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The leering gender divide

Most men and women tend to look at the issue of sexual harassment through the prism of a stereotyped, and often cliched, mosaic of reactions, writes LATA RAMASESHAN.

IT is the eternal dilemma symbolising the great gender and patriarchal divide that exists in our society. Chatting with a cross-section of the educated class on sexual harassment and gender roles at first throws up an "almost-at-sea" response, and then trivialised answers from most people who care to answer the question "what does sexual harassment mean to you?" Probing the issues reveals that most men and women tend to look at sexual harassment through the prism of a stereotyped, and often clich‚d, mosaic of reactions. But some incidents experienced by women show the real challenge that women encounter.

A woman executive after working late at night is given a lift home by her colleagues. The car is stopped by two policemen, to check the antecedents of the group. The constables heap a series of verbal assaults on her, with outrageous comments about her moral behaviour and attitude, for travelling alone with men in the middle of the night.

A 19-year-old college girl is walking on the crowded streets of the city. A cyclist physically assaults her before disappearing into the urban chaos of traffic and people.

A woman driving a twowheeler is waiting patiently at a traffic signal. A crowded bus with college boys hanging on to the footboard stands next to her. As the vehicles get ready to move, one of the boys grips her shoulders. She loses her balance, is knocked down and is hospitalised with serious injuries.

Cut to a movie hall. A song portraying frenzied and explicit gyrations is accompanied by a predominantly male group dancing in the aisles. As the movie ends, the boys gesticulate and make lewd comments loudly, while the moviegoers troop out in silence.

These are everyday happenings and situations and are not restricted to the urban setting. Sexual harassment takes on many forms _ from the girl who was harassed in the foyer of a theatre in Chennai, to a 12-year-old raped in a suburban train in Mumbai before witnesses, to incidents of stalking reported in Delhi. The list goes on. Even acts that are not accompanied by physical violence have an element of mental violence to it. While there is a response from the legal system for serious cases such as rape and abduction, there are no such outlets to help in relatively "minor cases of harassment" that women undergo every day. Most often, they are told not to take such things too seriously.

"When I was knocked down by the cyclist, I literally wanted to tear him apart," says Priya, who could not do anything, but seethe with anger and humiliation and share the incident with her family and friends. For days she did not venture out for fear that she would be manhandled again.

Sexual harassment is on the increase, more due to the aggressive, brash and antagonistic "masculine" behavioural patterns prevalent today. Harassment is about unequal power relations. This has a direct bearing on a woman's right to health and environment. Most women do not even want to register a complaint not because of the social stigma attached to such a situation, but out of fear of the backlash.

"Look what happened in the Satyam theatre case," says Lakshmi. "Those who indulged in the violence were immediately released on bail." The bureaucratic State machinery also takes its own time in meting out justice.

However, a cause for greater concern is the increasing social sanction that our society generously hands out. "It is the girl's fault; she would have dressed provocatively", is a comment made even by women. "She asked for it", is another typical reaction; a classic instance of blaming the victim while totally ignoring the fact that harassment cuts across all sections and age groups of women.

Protesting against sexual harassment.

In the case of rape in a Mumbai suburban train, the passengers did not even bother to help her or raise an alarm. A soul-searching eyewitness account and immediate action by a journalist helped to at least nab the culprit. The terrifying apathetic and insensitive inertia in the public sphere displays a complete lack of conscience in such cases. Generations of conditioning in a primarily patriarchal society do not even allow independent thinking and reactions are along expected lines that underline the predominant cultural codes of a male dominated society. Cinema and satellite TV also reinforce that fact that women should behave only in a certain way, and not cross the threshold of socially acceptable norms.

In such a set up, no serious measures seem to have been undertaken to help young men and women cope with such a problem. In Tamil Nadu, college principals can be suspended if their students indulge in sexual harassment under a legislation that seeks to prohibit ragging and even teasing. No wonder then, as a recent article reported, that college principals deny that their students indulge in such behaviour. Some co-educational colleges in Chennai have found a unique way to address this problem. Girls are segregated from the boys in the classroom. If a boy talks to a girl, he is "punished" for his socalled misdemeanour, thus preventing any kind of healthy interaction.

Gender sensitisation in a male-female relationship and the role of both sexes in society are issues that can be tackled in schools and colleges. In a unique project, the Rural Women's Social Education Centre in Chengalpattu, an organisation that works in thefield of gender and health, conducted a programme for men in in Kancheepuram districtover five years. While the main thrust was on health, gender sensitisation of men, especially the young, fostering values conducive to gender justice in family and marital relationships and reducing the domestic conflicts and violence in the short run were some of the objectives.

Concepts of gender behaviour at home, in schools and colleges, among peers and cues emanating from cinema and entertainment were also covered. The programme also put into perspective relationships with the opposite sex, in a platonic and work relationship, with family members and in romantic and marital relationships.

Such programmes could be part of school and college curriculum. And finally, every individual must look into the recesses ofhis very passive existence and contribute to something outside of everyday existence. In Mumbai, a great deal of guilt and remorse was exhibited after the rape incident where civic society and ordinary citizens rose to help the victim. Thinking and acting for "others" and displaying individual courage and spontaneous intervention in a public in such instances, would definitely go a long way in closing the gender gap that exists today.

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