A number of campaigns against sexual harassment endorse the stereotypes they set out to debunk

By Kavita Krishnan

Misguided Posters for Delhi Police’s various campaigns against sexual harassment

THE STING OPERATION by TEHELKA brought to light several medieval myths that our ‘protectors’ nurture about women and rape. Embarrassed Delhi-NCR police officers have promised ‘sensitisation’ as a corrective to such attitudes. The trouble is: what kind of attitudes will be promoted under ‘sensitisation’? The Delhi Police ad campaigns suggest that even when they think they’re being ‘sensitive’ to sexual violence, they are promoting rather dangerous patriarchal notions of mardangi(machismo). A recent campaign against sexual violence has actor-director Farhan Akhtar, saying, “Make Delhi safer for women. Are you man enough to join me?”

Such misplaced notions of manliness are evident in many women’s safety campaigns. Another ad Delhi Police has been using for several years has a photograph of a woman being harassed by a group of men at a bus stop with some men and women simply looking on. This poster proclaims, “There are no men in this picture… or this would not happen” and urges “real men” to “save her from shame and hurt”. It suggests that 1) sexual harassers are not “real men” (asli mard), 2) women facing harassment feel “shame” and 3) only “real men” can protect them. Can such ideas of machismo reduce violence against women? Or are they the root of the problem?

Interesting answers emerge as one widens the lens. Campaigns centred on sexual harassment rarely feature women who express their anger and protest sexual harassment in public places. Perhaps if a woman is shown angry, it’d be difficult to sustain the notion that she is experiencing ‘shame’. Shame, in this case, conveys vulnerability and need for protection, reinforcing the need for a male protector. Publicly displayed anger or violent self-defence by women, on the other hand, is deeply unnerving.

The idea of an ‘asli mard’ too, calls for an intellectual inquiry. When men commit ‘honour’ crimes to put an end to their sister’s or daughter’s relationships, aren’t they being ‘real men’, fulfilling their duty of being a ‘protector’? Isn’t the ‘protector’ also expected to enforce ‘discipline’? When men harass women who challenge patriarchal norms (by dressing ‘like a slut’, visiting pubs and drinking, etc), don’t ‘real men’ see it as their job to teach them a lesson? Sexual violence too has a ‘disciplinary’ function — reminding women not to cross the ‘lakshman rekha’ of patriarchal laws.

It isn’t just the cops who believe a woman can invite a heinous crime such as rape. A noted columnist in the Sunday magazine of a leading English daily believes that women ought to be responsible for the way they dress. She writes: “Let’s say you decide that it is your right as a law-abiding citizen to leave your front door unlocked when you go out. Is this likely to attract the attention of your friendly neighbourhood burglar? Probably… If you dress to attract attention, then you must be reconciled to the fact that you can’t control what kind of attention you will attract.” The problem is that the list of behaviours that will attract rape is endless. If you have a boyfriend or a male friend and they rape you, would you say you left your door unlocked?

The same columnist suggests that women would “cry foul” if men were to “expose flesh” in public. But men can, in fact do, bare their chests in public, display ‘six-pack abs’, get drunk in public, have sexual relationships with women, and move at all times without being accused of ‘inviting’ rape! Their behaviour is never, ever compared to “leaving your front door unlocked”. Why does women’s behaviour carry a risk that an identical behaviour by men does not?

We don’t need patriarchal male protectors, nor do we need sermons on how ‘responsible’ feminine behaviour can offer protection from sexual violence. We need to reconcile with the fact that sexual violence is not caused by sexual attraction. It is an assertion of patriarchal dominance over women.

Kavita Krishnan is National secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association.[email protected]