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INDIA: Women Students Fight Against Sexual Harassment

Radhika Chopra

NEW DELHI, Aug 22 1997 (IPS) - For the first time, women students here, in one of India’s most prestigious universities, are confronting and contesting sexual harassment on the campus, and forcing the authorities to take action.

The issue was brought centre stage by a small group of students of Delhi University with the publication of a report which uncovers the pervasiveness of one aspect of sexual harassment — street violence on the campus, the everyday harassment that women experience.

In the well publicised report, women students reported encountering men who exposed their genitals, grabbed or hit out at women, or propositioned them as they walked back to their hostels from university libraries.

They said men in cars or scooters even try and run them off the road, often injuring them. In 1994, a resident of the Post- Graduate Women’s Hostel, was killed by a speeding car in the heart of the university campus. Witnesses to the incident said that some men in the car had been attempting to molest the victim, Shriya Misra, trying to harass her from the anonymous safety of their car.

Members of the Gender Study Group who produced the report ‘Sexual Harassment in Delhi University’ were among the huge group which organised protests and rallies against the incident. Soon after, they began designing and conducting a survey on the issues intrinsic to sexual harassment.

They interviewed students, teachers, even members of the university proctor’s office and the police regarding sexual harassment and its direct connection to street safety.

Many aspects of the report, published last December, have stunned the university community, for instance, the attitudes of students toward each other. One of the male students interviewed by the Gender Study Group, believed that “staring, leching, whistling or singing suggestive songs” were harmless.

While another said, “Sometimes eve teasing can be acceptable to a girl. It may give her fun.”

It was this version of “fun” that the report sought to address. What emerged was a searing document on the pervasive nature of harassment and the failure of university authorities to deal with a problem that consistently traumatises roughly half the student population.

Women students were recorded as saying that they experienced harassment “almost as often as I step out on the street …” or “as often as I go out, incidents occur which have made this behaviour part of my life.”

By contrast, men students felt free to walk on the campus roads at any time of the day — or night — whereas all the women students, bar none, felt unsafe, especially after dark.

That these incidents happened on the campus, which was popularly constructed as a “permissive” space, where young men and women “lived” together, and where women were seen as easy, and “willing” targets for a little bit of “fun”, was a factor for the university administration’s ignoring the problem — in fact they did not even recognise the problem existed.

But following the widespread publicity — the release of the report was covered on TV, written about in national dailies and quoted in Parliament — the university authorities immediately took action, though unfortunately limited. They worked with the police to set up road checks and a joint control room where complaints could be filed. More practically, street lighting began to appear making the formerly dark and dangerous roads safer.

It was by no means easy for the student group to induce the university authorities to wake up and take notice of what was happening right under their noses. Over the years, they had made no move to formulate a policy to deal with sexual harassment.

Members said they undertook the survey to demonstrate and expose the extent of the problem. While they focussed on street harassment and worked as a pressure group on the university authorities to make campus streets safe, the other intention of the survey was to try and create a dialogue among the students themselves.

They wanted, and succeeded, in breaking through the commonly held view that harassment is an individual, personal problem. And in the course of conducting the survey through questionnaires, interviews, discussions and workshops, they built up a sense of community among the students about the need to confront and challenge sexual harassment.

By fighting the authorities and the perpetrators

simultaneously, seemingly on a single issue, they made visible the more wide ranging problem of the invasive nature of sexual harassment.

Until very recently the term “sexual harassment” was virtually unknown in India. The term used here, by the media and the public, was — and still is — “eve-teasing”, a flippant term that disguised the trauma of harassment. In popular perception, “eve-teasing” was essentially light hearted, the implicit assumption being that women, as Eve, were, and are, temptresses who invited male attention and had “fun” doing so.

The impact of the incidents on molestation and harassment was the climate of fear that they generated in the minds of the women of the university. Perhaps the most tragic fallout was that many women felt a deep sense of shame after each incident of molestation.

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