Public transportation, not always a joy ride for women
If you’re a woman and use public transportation to move about, it’s given that you’ve had some bitter experiences that ruined your whole day or even weeks or months. Yes, we are talking about sexual harassment that is prominent in public transportation. It is a huge social problem that has been around since forever and surprisingly doesn’t seem to be disappearing any time sooner. Especially in South East Asia, the right of women to physical integrity is constantly being violated. Every women knows how anxious and threatened she feels if she’s alone in a bus or other public transportation. With all the news of abuses and rapes in public transportation, a woman will always opt out to walk than ride alone with men in a bus. Amazingly, there has been hardly any news of harassment against men by women.
Being a woman, it’s not unusual for you to see men staring at you, not your face but any place else. And if there’s crowd, it’s even worse. They’ll dash you, feel you in unthinkable places of your body and abuse you verbally in a way that only you’ll hear what they said. It’s a mystery why men do not think of their mothers, daughters, sisters and other women they respect or love or care for when they are committing such acts.
In one incident, shared by a 19-year-old student, Pritisha, the abuser has an embarrassing encounter with the abused one. You might find it hilarious, ironically! Well, Pritisha was on her way to a friend’s place in a local bus. She was standing up as there were no seats and yes, it was crowded too. A middle-aged, slightly over-weight man was almost leaning on her back. So, Pritisha moved a little ahead. But after a while, the man was again behind her sort of bending over to her. She let it go because her stop was reaching. But, the man was up to a loathsome act. He pinched her on her behind. She shuddered with anger and disgust but couldn’t do anything. It was time to get off but the man too got off at her stop. When Pritisha got to her friend’s place, she told everything to her. An hour later, a man walked into the living room where they were chatting. When Pritisha’s eyes fell on that man, she had her eyes wide open and mouth agape. It was the same man in the bus.
“Meet my dad! Pritisha!” said her friend and Pritisha went blank.
The man said something polite and left the room with an awkward, embarrassed look and Pritisha never went back there again.
Ridhi, a student in Kathmandu, shared one of her experiences that had left her terrified of public transportation and crowd. Once, she and her elder sister took a bus to get to a relative’s place. The bus was crowded and there were no seats available, so, they had to stand. Ridhi recalls, a creepy looking man around 40 was gradually getting close to her and to her astonishment, he touched her front intentionally with an excuse of the crowd and bad road. She was only fifteen. The man was doing everything to get an excuse to touch her. He was switching his hands over and over and acting like he’s been pushed to bump on her. She noticed he was looking at her frequently with crooked eyes She was perplexed and disgusted at the man’s act. As their stop came, she hurried out so fast that her sister kept looking for her inside the bus. Ridhi was afraid that the man would follow them and attempt something more vicious. Ridhi said this incident had such an effect in her mind that she kept thinking about it for days and she got chills whenever she saw someone who looked like that man. She didn’t want to go to school or any place else. She also stopped riding bus for months. She said she has never talked about it to anyone until now.
Another young woman, Bishakha, who’s a working girl, feels furious at the fact that men don’t understand how low and degrading such acts of harassments are. One time, she was returning from work in a bus. The bus wasn’t very crowded. Three boys sitting behind her started speaking foul words intentionally and laughing loudly. She pretended that she didn’t hear a thing. But, they didn’t stop there. They started teasing her from behind like “the girl in the front might agree...” “The girl in the front might come…” Bisakha lost her temper but didn’t dare to say anything because she thought doing anything will backfire at her. Fortunately, the conductor of the bus was a sensible boy. He asked the boys to take seats ahead near the door and Bisakha was left alone.
(Names have been changed for privacy reasons)
This is a giant issue that has a huge impact in the social, political and economical conditions of women but has ironically been ignored by the society. If a little girl suffers such harassment, it’ll have immeasurable impact on her mind, behavior and future even through her adult life. She’ll have to suffer a tremendous mental trauma that’ll affect her social behavior negatively. We don’t want our children to suffer. So, we have to make effort to initiate a positive way to at least prevent if not eradicate such evils from the society and create a healthy and sociable environment for every woman. And the men who turn into a monster when they see a woman alone should understand the grotesqueness of such despicable acts by putting themselves in the woman’s shoes.
Why do men have to use obscene words when they see an alone woman? Do they find it amusing? Do they get any kind of sensual pleasure from that? There are a million questions we can pose to men regarding their behavior towards women. Our psychiatrist has answered few of them.
Astitwa: Define sexual harassment for us?
RP: Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature (Baron, 1997) are considered sexual harassment. In other words, any attention of a sexual nature that is unwanted or unwelcome is sexual harassment. Sexual harassment of any kind is an immoral and inhuman act. It restrains, especially, women from the basic right for free movement and personal dignity.
Astitwa: What are the forms of harassment prevalent in public transportation?
RP: Sexual harassment in public transportation may include:
· Sexually offensive verbal comments
· Sexual jokes
· Offensive hand or body gestures
· Physical contact - patting, pinching, touching of putting an arm around another person’s body - which is unwelcome
· Rubbing against a non consenting person with sexual intentions
Astitwa: What encourages men to commit such acts as sexual harassment in crowded public transportation or anywhere?
RP: There are definite cultural, social and economic factors responsible for this kind of behavior. Society being male dominated “Patriarchal”. In most of the families, male are the bread winners. Prevailing gender based discrimination. Gender stereotype- in many cultures like in Nepal, males are assumed to be more powerful then women and also it is believed that men are forceful, determined, ambitious etc. In contrast, female are assumed to be submissive, emotional, dependent, and indecisive. And also there is lack of awareness on the possible impact (physical, psychological and social) of sexual harassment.
For some people, teasing girls, making gestures etc is the way to get sexual gratification and have fun. In most cases, the harasser is unaware that whatever he is doing for the sexual gratification is not being liked by the other person. Unless, he is confronted by the other person he might think that the other person is also interested. This encourages him to continue. There is a popular phrase called “MAUN SWEKRITI”, (or silent approval) which means saying nothing about it is like accepting it. But if a person is aware that his behavior is distressing the other and still does it then he might be considered as having some psychological problem.
Astitwa: Why do most women hesitate to fight back when they suffer such harassment?
RP: Gender stereotype makes men superior to women and put women in risk of sexual harassment because most of the women themselves believe in these gender stereotypes so that they are afraid to confront and repress.
They feel unsafe physically, psychologically and socially to confront and to report so they repress.
Astitwa: What psychological impact can such harassments have in women in long term?
RP: Sexual harassment can lower self-esteem and cause health problems. The most significant harm due to sexual harassment to the individual is psychological. Sexual harassment obviously leads to emotional distress but the severity depends upon the individual’s perception of the event, coping mechanisms and resiliency. Person who experience sexual harassment persistently might suffer anxiety, aggression, might avoid such people and places, might feel helpless and hopeless, might become depressed, sexually maladjusted, substance abuse etc. and eventually, will be less efficient in school, employment and in other aspects of competence. Psychological impact of sexual harassment can be very severe and sometimes permanent (e.g. in case of rape).
Astitwa: How can sexual harassment be eliminated or prevented in public transportation?
· No one deserves to be harassed, not men, not women. Sexual harassment is often repeated unless action is taken.
· Confront the person who is harassing you. Tell him that you do not like the behavior and you want it to stop. But do not confront the person if you do not feel safe. In public transportation, most of the time, other people will help you if you confront.
· Report – Most offenders will not stop the behavior unless they have consequences.
· Remaining cooped up indoors is hardly a solution to sexual harassment so , it is essential that women themselves assert their rights, fight individually, fight collectively, awaken others who bear their humiliation in silence and find new ways of defending their rights.