With the narrowing gender gap in the field of education, the participation of women is increasing and will keep on increasing in the future. We can see more number of women joining different professions, from private to public sector enterprises. Most of the workplaces in India are male dominated, caste infected and communally charged. So automatically they become fertile grounds for social discrimination against the marginalized sections, which means they are unsafe for women too. Given these circumstances, it is a dire need of the time that we become aware of the environment in which our women have to work in.
Things weren’t any better for the working women professionals earlier either. But with time, personal and professional lives are intertwining like never before. The length of working hours are increasing, so as a result of this you are exposed to vulnerabilities for a longer duration.
I have been in close touch with a friend who was subjected to sexual harassment at her workplace. And with this association I felt how important it is to sensitize family and friends about this topic. I will try to cover the socio-psychological and legal aspects related to this topic.
It is not wrong to say that we sow the seeds of fear and inferiority in the minds of our girls in our homes itself. Despite our efforts for gender equality, our homes are gender biased and the presence of misogyny is still a reality. We have not given our girls the confidence of sharing their problems without any fear and apprehension. The blame game is the normal retaliation when she tries to tell her experiences of harassment or eve teasing.
Upbringing leaves very deep imprints on our personality. It will be a bit harsh to say, but most of Indian homes are well furnished jails for girls. Freedom is a remote dream for most of them. Parents and siblings, especially brothers, hardly pay any compliments to them. Indian family members often indulge in body shaming and discipline them to behave. This way we inculcate a sense of insecurity related to physical appearance in our girls. We don’t teach them to love themselves the way they are. So when they enter into adulthood, it becomes a dent in their mental wellbeing. And if they are not able to overcome this sense of insecurity in the initial times of adulthood it takes a lot of time to get over it and many a time spills over in the form of vulnerability. Like, when they enter a job, it becomes difficult for them to handle mixed meaning compliments from their bosses/ colleagues. Everyone wants to be complimented for what they are, but when that does not come from our family and friends, we feel deprived of it and crooked fellows can sense it and exploit this vulnerability.
Apart from this, the verbal, emotional, psychological and physical harassment of girls and women is also prevalent in the families. This leads to the normalization of pain and misery. They start feeling that it is part and parcel of life to have such kinds of humiliation. And they think love and abuse go hand in hand.
Modus Operandi of Harassment at Workplace
Most of the male predators assess the vulnerability of women employees. It generally starts with normal compliments. Because at this point it is too early to sense and judge the intention of the compliments, so a woman has to reply in affirmation expressing thanks or just keep mum, which in Indian culture, is unfortunately equivalent to affirmation. And if the male finds out that it went smoothly without any negative reaction from the woman’s side, he moves to the double meaning compliments. Here it becomes difficult for a woman to reply in affirmation but as it is coming from a boss, who holds the position of power, so again it becomes difficult to register her disagreement over such comments. This goes on for some time and the predator (male) moves to the next level, that is, physical harassment. It begins with the intentional touches while moving together or sitting in a meeting and culminates in the explicit sexual touches and advancement, and if not stopped, may result in rape and sexual violence.
The predator advances very strategically and makes the woman accustomed to the harassment at each step. Here it is important to understand that the family has made her accustomed to tolerating the injustice against herself. So when the physical harassment begins, it becomes really difficult for a woman to react. Whenever she tries to resist the advancements, the boss may directly or indirectly threaten her about the consequences if she doesn’t follow his wishes. For example, he will say- You know I have to write your appraisals.
Slowly she is in the grip of the guilt of not having stopped the process when he just started with loose comments. At this level, she suffers every moment. The guilt starts engulfing her self-respect and the situation worsens. At this stage, some eventually give in to the predator’s demands. Some take the route of getting a transfer from the present place of posting. And so on. It is this line that divides women: into being silent victims for life or into mustering their courage to stand up against the harassment.
Role of Family and Friends
The above modus operandi can be seen in action in most of the cases of sexual harassment at the workplace so we should also be prepared to prevent it from occurring. And in case it occurs, we should know how to deal with such a situation. Most of the time, a woman tolerates the harassment to protect the honor (?) of her family or to save her job. And this sense of responsibility to protect the honor of the family on account of protecting her self-respect is the result of the patriarchal upbringing that she went through. When she wants to share her pain with her family, friends or relatives she fears no one will believe her and they will advise her to ‘behave’ properly (dress properly, be in her ‘limits’, so on and so forth).
This way, the burden of protecting family honor has made the woman weak and voiceless. As this burden was thrown by the family and friends on her, they have a huge role to play in overcoming the incidence of harassment.
First of all, we should make sure that we are providing a healthy, free and respectful environment for girls and women to grow to their full potential. They should not be left to fend for themselves in such a situation. We should make it very clear that we will be with them at every stage of life. When they feel aloof and helpless they become vulnerable to exploitation. We should convey to them that even a very small attack on their dignity is not okay and they should call it out when they feel humiliated. We as family members or friends should never target her initial positive responses towards the harasser. We should understand that nothing can give the harasser the license to harass. She has got the right to stop the male at any stage.
It is very important that family and friends support the victim unconditionally. As it is probably the first time, she is putting her experience of harassment into words so it needs to be listened to very compassionately. There are times when the victims don’t know how to put their experiences of harassment into words. I have personally sensed it many times when my friend used to go blank while narrating the instances of her harassment. The pain and agony that a victim goes through is huge, what we can do is give a patient-compassionate hearing to her.
It is generally thought that if the victim had been married then the harassment would not have taken place in the first instance. It is completely a rubbish thing to think. It has nothing to do with the victim’s marital status; it is a blatant abuse of power and position which gives rise to the case of sexual harassment. There are enough cases in public knowledge where the victims were already married. So don’t make marriage is a solution to this problem. There would be times when the harassment would not stop and the things will escalate to the next level. Here we should never hesitate to take the formal routes for redressing the problems. One thing which is important here is that, if she goes to file a formal complaint, the case would come to the public gaze and her character would be questioned by the people. Her character will be questioned while the character of the harasser would barely be questioned by the people. Being a family member or friend should not bother you about this reaction of society because every inch of it is infested with the viruses of casteism and patriarchy. If you feel bothered about these comments then you can’t be of help to her in the way she needs. Your unconditional support is the most important thing which a victim needs in the course of her struggle for justice.
There are legal ways to handle sexual harassment at the workplace. The Prevention of Sexual Harassment at Workplace (PSHAW) Act 2013 mandates that organizations must have the Internal Complaints Committees (ICC) in place, and in case a woman faces harassment at her workplace she has the right to file a complaint with this committee. Similarly, in each district, there is a Local Complaints Committee (LCC) where a woman employee can file a complaint if there is no ICC in her office or she herself is the chairperson of the ICC. These committees have got the powers of civil courts to inquire into the matter. During the inquiry, the victim can avail 3 months of paid leave on the recommendation of the committee.
Many a time it is not enough to report the matter in ICC/LCC because the victim feels that it may be managed/influenced by the harasser or she fears other threats from the harasser. In such situations, the matter can be reported to the police and an FIR can be lodged. Some people have the confusion that if you report to ICC/LCC then you can’t file an FIR. This is completely false. The victim can use both options simultaneously. If the harasser is an influential person it is better to use both options so that he is restricted through police also.
If the harasser messages via email/SMS/WhatsApp, then the messages should be kept safe because the victim generally deletes these messages fearing family members/ friends may see them; this should not be done. If you have to delete it then take some backup or send it to a trustworthy friend so you can use them to substantiate your complaint whenever needed. After filing of the complaint, the harasser may try to contact the victim to take the complaint back or to threaten her/family, then the evidence of these communications should be gathered (record the call, or as some people send you WhatsApp messages and delete them, take the screenshots of these messages before they delete it).
Also, it is always good to go through the legal provisions (e.g. PSHAW Act, Vishaka Guidelines, IPC 354, 354A, 354D, 509 etc) related to harassment of women. It helps in framing your application and understanding that what you might have thought as a normal act is a grave crime in the eyes of the law. It will also give you a motivation to fight against injustice. In the case of my friend, I went through the above Indian Penal Code (IPC) provisions before filing the FIR and I could ask to add two relevant IPC in the FIR itself. After filing the FIR, the victim’s statements are recorded before a Magistrate under section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). Before this statement, it is advisable to talk to a lawyer because one can not go against these statements and in a way these are the foundation for the case.
A note to the victim
It is quite possible that you tolerated harassment to this extent because your family already conditioned you to humiliation and you had normalized it so couldn’t raise your voice. But now is the time to rise against this. Even family members have to be warned if you feel that they are not respecting your stand to fight.
Immediately disconnect with the people who make you feel responsible for this situation. If they can’t understand your pain then don’t give a damn what they think of you. In the process, you may find that the colleagues who were witnesses to your harassment are not willing to come out in your support. Don’t feel disheartened about this. Seek support from likeminded people and take care of your mental and physical wellbeing. It is never too late to fight for your rights. Once you have filed the FIR don’t unnecessarily stress about the length of the case. It will go at its pace and if you stay strong things will be fine. Never have self-doubt, it is your struggle and you can fight it out; just have faith in yourself and in the ones who are standing by you. The harasser would try to compel you to take your complaint back, at such times don’t lose your strength.
Lastly, remember these two quotes by Babasaheb – “Ours is a battle not for wealth; nor for power, ours is a battle for freedom; for reclamation of human personality” and “Lost rights are never regained by appeals to the conscience of the usurpers but by relentless struggle.”
Arvind Bouddh is a graduate from IIT Bombay. He is an egalitarian.