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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)

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

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