Battling besharmi

Do the recent besharmi morchas, following in the footsteps of the much-publicised
Pink Chaddi Campaign of 2009, prove that the situation of women in public places
has not improved? And are such movements a better way for women to fight the
battle for respect in public spaces and homes? Vimla Patil checks out

As a movement, the slut walks are a recent development in India
As a movement, the slut walks are a recent development in India

Following the first-ever ‘slut walk’ in Toronto in April, 2011, to protest against sexist remarks and attitudes in public life, Indian women, too, have decided to express their anger at the disrespect they face in daily life as well as in offices and homes.

Getting together protest groups, they planned their first slut walk in Bhopal, which has recorded the highest rape cases in India in recent times. Though Indian women dressed conservatively compared to their Canadian sisters, the walk, named besharmi morcha, attracted a great deal of attention from the media as well as the public. More recently, another slut walk was held in Delhi, and this is to be followed by one more in Mumbai in September.

The besharmi morchas are not the first movement that fights for the respect of women in public spaces and in homes. Earlier, too, events like the Pink Chaddi Campaign have drawn the attention of Indian society to the treatment women get in public spaces. In this case, the Sri Rama Sena, headed by violent conservative segments of society, had attacked women in a pub in Mangalore, Karnataka, saying that the women’s behaviour had ‘violated Indian cultural norms’. Though police protection was offered to the women and a huge hue and cry was made by the media and activists, the movement soon died down. This incident was followed by the Pink Chaddi Campaign by women all over the country, wherein they called for a peaceful protest by sending pink chaddis to the office of the head of the Sri Rama Sena, Pramod Muthalik. There were reports also of his face being blackened by protesters. Though this campaign received copious media coverage, it petered out in due course.

Women in the West, like these participants in Philadelphia, have taken the lead in using slut walks as a form of protest
Women in the West, like these participants in Philadelphia, have taken the lead in using slut walks as a form of protest Photo: AP/PTI

The besharmi morcha in New Delhi garnered a good response and plenty of media coverage
The besharmi morcha in New Delhi garnered a good response and plenty of media coverage Photos: Manas Ranjan Bhui

Similarly, in Maharashtra, Valentine’s Day has seen violence and harassment of young women and their friends.

Surprisingly, these protests are happening in India just when the world is recognising women’s contribution to the galloping Indian economy, which is unique in the present gloom of recession in the western world. The Harvard Business Review says that the emerging economy of India puts unprecedented opportunities as well as challenges in front of working women — and the challenges specific to India are numerous. The present generation of Indian women, who are seeking a new world of financial self-reliance and excellence, have been raised as ‘equals’ by their parents where education, opportunities and personal space are concerned. But marriage often changes all this. Once married, they face innumerable social and familial pressures to ‘attend to their domestic duties first’ and then only look for career success. It is also significant that Indian men do not like wives earning more money or fame than themselves and a large number of marriages end bitterly because of a wife’s high position, high income and the resulting independence of thought and action.

Statistics say that Indian women often work over 60 hours in a week to prove their worth and to compete for higher jobs. Additionally, sexual harassment or gender discrimination is a silent part of the discouragement. While rabid sexual harassment can go against a male colleague, subtle talk or gestures, which hide behind the dark cloak of camaraderie, can often not be proven but become an irritant for a hard-working woman. Though the Vishakha Guidelines, set by the Supreme Court, decree that committees of employees and social workers have to be set up in all workplaces to resolve such cases, this has not been put into practice and cases of gender bias or sexual harassment continue to dog the footsteps of ambitious women.

However, this machinery, too, has not been effective, with employers giving no importance to the rules. Of course, these rules do not apply to the street behaviour of roadside romeos, who harass women in public transport or on the roads.

What women can do to avoid sexual harassment

Activists and psychologists offer a five-point formula.

z First, a woman must be extremely aware of her surroundings and the men she works or spends time with. Diplomacy is the answer to many intrusions into her private space. Her antennas should give her clues as to where things are leading in case a colleague or any man in public life or in the family becomes ‘over friendly’. Women, brought up in a free atmosphere at home, do not quickly realise the dangers of camaraderie and thus do not know when to ring the alarm bell.

z Second, women who spend over 60 hours in office to compete for higher jobs/incomes must be aware that closeness to male colleagues is often misunderstood. Guys often take such women for granted and what follows is embarrassment to the woman.

z Third, in several cases, women are scared to expose the men who are sexually harassing them for various reasons. They just stay away from the man and hope that he will get the message. If a woman, for an important reason, cannot risk a disclosure or complaint against a man in a superior position, she should retire to her own space, avoiding being alone with such a man as far as possible.

z Fourthly, women must understand the verbal or physical sexual harassment is a show of male dominance and ego. Reports of the International Labour Organisation say that sexual harassment is also rampant all over the world because women are perceived as weak and powerless and culturally trained to suffer silently. So, the answer is to strengthen one’s defences and feel empowered as a group or as a family. Such instances must be brought to light at least with trusted relatives, friends or colleagues.

z Lastly, in workplaces or social groups, women can hang in together to deal with such men. As a group, which is vocal, they must radiate a no-nonsense spirit and stick together in times of trouble.

Apart from these steps, women must familiarise themselves with sexual harassment laws.

There are procedures in place for complaints of sexual harassment in all government and public sector companies as well as in corporate houses.

Rules and regulations may be demanded even in private enterprises or small industries.

Women have the right to ask for good working conditions to ensure health, hygiene, gender equality and a no-hostility atmosphere. She has the right to have an equal-opportunity working atmosphere in her workplace.

If the act of sexual harassment amounts to a crime, it comes under the Indian Penal Code and can be reported to the law-enforcement authorities. A woman who suffers sexual harassment can ask to work in a more suitable department or seek the transfer of the offender.

However, the public morchas, which are beginning to bring women together for this issue, may soon become a larger movement with right-thinking men joining in the effort. Together, they can find remedies to make women feel more secure in their workplaces and public life.

Pink Chaddi & beyond

Shortly after the Pink Chaddi Campaign, a group of activists started a Facebook group to exchange views. This was hacked and threats and sexist slurs were added to the comments. Eventually, Facebook, unable to control the hacking, disabled the account and stopped any access to its contents. Activists of the group are no longer on Facebook. Does this mean that all such campaigns are a bubble in the air? Are they newsworthy because they are ‘hot’ news for a while and then the media has more important things to talk about? Can it be that a huge number of Indians secretly believe that women are the ‘weaker sex’ and should obey social and cultural rules to be safe? There have been many crusades like ‘The Village’ by Jyothi Ramalingam for disadvantaged women and several websites advocate women’s rights. "These have a place in our lives as an expression," says Nirmala Dandekar, a professor of sociology, "but they have not been truly effective. At best, they serve a limited purpose. For each one, there is often a counter crusade and that dilutes the effect of the content. After all, this cannot be a man vs. woman situation, where barbs are used as weapons. We have to get results and these can be achieved only by women truly working together and finding solutions in their own large numbers."

"I am surprised at the mockery of the movement," says Akhila Bhagwat, a prominent activist of the women’s movement in India, "The Pink Chaddi Campaign, for instance, was mocked by the Pink Condom Campaign. The Internet is full of anti-women stuff and women have to be careful in every situation in life. It is sad how this movement has been trivialised by all concerned. On the one hand, women are achieving new heights in education and careers, and on the other hand, they are victims of old mindsets that dog their footsteps everywhere."

"The story begins in colleges and even in schools," says Dr Duru Shah, chairperson of the Gynaecological Society of India, which has done many research projects on women’s sexuality, "Urban young women are more free than ever before and the closeness of young women and men is common. Our surveys have found that a large number of college girls in many cities have several sexual experiences. When this happens, there is criticism in Indian society because this is not our culture and also such random sexual encounters affect the life of a young girl, who suffers from disillusionment. Women must understand that they should be the first to respect their bodies and spirit. This could reduce the level of sexual exploitation of young women." Further, Hafiza Burfiwala, a lawyer, adds, "In our society, women live extreme lives – they are either completely free or behind veils. A golden mean must be found to make them secure. Our laws must be more effective and such offences must be punishable right away without long procedures."

Perhaps the best comment on women’s safety and security has been made by Bollywood icon Shah Rukh Khan, who said about his wife, "Having brought a woman away from her parental family, it is the duty of the husband to make her feel secure, happy and empowered. Every man must treat women with respect and be respected and trusted by the women around him. This is the true foundation of a society which treats men and women as equals." — VP