Why women stay silent about sexual harassment in public spaces

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Why women stay silent about sexual harassment in public spaces

“I still remember a man sitting next to me in a public bus gradually slipping his hand under my frock. I was in class 3 then. Of course, I did not know what to make of it but I can still relive the discomfort I felt that day. It was over the years that I realised such kind of violation would be a life-long challenge.” – 32-year-old working woman from Delhi

“I was going to college in a crowded metro. I could feel a man brush his genitals against my back. As it was crowded, I was afraid to speak up as I had often seen girls being asked to get off the train if they had “too much problem”. I was feeling guilty for not speaking up but I also didn’t want to be late for class so I kept my calm. I shared this story with my mother and she said that while she was feeling sorry and angry at the same time, it was something that I needed to be prepared to keep facing throughout my life.” – 24-year-old student from Kolkata

Such incidents are commonly experienced by most Indian women who travel in public transports. A woman’s immediate reaction in such a case would be to try her best to avoid physical contact with the perpetrator, be it by leaving her seat or shifting within the crowd. But why not raise her voice? That is because even if she does, it is quite likely that she might find herself all alone in her fight, humiliated amid a group of muted bystanders. Women, from a young age, are taught to live with such ‘minor’ incidents of harassment; while getting habituated to deep-rooted patriarchy, even the older females in the family often end up ignoring it and expect their younger generation to do the same.

According to a 2016 survey by charity ActionAid UK that polled 502 women living across Indian cities, nearly four out of five of them faced harassment in public places, from “staring, insults to wolf-whistling”. A 2011 survey by Jagori and UN Women on sexual harassment in Delhi, noted that nearly 51.4 per cent of women reported public buses to be the most common public place for harassment. For many women, public transport is the only means to travel and with a large part of residents still relying on public modes of transport, it causes overcrowding, making women commuters more vulnerable, Aparna Parikh writes in her 2018 essay Politics of presence: women’s safety and respectability at night in Mumbai, India.

Despite sexual harassment in public places being rampant, why don’t women lodge a complaint?

To begin with, both men and women are unaware of the various forms of sexual assault. A 2020 study on sexual harassment in public places by Michigan State University researcher Mahesh K Nalla, which surveyed men and women in various parts of Delhi, found that only 38.1 per cent of the victims and 42. 2 per cent of the offenders were aware of the laws against sexual harassment.

Why women stay silent about sexual harassment in public spaces

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Kaushik Gupta, a Calcutta High Court advocate, tells indianexpress.com, “Often men do not even realise what is violation. For women, it has been so naturalised in their systems that if a man is touching her inappropriately in a bus or in a public place, she may normally try to move away a bit without raising her voice. At times, there are cases of abuse where the woman has not understood that she has been violated. One of the principle reasons is that as a society, we have very little or almost no understanding of informed, enthusiastic consent.”

Besides, the act of engaging in “less serious forms” of sexual violence seems “less harmful and more acceptable” to the offenders since they believe they are “not engaging in what they believe is sexual harassment in the form of rape and forceful attempt to kiss or have sex with a woman,” says Nalla.

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Even if a woman manages to complain, what follows is further victimisation in the hands of the legal system, with her truth being challenged constantly while running from pillar to post. “The delayed legal process is the principle challenge. Secondly, the justice delivery system is not very victim-centric. So, if a woman thinks that she would go to the police and lodge a complaint, she is asked hundreds of questions, and that is like double victimisation,” Gupta says.

On most occasions, the victim may not be believed, agrees Rekha Sharma, Chairperson, National Commission for Women (NCW). “Women are afraid of going to the police station again and again. They would not want this hassle when they have already been hassled once by the perpetrator.”

Legal loopholes and other challenges

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Talking about the delayed justice system, Gupta further says, “Adjournments are sought by the lawyer for the accused, and through legal loopholes, they may try to delay the process. And women who are complaining also lose interest after a point of time when they go to court day in and day out and their case is not heard. Until and unless the cases of sexual violence against women are given top priority, this challenge will persist.”

The victim may also fear retaliation from the harasser, points out Apurva Singh, legal head, SoOLEGAL, a self-listing directory for lawyers and law firms. “In addition to this, they dread the constraints that may be imposed upon them by their families in the name of safety and protection such as forcing them to quit their jobs, education, restricting their movement outside of the home, constant chaperoning, etc.”

The mindset of the society at large is responsible for why women cannot talk about the harassment they are facing, whether at home or outside, believes Sharma. “Generally, people even in the family dissuade the victim from taking any action. I believe better gender sensitisation and easing the legal procedure are some initiatives we need to take. We need to sensitise those who tend to be just silent spectators but actually help. Women should raise their voice when some other woman is targeted.”

Forms of sexual assault and what women can do

A lot of these forms do not involve skin-to-skin contact. Singh listed the following forms of sexual assault: “Pinching, groping, looking down one’s shirt, any kind of inappropriate sexual contact, catcalling, looking up one’s skirt. While a few are more likely to happen in crowded spaces, others may occur at any public space.”

If a woman wants to report against sexual harassment, she can lodge an FIR with the police; some states have provided online FIR facilities, Sharma informs. The woman can also report the crime to the women’s helpline of her city.

What if the police refuse to file FIR? “Firstly, she can write an application to the judicial magistrate under Section 156(3) of CrPC, who will then direct the police to lodge the FIR and commence an investigation. Secondly, if a woman has sufficient evidence to prove the incident then she can file a complaint case under Section 191(a) CrPC. Thirdly, a woman can directly approach the High Court of the concerned state under the purview of inherent powers vested to the court by Section 482 CrPC. Fourthly a woman can directly approach the Superintendent of Police under Section 154(3) CrPC,” Singh says.

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