Two women in India recently acquired instant heroine status as videos of their bold responses to their said harassers went viral. One of them, a woman motorist, flung a brick at a traffic policeman who she said was harassing her for a bribe. The other climbed on top of a politician's car and smashed his windshield, because his security personnel had winked at her.
India's admiration for these women however, is not so much about their confronting policemen (who often do perpetuate harassment of and violence on women), or for that matter public harassment. Rather it is public approval for the manner in which these women responded to harassment by strangers.
"I will give you one tight slap," is the phrase Indian women frequently use when they confront harassers on the streets. Others threaten to take off their shoes or slippers to beat their offenders. This approach of ranting threats or using physical force to deal with street harassment is so acceptable to India's cultural logic that it's depicted patronizingly, often for comic relief, in Bollywood movies too!
"Don't use threats or attack physically. It can provoke physical retaliation. Verbal harassment or sexual misdemeanours, like brushing, pinching, etc. can quickly escalate to extreme physical violence."
Last year, a woman assistant manager at a book store I frequent, told me about how she confronted a food vendor who had followed her after work and passed lewd remarks. She said she walked up to him, and screamed in his face, "Say that one more time and I'll break your jaw." He ran off. I guess she thought as a feminist activist I'd be impressed. But I was aghast. At 9pm the streets are almost deserted, and this man could have had a knife. She had risked her safety, but did she understand that? She admitted that she was afraid, but felt insulted by his comment and had responded with anger. When I asked her if the insult was more important to her than her safety, she said she hadn't thought about it.
And perhaps that is the problem. In India, the perceived "honour" or "dignity" of a woman (that's oddly contingent on what others say or do to her) becomes more important than her safety. And women often jump to defend that "honour" even if it means self-endangerment.
What we really need to talk about more in India is that threats or use of physical force to confront street harassment is unsafe, unwise and at times also illegal. In the two cases cited here, one of the woman throwing a brick at a policeman (apparently she had jumped a red light, and didn't show her license and registration), and the other one breaking a politician's windshield, both acts would be illegal as they involved unwarranted use of physical force. But even more importantly, what Indian women need to be aware of is that threats of, or use of physical force can provoke retaliation and violence from the harasser.
In dealing with harassment in any place, safety should be a woman's number one concern. Here are some dos and don'ts:
1) Move away from the harasser immediately. The closer you are to him the better his chances of physically assaulting you.
2) Don't use threats or attack physically. It can provoke physical retaliation. Verbal harassment or sexual misdemeanours, like brushing, pinching, etc. can quickly escalate to extreme physical violence. If you know self-defence, use it only if you are physically assaulted and feel concerned for your safety. But, do not attempt it if you feel the man is too big for you to take on, if you are outnumbered or if the harasser has a weapon. Also, be aware, that even in public areas, people very rarely come to the defence of women when they are publicly attacked in India.
"The aim of the harasser is to have control over you. Any display of emotions is an expression of feeling out of control, which is essentially what the harasser wants of you."
3) Don't scream or get emotional. The aim of the harasser is to have control over you. Any display of emotions is an expression of feeling out of control, which is essentially what the harasser wants of you. Stay calm, and if you must speak, make sure your body language is confident, you make eye-contact, your tone is neutral and your voice loud, clear and assertive.
4) If you must speak, do so only if you feel you can appear in control of the situation (even if you are fearful) without shouting. If you are in an environment that's not safe, like for instance the book store employee above, then it's probably best not to respond, and keep moving till you get to a safe spot.
5) Do not allow a harasser to follow you to your home or place of work. Walk into a store, office or police station to throw him off. Or stop some people, point the man out and loudly tell them, "That man is harassing me."
6) If you are in a space where there are enough people and you feel a need to confront your harasser, then do so with your mind, and not your emotions. Choose your words carefully to stay in control of the situation.
7) If you choose to address your harasser, it's important you don't respond to anything he says, particularly personal comments he makes about you. It's also important you don't make personal statements about him or ask questions. In India women often ask questions like "Don't you have a mother or sister at home?" The harasser wants to get into your personal space, and you need to be careful not to open that door to him by engaging with him.
"You can pinpoint the man to the crowd by identifying him by his clothing, which puts him in the spotlight."
8) Keep your comments focused on the harasser's acts. Take control by repeating what you want him to do, in a command format, in a loud and clear voice. You can pinpoint the man to the crowd by identifying him by his clothing, which puts him in the spotlight. Repeat your command rhetorically, without listening to what he says in response. Using polite speech, like "please" often depersonalises the speech and puts you more in control. "You in the blue shirt. You said lewd things to me/touched me. Please do not speak to me. Please do not touch me." Citing the law is also another depersonalised, empowering way of staying in control. "What you just did to me is sexual harassment and it is a crime under the Indian law. You can get three years in jail."
9) Sexual harassers catch us unawares, and we end up reacting (emotionally), instead of responding in a controlled and measured way. That leaves us feeling more distressed and powerless. To deal with street sexual harassment, all women need to train and prepare themselves, and develop verbal and personality combat skills. Organise workshops in your school, college or workplace and act out different scenarios with your friends and colleagues to figure out how you will respond. Do this periodically, so that you are mentally prepared and feel more confident about your response to harassment on the streets.
10) Share your experiences of sexual harassment, and how it made you feel, with friends and family who are supportive. Don't go into a shell if it has left you feeling embarrassed, ashamed, angry, or upset. However, avoid people (even family) who might blame you. If you find yourself going into depression, seek good counsel. And keep your focus on asserting your personal right to freedom and safety.
Here's an article where I talk about how I dealt with an incident of public sexual harassment: Claiming My Space as a Woman in India.