CAUTION! MEN AT WORK

CAUTION! MEN AT WORK

Newsletter Nov 1996

In August 1996, Mr. KPS Gill, former Director General of Police of Punjab was sentenced to three months of rigorous imprisonment, two months of simple imprisonment and fined for sexually harassing Ms Rupan Deol Bajaj, an IAS officer of the Punjab cadre. The court verdict has generated a lot of discussion in the print and audio visual media. Sexual harassment as a phenomenon is not new to India, but in recent years there has been more talk about it than ever before. This increase in the frequency of discussion and media coverage is related to the fact that more and more women who are getting out to work in the outside world. Women are also no longer prepared to put up with such harassment and are raising their voices against it.

Women in the workforce have always had to deal with sexual harassment from male colleagues and bosses who have power as well as monetary control over them. The phrase ‘sexual harassment’ was first articulated by Western feminists. Until the seventies the undesirable sexual advances of men towards women were innocuously described as ‘flirtation’. It was a common belief that women are flattered by such advances coming their way. The minority of women who protested against such gestures and behaviour were, and still are, considered ‘abnormal’ by men in general. Until the phrase ‘sexual harassment’ was coined it was difficult to describe succinctly what women were suffering from! The gravity of the problem gradually began to be realised.

Women are all too familiar with sexual harassment. The encounter can involve gestures, words or physical intrusions. On the roads, in public transport, crowded areas like market places and cinema halls there is no getting away from advances from men they do not know. In addition, women also experience harassment at the hands of their teachers, colleagues and bosses making the environment at workplaces unhealthy. This type of exploitation has an underlying power equation, making it all the more difficult to protest. The unwanted intrusion in the privacy of one’s emotional and bodily world can be shattering for women and can result in a permanently scarred psyche. A recent study conducted amongst the young girls from Delhi University shows the impact of such harassment on the life of young women [see box at the bottom].

For Rupan Deol Bajaj the humiliating incident occurred more than eight years ago. Ms. Bajaj was molested by Mr. Gill in a party where both the concerned people were present in their capacity as serving government officials, Mr. Gill as a senior police official and Ms. Bajaj as a senior IAS officer.

According to her, Mr. Gill was notorious for such behaviour, but hers was probably the first formal complaint lodged against him. As Ms. Bajaj pointed out, women who were assaulted before and after this incident were scared to come out and complain because it is considered a stigma to the woman and her family to publicly talk about such incidents. Her courage and conviction also had the strong support of her husband and other family members. Ms. Bajaj was familiar with the judicial procedures because of her professional background, making it relatively easy for Ms. Bajaj to lodge the protest and begin the fight. Most other women either do not possess this level of information or the moral and financial support even if they want to fight.

The wide publicity that the Gill-versus- Bajaj case received and the kind of media attention after the verdict raise many questions. Some of these writings question the correctness of the judgment based on the assumption that Mr. Gill is a ‘national hero‘. Some others question the severity of the sentence, though accepting that Mr. Gill was at fault. Those who accept feebly that Mr. Gill, was at fault still suggest that a man of his stature should not be sentenced to imprisonment for such a minor offense or what these people consider no offense at all! There are of course exceptions to this line of argument but they are more notable because they are exceptions!

Recent scandals involving politicians and bureaucrats reveal that many of our social and political leaders have feet of clay and are prone to corrupt practices. As in the case of Mr. Gill, those of the accused politicians and bureaucrats found guilty should be punished. The stature of a national hero should not make the person immune to the judicial process. In the Gill-versus-Bajaj case, the accusation is considered to be ‘flimsy’, possibly unlike the corruption cases. Molesting a woman gets equated with the macho image in the society and so is the portrayal of a national hero, especially in the context of Mr. Gill, who has supposedly wiped out the terrorism from Punjab. Thus, a gender biased macho image is what is hailed when the scribes talk about the verdict tarnishing the image of a national hero. This macho, exploitative image is definitely against all notions of man—woman equality.

Sexual harassment, molestation and rape are all a part of a continuous spectrum of violence against women. However, instances of sexual harassment are taken lightly, even by the police and hence, many cases go unreported, unnoticed.

The Indian Penal Code under Sections 354 and 509 considers “violation of woman's modesty” as a cognizible offense. Under the section 354 the guilty can be punished for ‘outraging the modesty’ and under 509 for ‘use of force or intimidation or making sexual gestures to insult a woman’. Neither of these sections use the phrase ‘sexual harassment’ to denote the crime. Is there any difference in ‘outraging modesty’ and ‘sexual harassment’? There is a clear difference in the perception. ‘Outraging a woman’s modesty’ is a very patriarchal concept which is far from the articulation of sexual harassment as violence against women.

Although the Indian constitution accepts the principle of man-woman equality as one of the basic principles, there is a wide gap between the principle and the practice of gender equality. Women at the workplace face discrimination of various forms. From disparaging remarks, non recognition of their contribution, fewer opportunities for promotion, to blatant discrimination as in the case of air hostesses who had to “retire” at a much younger age than male stewards (because airline companies did not want “old” air hostesses). This discrimination has been challenged successfully in the courts. Women workers have to struggle against discriminatory wage structures. Working conditions are abysmal, with no toilet facilities, creches or benefits such as maternity leave, retirement benefits or pensions. Women in the unorganised sector are deprived of all benefits. In this context, sexual harassment at the workplace is an additional struggle for women workers.

In March this year, Dr BSN Reddy, Head of Department of Dermatology, LNJP Hospital, was accused of sexually harassing women resident doctors under him. The internal inquiry committee constituted gave him a clean chit. It was only as late as 19th October that he was chargesheeted. The charges are Sec 341 (illegal confinement) and Sec 509 (outraging the modesty of a woman). However, Dr Reddy, who is on earned leave, continues to enjoy his seniority, residence on campus and other facilities. The Indian Association of Dermatologists, of which Dr Reddy was the President, had suspended him for four months. However, he has now been recalled as the President. Thus, the culprit responsible for sexual harassment enjoys all privileges, while the women resident doctors continue to struggle to get justice. They face constant pressure to ‘compromise’, are taunted when they attend court or talk about the case, and are even now accused of ‘blowing things out of proportion’. Since March, the women doctors of LNJP along with students of Maulana Azad Medical College and several other medical institutions have been actively carrying out an agitation demanding the suspension and prosecution of Dr Reddy, with dharnas, rallies and public meetings. They are determined to carry on the struggle.

A public meeting organised by women's organisations in Delhi University on 8th August met with overwhelming response. Students and faculty gathered in large numbers in a move to generate public opinion against sexual harassment and demand stringent measures for redressal of all cases. The meeting lasted for hours in the crammed auditorium, with enthusiastic participation from students.

BOXES:

THE HEALING TOUCH?

Going to a doctor may be hazardous to health! On 20th May, one Dr Shah raped a minor girl in the OPD of Safdarjang Hospital. This is just one of many incidents which occur with horrifying regularity. And this exploitation is not confined to public hospitals.

ln July, a woman patient of Dr Rizvl, a dermatologist in Delhi's posh Defence Colony area, was subjected to unnecessary lewd questioning regarding sexual matters, which were irrelevant to her illness. Dr Rizvi has been known to have abused the doctor-patient relationship in several instances with his women patients. This sort of harassment is extremely difficult to pin-point, making it all the more important for women to speak out and struggle against it.

SEXUAL HARASSMENT IN lNDlAN EMBASSY

A translator at the lndian Embassy in Paris faced sexual harassment from her boss, which included suggestive sexual remarks, calling her up at home and pestering her. Following her complaint, she was granted a transfer from that particular department. However, she was victimised and threatened with dismissal, and had to face immense trauma at the office for daring to protest against sexual harassment. Most women find it difficult to publicly tackle sexual harassment at the work place owing to the sensitive nature of the issue, and also because their jobs are at stake. In the case of this embassy employee, although she finally resigned from the job for other reasons, her personal file contains her bosses ’ complaint against her supposed ‘misconduct and disobedience‘, and of course is silent about the sexual harassment she has had to face.

STUDENTS PROTEST AGAINST SEXUAL HARASSMENT

In October this year, students of the non-collegiate section attending classes being held at the Indraprastha College in Delhi, got together to put an end to the sexual harrassment they were facing from their male lecturer. This lecturer, supposedly teaching about advertising, showed pictures about women's undergarments, and made one student ‘pose’ for an undergarment advertisement. He also made personal comments of a sexual nature to the students. This had occurred in the previous year's class too. Despite verbal complaints to the person- in -charge this behavior continued. The students then boycotted the class. A written complaint was made along with a representation. The outcome was that the lecturer was removed from their faculty. (He has reportedly been transferred to another college.) The determination of the students to tackle this harassment is commendable, especially in the face of resistance from people to accept that such sexual harassment does take place in the classroom, and the men responsible are so-called ‘decent’ lecturers.

STUDY ON SEXUAL HARASSMENT IN DELHI UNIVERSITY

Sexual harassment has always been a vital issue in Delhi University. Recently the Gender Studies Group in Delhi University brought out a “Report of Sexual Harassment in Delhi University with Special Reference to Street Harassment in the North Campus" which emphasises the enormity of the problem. Interviews were carried out in Jan-Feb ‘96, among Women and men hostellers, non-hostellers, faculty members, hostel wardens, university authorities, police personnel, street vendors and rickshaw-wallahs.

The report brings out the need to redefine eve teasing (regarded by many, especially men, as harmless, lighthearted teasing) as sexual harassment – i.e. male assertion of power over women. The study looks at teacher-student harassment, peer harassment (from fellow students), and focuses specially on street harassment which is characterised by anonymity. As high a percentage as 91.7% of the Women hostellers interviewed had experienced sexual harassment on the campus roads almost everyday, sometimes many times in a single day. About 45% women students stated that sexual harassment had affected their lives in some way, including their academic lives.

The survey clearly establishes that sexual harassment is not a rare, isolated act committed by a few deranged men, but is intentional, premeditated violence against women.