Over the past few weeks, many women have spoken about their experiences of sexual harassment. Some have named the accused. Many of these accounts have been of incidents at the workplace and by co-workers, and expose the prevalence of deep-seated sexism across professions. There have been various responses by the accused to these testimonies: unconditional apologies, resignations, stepping away from duties until further investigation — but also denial, intimidation and even further harassment. Some of these were immediate responses to mounting public pressure and questions; whether they reflected repentance or realisation on the part of the accused is debatable. Some other responses, such as intimidation through defamation cases, show the entitlement that many men in power enjoy. Both sexual harassment and the kinds of responses from the accused lay bare a critical failure of our education system. It will not be sufficient to say that it is society that allows, or even conditions, men to behave the way they do. Education, an important part of the socialisation process, is also to blame.
What our education lacks
The education that we are imparted needs to be held accountable at this juncture because of its failure on fundamental grounds. The purpose of education is not to only ensure that people secure employment or rise to coveted positions of power alone, it is also to ensure that they learn and practice equality and mutual respect. Many of the accused are qualified, educated men. Their actions compel us to ask whether those years spent in school, college and university have been unsuccessful in instilling basic values. It seems as though rising to top positions and enjoying power have emboldened men to behave in unacceptable ways, and the education system has done nothing to prevent this.
It is not uncommon to hear of incidents of sexual harassment being justified as “casual flirting” or being attributed to the offender’s “glad eye”. Using these terms to explain away or even justify these acts reflects the depth and expanse of the problem. I am reminded of an encounter that a friend’s mother had with a senior bureaucrat (now retired) a few years ago. During a meeting regarding a project on which her organisation and his department were collaborating, he told her that she was “smart and beautiful”. He then recited couplets in Hindi and Urdu. Such blatant display of inappropriate behaviour, which makes women uncomfortable, shows that men in power enjoy the impunity that accompanies attitudes and acts entrenched in patriarchy.
Today, many of us are not surprised at the volume of complaints of sexual harassment. This is because it has been normalised. Sexism is not casual, it is systemic. That our education system is failing to teach boys and men to recognise, challenge and refrain from sexist and even unlawful behaviour must be acknowledged and tackled.
The way forward
This is not to say that sexual misconduct or gender inequality is a by-product of a lack in education. The spotlight is not to be put on the educated alone, but on the system too. Among other things, education has the basic duty of ensuring that we become socially aware and sensitive beings who know how to interact and engage with people of different genders, castes, classes and communities. We must teach students that consent is an essential component of any interaction and that decisions, even of refusal, must be respected.
While there is considerable discussion on the need to change mindsets, efforts to actually bring about such long-term structural changes are rare. Gender equality must not be limited to newsroom debates, stand-up themes or films, although these are necessary. What the #MeToo movement demands is a continuous and systematic process of learning that leads to equality.
There must be efforts to incorporate a gender curriculum in all school and college classrooms, establish anti-sexual harassment cells, organise regular awareness programmes on consent across the country, and formulate measures to address incidents of sexual harassment. The police should initiate community engagement drives so that students know how to report sexual harassment. Campaigns like Operation Nirbheek, initiated to improve safety and security of girls in schools, have proven to be successful to a large extent. Interventions in educational institutions will be a much-needed start to strengthen voices against sexual harassment and make homes and workplaces safe. It is imperative that we begin early if we are to secure a closure to our #MeToo experiences.
Anushna Jha is a postgraduate student in the Department of International Development at the London School of Economics and Political Science