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The Correct Response To Sexual Harassment

Posted: January 12, 2012

A few days ago, a Twitter user, @Nimisha_S, tweeted about the gross verbal harassment she suffered from a man walking past her on the road. A number of other users, (no doubt well-meaning people) immediately responded saying that she should have reacted in some manner – raised a crowd and got him collectively beaten up, shouted back, kicked him, punched him…

Somehow, this made me very uncomfortable. As Nimisha clarified later, she was returning late from work, after a tiring day when all she wanted to do was get home, on a rather lonely road with few pedestrians and little likelihood of help at hand. Even if she had been in a busy marketplace at daytime with plenty of folks around, is there a correct response to sexual harassment?

As women who face daily harassment on roads, in public transport, sometimes by auto or taxi drivers, sometimes in recreational spaces like parks, beaches or fairs – do we owe it to ourselves as a group, to fight harassment explicitly? Especially if we consider ourselves feminists and/or wedded to the idea of empowering women? While the idea of ‘eve-teasers’ getting away because of our silence annoys the hell out of me, I am also hesitant to say yes.

The first incident I can recall, when I was harassed in a public place makes me angry when I think about it 20 years later, and not just angry but sad as well; sad for the young girl I was and what I went through – yet nothing exceptional that doesn’t happen to hundreds of other Indian women everyday.

I was travelling home by bus one day and as there were no seats, I stood at the rear of the bus, when I felt a hand move over my butt – so fleetingly that I wondered if I had imagined it. And then, it happened again, and I was left in no doubt. I was 11 or 12. I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe even to myself what happened to me, beyond the fact that it made me extremely uncomfortable.

I didn’t turn back to see the culprit, I just moved away. I don’t know what part of my upbringing or learning told me to stay quiet. And then, and this is the part that I still feel sad about, two ladies sitting nearby, who had evidently been observing the whole thing, whispered to each other, “Look at this girl! Is she thick-skinned or what?! She can’t even tell that a man is feeling her up, how shameless!” 

While I was still processing the act of harassment, I already knew then that my response to it had been wrong. As a young girl, my not protesting was also seen as a shameless act – as though I did not care about my ‘modesty’. Of course, as I learnt from many such experiences later, shouting or ‘creating a scene’ isn’t always considered positive either.

While I would like harassers punished, I also believe that we cannot stipulate women’s responses to sexual harassment. There have been times when I have ground the heel of my sandal into the foot of a harasser. Once, on a train, I raised a ruckus and got a groper thrown out. There are days when I am tired and I don’t have the energy to fight. And there are times when I am scared. Despite believing that it is the perp’s fault and not mine, there are days when I cover up more if I want to take the bus at a crowded time. And believe it or not, there are times when I am too preoccupied with something else, and don’t have the time to think about it.

As an Indian woman, every day I walk on the road, every bus ride I take, every solitary walk on a beach is a chance for gropers to try their luck, or if nothing else, for a passerby to hurl a vile comment. Those of us who can afford to, try and get around it by buying our own vehicles and driving ourselves. Even that is no guarantee of safety, as many women drivers have found out after being followed by wannabe romeos in cars.

For us, public spaces are battlegrounds that we go into everyday. On some days, if I don’t feel like taking up the battle, would you say I was wrong?

Pic credit: E Wayne (Used under a Creative Commons License)

Founder & Chief Editor of Women's Web, Aparna believes in the power of ideas

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  1. Towards Harmony -

    You are absolutely right!
    While I do think that bringing sexual harassment to notice by publicly shaming the abuser might reduce incidences of sexual harassment, I definitely would not jump at a woman for not having said/done anything. I know from experience that there are many times I am just too tired to react and it is easier to just move away.

  2. Legally speaking, obscenity in a public place (section 294 IPC) gets the offender up to three months in jail, while “insulting the modesty of a woman” (section 509 IPC) gets the offender imprisonment up to one year in jail (if the victim can maybe spend over a decade in fighting the case).

  3. You are so right!! There cannot be any right or wrong way to react to street sexual harassment. Come to think of it, every way is the wrong way according to someone or the other. Like you say, public spaces are a battleground all of us have to enter everyday and if we don’t feel up to raising a ruckus every time we are abused, that should not be held against us !

  4. A friend of mine told me about this article and sorry to say but I disagree with your views. In some cases, there IS a correct response to sexual harassment. It is acceptable if you don’t retaliate if you are alone, or scared or likely to be harmed if you do. But in a market place or in a bus there are a lot of people around who would surely come to help. Being too bored or busy is simply no reason. What does it take, really? One raised voice. I am not asking you to get the guy lynched, just humiliated. Non-humiliation is encouragement. If a stranger were to slap you in a bus, wouldn’t you get back at him? Then why not in this case? What I realise is that the perceived gravity of the action has declined, unfortunately in the eyes of the victims themselves. If you do not humiliate even when it is easy for you, I am afraid, you are in some measure, shameless. You just hate being called that.

  5. @Anish, strangely I was just revisiting this article when your comment popped up. First, who judges whether it is “acceptable” and who are you to judge? Have you been felt up in a bus every other day on your way to school? have you walked down roads fearing that an arm will unexpectedly grab your breast? This condemnation of reactions is precisely what is a second victimization. Unless you have faced this day in and day out, and reacted every single day, do not tell us what to do.

    Secondly, did you even read how old I was when this incident happened? A 12 year old “must” raise her voice or else she is shameless? Does it even occur to you that a 12 year old is a child who may be too dazed to react? Shameless is what you are, for accusing that child of being shameless.

  6. And as for the “surely people help in a bus” misconception, please read this: http://chennai.ihollaback.org/2012/05/22/saranyas-story-i-was-distraught-but-did-nothing/. I’ve lost count of the number of times people just stare at you and do nothing when you protest.

  7. Firstly, on the second victimization point, you have my apologies. That was never my intention.
    One point I missed up there is that my criticism that you should speak up when in a bus was not in reference to the incident when you were 12. Nobody should expect that. It was on your point that you may do the same sometimes even today. And although I am not wronged every other day, I have had some experiences of my own which could’ve been avoided if I had simply spoken up. Now I don’t hesitate to intervene when something like this happens in public. And people do help. I don’t want to keep arguing about this, but when in public, please speak up.

  8. I Kinda agree here that a woman needs to speak up. Even I have had experiences as a child, where I was too afraid to speak up. But in general, being tired/bored is no reason to put up with crap. I do agree that people never support you. I have personally faced incidents where I speak up but people around don’t support you. They just don’t care!! No.. a girl is not “shameless” when she is not speaking up but she does lack courage. And this is what girls need. Courage to fight back!!!

  9. I haven’t read this before but now that I am reading it I will be a late commenter. As you said, Aparna it’s upto the woman to gauge how well she can handle the fallout from speaking out or kicking up a ruckus. In the incident on the bus, I am horrified at the condemnation of the two women. Why didn’t they speak up on behalf of a child who was being sexually harrassed? Why didn’t they say something to the man? There were two of them and they were older. Their reaction tells you that you would have gotten no support had you chosen to say something.
    Certainly, we should speak up but for that to happen we first have to make young women aware of sexual harrassment, speak about it, tell stories of what happened to us. This will help them talk about what seems so unspeakable now. We have a culture of silence around anything sexual. How then can a pre-teen girl know that she may talk about it, and talk about it amongst strangers. It requires some level of awareness and a lot of confidence to do so.

  10. You have put in a nutshell,what women face on a daily basis.Sometimes,we are up against it & sometimes,we realise it quite late or may be busy thinking something else .

  11. Pingback: Is standing up for yourself wrong? | Memoirs Of A Young Civilian

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