Recently, when the ripples of the #MeToo movement were yet to hit the Valley, a female friend of mine, along with a friend of hers, was engaged in teaching practice sessions in a countryside school. After a week or so, she called me in panic because some of her male colleagues had been frequently passing sexist comments to her friend Unable to cope with such an attitude in an institution that is supposed to educate, empower, and emancipate, her friend succumbed. In distress, she opted for a change of centre. The teacher in charge threatened to write an adverse performance report but after frequent pleas from the girls, he yielded and changed his stance.
The respite, however, lasted only for a while as another round of male chauvinism began soon after. The teacher began to message my friend on WhatsApp, first enquiring if her friend had pulled herself together. Unaware of his intentions, the girl responded. What came next hit her as a thunderbolt. He sent over two pictures of her that he had secretly clicked and also asked for her Facebook username. On enquiring how he had clicked the pictures without her permission, he dodged the question and began addressing her with sexist names. He asked her not to address him as “sir”. What was she supposed to call him? ‘Anything but sir,’ the teacher instructed her.
Disoriented and devastated, she revealed all this to her friends (including me). The choice was stark: my friend could either be a victim or a fighter; she chose to be the latter. She talked to a superior who instructed her to keep it to herself while he took some action against the teacher-in charge. Nothing happened, however. The case was hushed up and my friend was transferred to another centre. However, she informed the teacher in charge that she had divulged his dirty secret to his superior. Alarmed, he brazenly begged her not to damage his reputation as he was a very “honourable” man and had daughters of her age. Addressing her as his “daughter”, he threatened to commit suicide if she “harassed” him in this way.( Such an amnesiac!)
My friend took a brave stand before turning into an unrecognized victim of the whims of a “superior”. She had the screenshot evidence. It was horrific, to say the least, to see a supposedly “qaum ka meemar” trying to prey on a girl who was half his age. About the same time, a friend apprised me of the harassment of his fiancée in a local private bank and her subsequent relocation to another branch.
A girl going through this trauma usually appears to be unflustered during such conversations often because the man she is dealing with is a man in power. She is caught off-guard. He is either her teacher or her boss. The former will cut back on her grades; the latter play down her performance. Her choice to protest is taken away by the taboos we have internalized. ‘She must have provoked/invited him’ is our favourite tagline. We often forget that such things happen so fast that a woman is caught between two stools. If she resists/protests, she loses her grades or the job; if she doesn’t, she risks losing their “virtue”. It is not really easy in a society like ours for the women to buckle up and go against the grain.
What complicates it further is the fashionable trend in Kashmir to blame someone else for our faults: the omnipresent ghostly “agencies.” Anyone who opines against a political flaw or encourages a social change is straightaway labelled a collaborator. In the same vein, the recent MeToo movement has been rejected by many as a smear campaign to “malign the image of Kashmiris.” (It is as if all Kashmiris have been anointed saints by the Almighty!) Some ridiculed it as a strategy to “damage” the Kashmiri resistance movement as if the person(s) in question symbolizes the whole movement. Others self-authorized themselves to set the parameters of what amounts to sexual harassment and what doesn’t.
MeToo or not, the shameless acts of eve-teasing and harassments are real. Let’s admit it. The rectification of a problem begins with acknowledging that the problem exists. Screenshots, of course, cannot be taken as a final proof of someone’s culpability or innocence. But by straightaway adopting a rejectionist approach, we are only ensuring the perpetuation of such dastardly acts. Shoving them under the carpet only makes our society tolerant towards the accused and intolerant towards the victims/survivors. It directly affects the psyche of the woman who, when subjected to harassment, is prevented from speaking up. We, as a society—men, more so—flaunt our “concern” for her. But in reality, we desecrate her over and over again by siding with the alleged wrongdoer and by questioning her instead of listening to her. Contrariwise, what she needs is to be believed; what she needs is justice. Why is it that her right to be heard is perceived as a rebellion against men?
One does not need to be a champion of feminism to recognize the pitfalls of our selective approach. All it takes is a humane and sensitive approach. Our society has in it the elements of patriarchy, misogyny, and chauvinism that manifest in the various handicaps that a girl is made to suffer right from her birth. From the choice of wearing clothes to choosing her life partner to the familial decision-making process, there is a general tendency to perpetuate the subservience of girls. Our society may not be typically retrogressive; but it is not as progressive as we tend to believe. The recent revelations of sexual harassment are only the tip of the iceberg.
So, what are the possible ways to safeguard the women from the whims of sexual predators? Seclude them, suffocate them, and strangle them? I believe not. First, it is the duty of parents to educate their children that the life and desires of girls are as valuable as that of boys. Second, we need to erase the stereotypical image of girls that they are delicate and ignorant who need protection and fortification. Several studies have shown that boys who are made to feel emasculated are more likely than other boys to perpetrate sexual violence. Let us accept a just society cannot exist unless we are prepared to shun the clichéd images. Schools can play an effective role in developing among children a progressive attitude towards gender equality. It does not directly result in an objectification of women, if that is what we are apprehensive of. Quranic injunctions are often erroneously invoked without stating the context since they appeal to our parochial predispositions, putting girls at a disadvantage. But, for the development of an egalitarian society, we need to contextualize things. Third, there is a dire need to bring awareness among the women as a necessary prerequisite to inculcate the culture of speaking up against injustices. In all this, both the home(s) and schools can act as the effective forums for change. Moreover, schools and workplaces require a firm policy in place for a speedy response against cases of sexual harassment. Government and private institutions must keep help desks and women’s cells to address such issues. However, before all this is made possible, let us remove our heads from the sands of obscurantism and face the ugly reality in all its nakedness.
The author is pursuing a doctorate in the Department of History at Aligarh Muslim University. He can be reached at: email@example.com.