Fighting sexual harassment head-on

Hana Shams Ahmed.

Published in Daily Star 20th anniversary edition on 4 April 2011.

This piece discusses the most effective ways to tackle sexual harassment.

Sometimes a comment from a perfect stranger can have a profound effect on a person’s life. When I was about 13 years old one such comment was made over the phone to my parents. The caller was anonymous and told my father that if I continued to wear ‘western’ clothes in public I would be stripped of my clothes and paraded naked in public. When my mother told me about this caller, her tone never indicated that this was a wrong being done to me, that I should not let something like this bother me, and that they would protect me from such harassment. My father’s complete silence on the matter spoke louder than words. I remember having felt that I had brought shame to my family and my mother followed up by becoming more vigilant about the way I dressed outside. As part of the bhodro middle class, I was powerless to resist at that age. That was almost two decades ago.

Things have changed now. Women in general have more freedom, there is greater social awareness of sexual harassment, especially after the Jahangirnagar University movement and subsequent actions and public revelations of sexual predations of many university teachers, and greater media exposure of such incidents. One of the biggest achievements came when the High Court in May 2009 issued a set of guidelines defining sexual harassment to prevent it at workplaces, educational institutions and public places.

Unfortunately, despite all these progresses, 2010 saw some of the most violent crimes perpetrated by men, labeled in the media sometimes as ‘eve-teasers’ and sometimes as ‘stalkers’. Murder, acid attack, suicide, violence on parents and other family members, abduction, rape, gang rape and every other kind of violence took place on girls and women of all ages and backgrounds.

Odhikar reveals the findings of a research on violence against women in Bangladesh. The research was based on 3000 incidents of human rights violations in 61 districts from 2006 to 2009. The study found that rape was the most frequent crime against women, which accounted for 31 percent of incidents of human rights violations, followed by murder (25 percent), acid throwing (15 percent), suicide (12 percent), physical torture (eight percent) and attempt to rape (seven percent). It added that 50 percent of the rape victims were aged below 15 and 59 percent of the girls under 15 years have become victims of attempt to rape . When the data for 2010 becomes available, I fear the picture painted will be even worse.

The incidents were so frequent and so alarming that even the Prime Minister expressed her concern. But her advice for fighting sexual harassment and analysis of the causes behind it turned out to be the women’s rights activists’ worst nightmare.

The PM was handing out awards on Begum Rokeya Day at the Osmani Memorial Auditorium on 9 December 2010. The title of Rahnuma Ahmed’s article published on the same day for Begum Rokeya’s birth anniversary (“Begum Rokeya is probably turning in her grave” ) kept repeating over and over in my head when I thought about the PM’s comments about how to tackle stalkers in our society.

“Why will you choose such an extreme course [suicide]? You must learn self-defence,” she said at a function marking the distribution of Begum Rokeya Award 2010 at the Osmani Memorial Auditorium in the city.

She blasted a section of women for showing extreme attitude in choosing their attires and also in their demeanor.

“One section of women wears too small clothes while another section covers their whole body, even their face and eyes… both are unacceptable. We’ve to maintain our culture and tradition,” she said.

Addressing the function, the prime minister said it seems that the so-called ultra-modern women “don’t bother to keep their modesty.”

Criticising the other section for covering their whole body with clothes in the name of religion, she said: “Our religion never told us to do so.”

The prime minister said she has been doing everything keeping to the local traditions and also of Islam. “I never encountered any obstacles.”

She also asked the women to strive to realise their rights as rights are never given automatically and hardly realised by mere placing of demands.

It’s great for women to learn self-defence or fencing, or cricket or any kind of sport for that matter. But one should not have to learn something because the state is unable to protect the individual from violence. It is an indication that the redress for such violence is not deterring further such attacks. It’s akin to asking a home owner to put electrified bars around a house to protect it from robbers. If the state mechanism were working properly, one would not have to have taken such extreme measures to protect oneself.

The PM also talked about women who “show extreme attitude in choosing her attires and also in her demeanor”.

Photo: Amirul Rajiv

Again, the responsibility of sexual harassment seems to have been put on the women, the victim a classic male attitude. When men talk about “extreme attitude” they usually refer to women who exude extreme confidence, something that is easily accepted in men but is seen as arrogance in women. And women must not show such attitude otherwise men feel threatened and start going on a rampage of sexual harassment to protect their ‘territory’ and their ego.

Does the PM also mean that some women are starting to show a kind of demeanor that is only expected from men? Isn’t it contrary to what she should be advising women, who look up to her for leadership and guidance?

Even if some women have a problem with “extreme attitude”, how is that related to sexual harassment? Is a woman ‘inviting’ sexual harassment by not conforming to what is expected of her? Isn’t it somewhat of a Stone Age generation expectation from women to conform to ‘cultural’ and ‘social’ norms?

As our leader, shouldn’t the PM be telling us to break those norms? Didn’t Begum Rokeya already address this issue of breaking gender stereotypes in her story of role reversal, ‘Sultana’s Dream’?

The memory of Badhon’s public stripping and torture on a new year’s eve while on-duty police officers became bystanders is still raw in our memory. Even the fiercest Jet Li-like karate chop could not have saved her that day. That particular incident also highlighted the patriarchy and victim-blaming attitude of our society. What was she doing out so late at night? Why did she go there in the first place? What was she wearing?

The double standards that our society has created go all the way up and down the echelon. Men are given the right to abuse and harass women by the collective eyes on the women’s presentation of herself. By saying that women should dress in a certain way and behave in a certain manner, the PM is simply adding to the already existing negative propaganda of the ‘bad woman’ who solicits sexual harassment.

In addition, the PM repeats the ‘bad woman’ rhetoric once again with the use of the term ‘ultra-modern woman’. What is the definition of an ultra-modern woman? And what does too few clothes or too much clothes by anyone’s standards have to do with sexual harassment?

Shifting the debate towards changing the ‘behaviour’ or attire of women by itself is a form of psychological violence on women. And in a patriarchal, conservative society, it is easy for both men and women to perpetrate such violence on victims of sexual harassment. No one speaking in public should hand over such powerful weapons to stalkers and harassers.

Or else, year 2011 will be a repeat of year 2010.

Sexual harassment and related etymology
Although the media did a good job of regularly monitoring sexual harassment, the etymology used to describe it betrayed ingrained and callous patriarchy. For months the media kept on reporting about serious sexual harassment cases under the label of ‘eve-teasing’.

Photo: Amirul Rajiv

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online defines ‘teasing’ as “to laugh at somebody and make jokes about them, either in a friendly way or in order to annoy or embarrass them” and “to make somebody sexually excited, especially when you do not intend to have sex with them”.

Clearly, neither of these two terms is in any way appropriate to describe the kind of unacceptable violence that was being described in the news reports. The harassers are neither making jokes of their victims in a friendly way nor is either party seducing the other in a consensual way. The 81 percent of the women population becoming victims to such acts are hardly a tease .

Using the term ‘teasing’ was a way of trivialising this horrible form of violence.

As if not being happy that the term ‘eve teasing’ was getting such a bashing from women rights activists , our elite force of crime fighters came up with an even more innovative, and objectionable, term to further trivialise sexual harassment, by code-naming its anti-stalking campaign, “Operation Romeo Hunt”. To label such criminals ‘Romeos’ is further evidence that the male-dominated law enforcement agencies and policy makers are only treating such violence as insignificant irritations, not the serious crimes that they are.

Sexual harassment is a serious crime with far-reaching consequences. The consequences are not just the immediate embarrassment or fear of something short term. Sexual harassment is a way to control women’s public participation and can cripple or confine a woman’s freedom to live a normal life and her sexuality. Sexual harassment is a way to ensure that a woman’s role is restricted to the family and reproductive spheres. This control is achieved through moral codes of conduct for women, hence the whole “attitude and clothing” discussion. The assertion of moral superiority is nothing but a patriarchal, male strategy.

Sexual harassment reached pandemic levels in recent times. It is difficult to say whether the harassment has actually increased in real terms or that its reportage increased due to an increase in media awareness as a response from women’s rights activists. In any case, it is a positive sign that some action seems to be taken against the perpetrator and it is no longer a silent burden over a woman’s life cutting her off from public participation and causing her to live with shame and stigma. At the same time the public discourse does not seem to recognise the seriousness of the issue, bringing the blame back on the woman and trivialising the very act by those responsible actors of the state institution.

A truly secular state is a necessary condition to ensure women’s human rights and secularism has to be present at all levels. If the state fails to do so then boasting of having successful women leaders will just be banging on an empty drum. Patriarchy does not only use men as instruments, it can be so omnipresent in the whole psyche of the nation that in our case, it is sometimes delivered through the hands of our respected women leaders.

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