A recent incident in Gurugram that went viral on social media has once again highlighted the sexual harassment dilemmas that our society faces. For those who are not tuned in, this is briefly what happened. A middle-aged woman entered a restaurant in Gurugram, and seeing young girl(s) in short dress(es) she implored a group of men sitting beside them to feel free to rape such girls with what she thought was ‘immoral’ dress sense!
Shocked and outraged, the young girls followed her and confronted her for an apology that turned into a rather ugly shouting match. The confrontation was captured on a video and in no time became a social media spectacle. The apology eventually came, but by that time the women had faced severe bullying in cyber space, including some below the belt shaming remarks as being “fat”, “ugly” and even “sexually frustrated”. Aspersions were casted even on her family.
There is no denying the fact that our women in question had no business whatsoever to comment on the girls dressing and heinously insult them in public. The girls did the right thing by asking her to apologise. But in reality, while most women may not have such an outrageous and extreme outburst as our women in question, there are many in our society who mirror her sentiments. (Perhaps in her own mind she was so disturbed by frequent rapes in the country, that she chose this rather absurd way to vent her frustration. Or, she thought using shock therapy was the right way to counsel the girls. Who knows what was her mental frame before the incident).
Among my morning walk friends, several felt that some girls and women do dress to attract unnecessary attention. So whether we accept it or not, this perception runs through and through. Another notion that emerged from the group was that your figure decides what could be the appropriate dressing for you. A friend in particular who had two grown up daughters sounded helpless when she said that that she has stopped commenting on her daughters’ choice of dresses long ago and that she does find some of the dresses inappropriate.
This incident brings out many deep-rooted biases in our society. It highlights the twisted perceptions and biases we have about our own gender, in the backdrop of a rather stereotypical cultural values. Mind you, the biases are not restricted to gender alone. It extends to, for instance, our twisted sense of nationality and patriotism that is often laced with doses of idealism and hypocrisy. It also brings out how we are becoming a “trigger happy” society quick to drop our “civil conduct” at the slightest provocation. Why just this incident. On roads, it is appalling to see when people instantly start calling names when another car even has a slight brush with their car.
Rather than throwing personal comments and remarks, what could have been a healthy outcome of the incident would have been to build public opinion on certain acceptable norms and code of conduct to minimise the cultural and civil divide that exist in the society today. One might argue that India is a land of many cultures and ideologies. It is indeed impossible to bring all on a common ground especially for a topic as sensitive as this. But with more and more discussion at homes, formal and informal communities, forums, workshops, atleast some prejudices and biases can be identified and resolved.
Of course, we cannot ignore the disparities. Within Gurugram youth alone, on one hand, there are the millennials that end their day at pubs and night clubs. On the other, there are the villagers and original natives of Gurugram, who might drive an SUV but still live in very conservative environments at home. The latter just cannot come to terms with the contrast at home and outside.
A common myth surrounding sexual harassment is women provoke sexual harassment by the way they look, dress and behave and that there is no smoke without fire. However, studies on sexual harassment have found that victims of sexual harassment vary in physical appearance, dress type, age and behaviour. How else do you explain girl children getting molested or raped?. Another myth is that those women that face such harassment lack self-confidence and therefore self-defence training is important. The reality is that even so-called confident women can be taken for a ride and self-defence trainings are not the “be-all, end-all” for preventing such crimes.
We need to go beyond these myths and biases to do a deeper root-cause analysis of the problem that plagues our society. Many real answers will emerge and surprisingly a lot will be to do with women themselves. One key point will be what mothers tell their boys about the rights of women and what it means to respect them. What women think of other women especially from different age groups and economic status will also throw up many surprises.
As a civil nation that is progressing and evolving, we will have to draw the lines, somewhat, on what is appropriate and inappropriate. Otherwise, ugly events such as these will continue to expose the underbelly of our divergent society.