On harassment

This week I saw a really excellent short video, where an Egyptian woman speaks frankly about one of her experiences being harassed on the street (unfortunately, no woman has just one story about that). She was walking to the supermarket and a man said something dirty as she passed. Instead of ignoring him, as most of us do, she turned around and confronted him. Predictably, the harasser first tried to deny that he said anything, and then beat a hasty retreat. The most important thing that anyone could take away from the video was what the woman says about her reaction: that someone using dirty words doesn’t mean that she should feel dirty.
That she is an adult, not a child, to be embarrassed by someone else’s lewd and rude behaviour. The harassment was not her fault, it was the harasser’s, and she refused to take responsibility for somebody else’s imposition on her privacy and dignity. If I ever met this woman, I’d shake her hand and take her out for ice-cream, because never were truer words spoken. Women are constantly harassed by men and other women, and sex is used as a weapon to shame them for no fault of their own. It’s a ceaseless assault on anyone’s self-esteem, and society as a whole is particularly determined to ensure that women are policed properly, no matter what it takes.

Recently a professor at the Karachi University was exonerated of a sexual harassment charge laid against him by a female colleague, herself a professor. The committee that investigated the charge has two women and a man on it, and what is most surprising is that the victim was tasked with providing evidence of her harassment. The victim, not the perpetrator, who has apparently been accused by some students of the same too. It’s a classic, textbook case of he-said, she-said, with the added twist of the male professor being a well-regarded man.
In what universe does a harasser conduct his business in the full sight and hearing of lots of other people? Anyone who has ever been groped or pinched in public knows how quickly and discreetly it is done, before you are even fully able to register what has happened, the groper is already well away. Sexual harassment in workplaces and universities probably happens most often in private spaces, like an empty computer lab or an office with a door that closes. If I were going to make unwelcome advances on someone, I would make sure I did it in a place nobody could overhear me, or see where my hands were going, and if I, who has never harassed anyone, can consider this then I’m sure anyone else could too. So naturally a committee would be unable to find enough evidence beyond the circumstantial, because nobody wears a big sign saying “hey, I’m a sleazy old bag about to be inappropriate with a co-worker/student”. To add insult to injury, a newspaper report on the incident also described how the victim was actually just a mean and bitter woman, because she had strong opinions about how the head of the department was going to be replaced by his wife. A female professor who doesn’t endorse nepotism? How awfully shocking! So of course she made up a story about being harassed by a colleague, so that she would have the supremely enjoyable experience of having her name in the newspapers and having to prove to a committee of her peers that indeed a colleague behaved inappropriately. And in spite of all that delightful effort, still be told that one is a liar.
It’s really the stuff of romantic comedies, isn’t it?

The entire routine is so common now that it’s depressing. It takes an incredible amount of courage for anyone to stand up to an abuser, be it something as simple as staring back at someone leering at you. Women understand this, because we are constantly being infringed upon and then told to just ignore it, don’t make a big deal out of nothing, men are all like ‘this’. What is ‘this’? Why do we excuse beastly, horrible behaviour all the time with this sweeping statement, as if men were nothing better than animals, completely uncontrollable? We all know good, decent men who would never dream of following girls around marketplaces, singing songs under their breath and trying to touch them, let alone cornering a colleague in a photocopy room or propositioning them in the canteen.
Codes of conduct exist for everyone to follow, and creating a system where men are perpetually excused for their departure from these codes create environments that are unsafe for everyone. Harassment is an insidious, particularly creepy kind of abuse because it’s done in a strange, private way that makes it difficult to pinpoint, and it’s high time we started punishing the perpetrators for it instead of furthering the discomfort of victims by interrogating them and laying the blame on their shoulders. Like the brilliant Egyptian, it’s time to stop ignoring. Silence is acceptance, ignoring something means you are taking the responsibility for someone else’s actions on your own self. There’s no call to be made to feel dirty because someone else is filthy, there is no justification for it. Harassment should be the harasser’s problem, not the victim’s, and it’s time we drew a line.

The writer is a feminist based in Lahore

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