“Do you like men with moustaches? Or do you prefer them clean shaven?” asked the managing director of the well-established industrial conglomerate my colleague was pitching to. She politely tried to to bring the conversation back to work, but he remained undeterred.
“Are you married?” he enquired, and when my colleague said yes, he seemed almost miffed. “So young! Who is he? How long has it been?”
When the meeting ended, he shook everyone’s hand, but turning to my colleague, he exclaimed, “Chalo, if you aren’t katti with me, you’ll do a fun handshake!” and proceeded to engage in an elaborate handshake-dance involving high fives and finger guns.
Later, the men nodded to each other about how awkward the meeting was. They told her they couldn’t believe that she had to deal with such terrible behaviour. They told her they would make sure there wasn’t a repeat performance.
And then, they did nothing.
This scenario is probably familiar to most working women. The response to harassment at the workplace is quite often sympathetic tut-tutting, followed by indifference.
In India, the absence or unworkability of legitimate ways of dealing with such harassment, means that any response that isn’t slut-shaming, victim-blaming, or total apathy is a welcome relief. So, when some sort of actionable policy is enacted, it becomes easy to sell it as a win — even if it is blatantly discriminatory.
In Bangalore, the government has recommended that women employed in the IT sector be excluded from working the night shift. This has been a solution recommended time and again, whenever there is a spike in assaults on employees returning home from working the night shift in the IT or BPO sector.
Further north, in Uttar Pradesh, couples are shown being humiliated in grainy cellphone footage of the Nari Suraksha Dal (formerly the anti-Romeo squad) in action. This group was created to fulfil Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath's campaign promise to tackle the issue of rising violence against women in his state. So far, the move only seems to have succeeded in harassing consenting couples and emboldening people who believe that girls should not have boyfriends since “Indian society doesn’t permit [it].”
Protectionist measures that limit the freedom of women as a response to sexual harassment are becoming popular across the world. In the wake of the allegations of sexual abuse against Harvey Weinstein, it was suggested that adopting US Vice President Mike Pence’s policy of completely avoiding one-on-one meetings with women could be the solution to workplace harassment issues.
The ‘Pence policy’ isn’t just a patently impractical idea, it highlights a way of thinking that has increased discrimination against women by perpetuating old boys’ networks and isolating female workers in the name of protecting them.
Women are already on the backfoot in the workplace. It is harder for them to get hired, they are paid less and they get promoted less frequently than men. And a major cause of this disparity is women’s traditional lack of access to informal networks — exactly the ones Pence is excluding his female colleagues from.
Shilpa Phadke, a renowned gender researcher at TISS, has spoken extensively about how violence against women results in them being punished through exclusion from public spaces since cities are “violent spaces that women are better off not accessing at all”. But this is an abdication of responsibility by the State and its institutions, to the obvious detriment of women.
Phadke’s research confirms what many Indian women have experienced all their lives. Being told to cover up with a dupatta tells us that our mere existence serves as an uncontrollable distraction to our male classmates from scholarly pursuits. Universities also institute earlier hostel curfews for female students and often have no curfews for the males.
This just results in restricting access and mobility to university resources for one half of the student body and prevents collegial interaction between future colleagues and employees. Are risk, fun, and opportunity only for men?
Protectionist measures that view women as either whores to be castigated or mothers to be protected are just benevolent versions of the same misogyny they ostensibly seek to counter. And the attitudes that enable these measures are all-pervasive, infecting even the most seemingly liberal and permissive spaces.
A case in point is High Spirits, a Pune bar popular among young, affluent students, that is currently at the center of a storm after allegations of sexual harassment and abuse were leveled by multiple female patrons and employees against its owner, Khodu Irani.
The bar’s responses to these allegations have argued that it is a safe space by citing examples of protectionist measures it had instituted: bouncers and a ride home. None of these measures addressed the biggest thing women had to fear — a sustained and systemic stream of abuse that, according to the numerous women speaking out, was encouraged and perpetuated by the bar’s management.
It feels so obvious, so much easier, to ask a woman to not go out for that late night film, to let that bar-side buttslap go, to not make too many waves at work. These are just little compromises, we are told. Little compromises to keep us safe.
But these little compromises are insidiously chipping away at women’s freedoms and still aren’t keeping us safe. This is aptly demonstrated by the sheer volume of women who came forward with their stories of being sexually assaulted or abuse as part of the #MeToo campaign — in the last 24 hours, 4.7 million posts have engaged with this hashtag.
So, to the men who so desperately want to protect us, here’s how you can begin today:
Start with acknowledging the deep rot in how you culturally view interactions with women. You have always been told that you can live life exactly the way you want to. What you weren’t told was that this right came at the expense of our right to do the same. Relinquishing it isn’t easy, but it’s necessary to make things fairer.
The next time you hear another whispered tale of a sleazy colleague, call out, contain, and correct the perpetrators of abuse, not the victim. Acknowledging your complicity is the first step to growth.
And finally, ensure it lasts by coaching yourself into instinctively viewing women as complete humans. You’ll make it easier for us to live a life as fun, fulfilling, and free as yours.
Contact Sushmita Sundaram at email@example.com.
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