about the inherent patriarchy that hurts men and women alike. It is about using your power and privilege against someone who could not speak up, whether it is a child who didn’t know what got him or a girl who would be shamed for being molested.
So where does this leave us? What could this campaign possibly accomplish? What could be done to ensure that fewer people have to go through such harrowing experiences?
My first thought is that we make sex education and liberal arts mandatory. We need sex education to promote a healthy attitude towards sex, and we need liberal arts to introduce people to concepts of chauvinism, justice, postmodernism. I believe we need to teach these more than we need to teach the ABCs. There is a difference between literacy, education and enlightenment, and we need to have enlightened citizens who respect and value each other. We need citizens who understand personal rights and boundaries, who appreciate an individual’s thoughts and beliefs, and who could question regressive practices. One can learn subjects and skills at any stage of their life, but they need to develop a liberal and respectful mindset before they are conditioned by a patriarchal society. We must proactively demand these topics in the school curriculum.
Secondly, let’s stop victim shaming. We have all been guilty of doing this at some point of our life, but we can check ourselves in the future. Now that the campaign has established that molesters don’t care for clothes, age or time of the day, let us stop blaming the one who suffered. I’d also urge people to speak up, for themselves and others. The men for whom this has been a revelation could be more alert about harassment happening around them – abuse could be as simple and obscure an act as lingering on a woman’s hands while exchanging currency or purposefully bumping into a woman. Be alert, and call out those who feel there would be no consequences.
Thirdly, let’s be aware and informed citizens. Let us understand the rights and legal remedies that the Constitution offers us. Let us hold our authorities accountable for not preventing or punishing such unlawful behavior, and let us not be afraid of reporting it. And it’s not always upon the system to protect us, or keep us in check. The next time you are assigned a training about sexual harassment, go through it attentively, seriously and proactively. Don’t just do it to check the boxes. Ask your organization about Vishakha guidelines. Don’t suggest someone who files a sexual harassment complaint to change departments or companies – it will only encourage the offender.
Finally, let’s empathize. I hope I won’t have to explain again why having a women’s coach in the metro is a good idea. I hope we won’t laugh when a guy is almost raped in a movie (e.g. Badrinath ki Dulhaniya). I hope we won’t disregard a celebrity’s experience as a publicity stunt. I hope we won’t tell our friends that they are making mountains out of molehills. I hope HR professionals won’t suggest internal mobility for a woman who complains of sexual harassment. And I sure hope we won’t write-off feminism as an unnecessary fad.