If women accept the first steps as ‘harmless’, it helps create a culture of impunity
Written by Shazaf Fatima Haider
#IWillGoOut rally, organized to show solidarity with the Women’s March in Washington, along a street in New Delhi, January 21, 2017. (Source: REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton)
As I write this, videos of a girl rescued from gropers at pop star Atif Aslam’s recent concert circulate on the web. Many hail the pop star for stopping and telling the gropers off.
“This too is someone’s sister,” he scolds as his guards pull the molested girl to safety. Others comment on how “silly” the girl was to put herself in such a vulnerable position — after all, everyone “knows” gropers will grope. Very little criticism was cast at the men groping; their dastardliness was a regrettable but foregone conclusion.
The harassment of women is so common, the conversation swings easily to how women can best protect themselves. A series of unspoken “rules” have emerged, dictating how women should navigate public spaces.
The first “rule” is that a woman in public must master the art of being “invisibly visible”. That means to not cause offence or excitement with one’s dress; to cover up, but knowing constantly that even the attempt to hide will be interpreted as an enticing invitation. So, what to wear? Perhaps a burqa is safe. But in candid conversation, boys outside hospital revealed that in crowded places, women in burqas were targetted for a squeeze. “They just cry and run away.”
The next “rule” is knowing when to create a scene. You can’t yell at every man who stares rudely at you; you “create a scene” only when you can exit it swiftly. A woman who exposes a harasser herself stands exposed, vulnerable to further harassment, often from the same people eager to “rescue” her.
So, I didn’t say much when on my daily commute on a public bus, a man standing by the “laddis section” (the five seats reserved for women, the rest of the bus for men) exposed himself inappropriately. I looked away, fuming, wanting to yell. But since my stop was an hour away, I stayed quiet — because, who knows what else would have come my way, had I turned the attention of a busload of men upon me?
That’s the next “rule”. Shouting angrily is exactly the wrong thing to do if you want to garner support. A scene must always involve tears; the best revenge on patriarchy is to turn it upon itself. A woman who seems strong doesn’t inspire sympathy.
But a woman who cries invokes much outraged largesse from a mob, who will then beat a harasser to pulp (while the woman deftly exits the scene). Sometimes, it’s better to report an incident to the authorities rather than handle it yourself. Those times include moments when you feel even abduction is imminent; I did, waiting for a bus outside my university.
One day, a middle-aged moustachioed gentleman stopped his car, insisting he’d drop me home. “Dhoop main aap kaali ho jayengi,” he coaxed most considerately. I sternly declined. The next day, he stopped again, revving his car in an attempt, I believe, to appear hip. After two weeks of persistence and break-slamming, I began to get alarmed (for his suspension and my safety). I alerted the university police who stopped his car. He wasn’t seen again.
Some women say the best way to deal with a harasser is to be aggressive, kick up a storm; these women are often privileged though and don’t navigate the public sphere unprotected. If you do something aggressive like, say, break a window of a car in which the driver has been making kissing noises at you (like I did), protect yourself: Hide. Camouflage your steps.
Ultimately, harassment starts small: From leering to touching to groping to pushing to maiming to raping to killing. To accept the first steps as “harmless” is to create a culture which allows a minority of offensive, lecherous men to go unpunished.
Those who accept this behaviour are as complicit in the violence against women as active perpetrators of that violence. Haider is a Pakistani author and satirist who has written the novel ‘How It Happened’