While talking to students in Delhi University, one realises that they do not recognise sexual harassment in the first place. Do you?

Gender, dismissed by most as a mere six-letter word that is the sole concern of feminists or gay rights activists, is actually a perspective that has shaped society ever since the dawn of civilisation. Yet, however dismissive people may be, they cannot ignore the perspective, as ideas about gender are deeply embedded in the mind.

Inherent realities

If you are a student at Delhi University (DU) chances are that you have, more than once, either witnessed sexual harassment or been a victim of it. The chances are even higher in the case of women for whom harassment is so common that it dictates everything from what clothes to wear to participation in extracurricular activities — particularly those that entail staying out late. Everything from stares, so common in the college corridors and canteen, to lewd comments, almost a regular occurrence, are extremely disconcerting. Sexual harassment is nothing less than an infringement of human rights.

But these are all my opinions and I realised that to do something about this very real and very prevalent problem, I would have to include other people's opinions and ideas. So, I decided to write this article. I made a questionnaire, which included questions on issues as complex and debatable as feminism; harassment; the law and ordinance in the university; personal experiences; and observations. Based on this questionnaire, I interviewed a number of students, faculty members and members of the non-teaching staff in DU on sexual harassment and gender issues.

It is quite clear that at least as far as the university is concerned there are a lot of people working with a variety of gender issues. However, it cannot be denied that the focus for many years has been on sexual harassment. This is largely because, at least as far as DU is concerned, it is a very big problem. There have been several incidents of harassment over the past few years, some of which have been extremely violent. When I talked to people about sexual harassment, many students were not aware of what it really was. They knew the discomfort they felt when someone stared at them or passed lewd comments but most of them did not know that it was, in fact, harassment. The policy has thus allowed for this feeling of discomfort to be identified, named and recognised as a punishable crime.

Ordinance XV D

In 1997, the Supreme Court issued the Vishakha Guidelines on sexual harassment at the workplace that make it mandatory for every work place, including universities, to have a policy against sexual harassment. These guidelines, along with the focus on sexual harassment, were responsible for the formation of Ordinance XV D, DU's policy against sexual harassment. Students who do know about the Ordinance agree that it has broadened their understanding of the issue. It accepts the fact that men can also be victims of sexual harassment. It also talks about gender discrimination and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, allowing for discussions on gender roles in society and homosexuality. It has also led to an increase in the involvement of men in gender sensitising.

The Ordinance also provides a platform to evolve our understanding of the issue. Every single complaint allows us to understand harassment better. There are different issues that crop up, different instruments of harassment that are used, especially with the innovations in technology. Cell phones with cameras have become widely available and are often misused as well. The Ordinance has also provided a legal redressal mechanism. It can rule punitive measures such as withholding of examination result, banning entry on campus, and even a warning against contacting the complainant. A complainant who was interviewed said that she was perfectly satisfied with the way her case had been handled and that the committee was understanding, approachable and efficient.

Tables turned

The biggest problem, however, is the lack of awareness and understanding. A large part of this lack of understanding seems to come from societal conditioning. According to most people, it is considered harmless and even acceptable to pass comments or sing songs when a girl walks past. What is worse is that it is more often than not considered the girl's fault to have caused such a reaction. Most of the girls I spoke to said that they would rather not wear skirts because they would invite lewd comments. This is the idea behind the so-called “eve-teasing”: The girl being the temptress invites comments, which are seen as light-hearted and fun. Yet, the moment such reactions make the targeted individual uncomfortable, they cease being light-hearted and, indeed, constitute criminal behaviour.

We need to question stereotypes and go through the years of societal conditioning. One of the interviewees, a student, said that she understood what harassment was and would speak up against it but would not rebel beyond a point because society has set ‘boundaries' for her. There is also the opinion that gender-based politics is an instrument of religion. It is a widely held belief that all religions or at least some religious leaders promote female repression in order to cater to existing stereotypes in societies so that they can propagate their faith. It is not easy for everyone to break past these ‘boundaries'.

What's the solution?

So, is there really a solution — a way to make the policy redundant and do away with all forms of discrimination and harassment altogether? We can't tell people how to think or act. What we can do through campaigning is to increase the awareness levels even if we can't get people to agree. Our job is to expose people to a wider range of ideas; and then allow them as rational individuals to make the right choice. The key is to keep the idea that sexual harassment is offensive alive.

The writer is a IIIrd year Economics Honours student at Ramjas College, Delhi University. She is a member of the Gender Sensitising Committee in her college.

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