Street harassment is something that is faced by women all over the country. It cuts across all differences: rural and urban, young and old (which unfortunately includes young girls as well), traditionally dressed to the jeans and shirt clad.
A picture doing the rounds on WhatsApp shows three young men on a motor cycle leering at a group of Burqua clad women! And the caption on the pic says “it is all about mindset”. That reminds me of a recent conversations at one of the workshops we organised for post graduate students in a district of Maharashtra.
When I asked the participants why women above fifty years of age, fully covered and traditionally dressed with no intentions of attracting any male attention also fear going on the roads because of the unsolicited staring, pinching, rubbing and touching they are subjected to, one of the participants said “dhaki hui cheeze ko bhi dekh ne ka man karta hai na, Madam” (you feel like checking out something which is fully covered also), which was followed by loud booing from the girls. When I asked him if he is saying that if we reveal everything we would be safer, he was quick to respond “khuli hui cheeze ko to dekh na hi padta hai na” (we have to see something that is revealing). When we talk of Street harassment, we are addressing this decadent mindset. The use of the word Cheeze (object) is not accidental, but is a deep rooted perception of women as objects of desire, instrumental to man’s pleasure and control. Harassment of women is thus seen as an entitlement of men, often described as a harmless, fun act by many men and boys.
CNN IBN’s ‘No city for women’ is a bold campaign that brings out the universality of street harassment and the various ways in which women are stared, stalked, touched and made to feel insecure on the street. However, it is not just enough to say that women are harassed on the streets but it is also important to ask the right questions. There is a need to shift the focus from the women to the men who indulge in such harassment, never ever viewing it as an act of violence and instead trivialise it as a normal boy’s/man’s behavior.
Unfortunately, by asking women to take their selfies in the dress they were wearing when they were harassed, CNN IBN goes two steps backward by bringing the focus on to the question; why am I being harassed? And deflects the attention from the important question, Why do men harass? Women are not responsible for the violence, men are. It doesn’t matter what we wear when we are harassed. Harassing a woman, fully clad in traditional dress does not make it a bigger crime than harassing a woman dressed otherwise. The dress does not matter. A campaign such as this also has a flip side, it may end up creating a perception that women who wear the so called revealing clothes are responsible for attracting unwanted attention reinforcing the right wing demands for more control and restrictions over women, their movement, their choices and their rights.
(This article appeared in the 26 December issue of Campaign India)