Sexual Harassment & Appropriate Sexual Behaviour: An alternative view (Part 2/2)

Continuing from Sexual Harassment: An alternative view, the following post traces the trajectory of the movement against sexual harassment in India.

The first major event that drew attention to this issue was FOWA’s action in the 1980s. A 1991 report from the same organization describes it as –

(…) militant action by the Forum Against Oppression of Women (Mumbai) against the sexual harassment of nurses in public and private hospitals by patients and their male relatives, ward-boys and other hospital staff; of air-hostesses by their colleagues and passengers; of teachers by their colleagues, principals and management representatives; of PhD students by their guides and so on and so forth received a lukewarm response from the trade unions and adverse publicity in the media (FAOW, 1991).[1]

A slew of cases involving prominent people in India before 1997 brought attention to harassment of women at work place. Noteworthy among these are the case against a high ranking officer of the elite Indian Police Service, another against the Environmental Minister in Dehra Dun and against a state Minister in Kerala, by their women colleagues. These in effect, brought to public attention the incidents of harassment of women at work places in India.

In terms of law, the process was to lodge a complaint under Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code that deals with the ‘criminal assault of women to outrage women’s modesty’, and Section 509 that punishes an individual/individuals for using a ‘word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman’. These sections left the interpretation of ‘outraging women’s modesty’ to the discretion of the police officer.[2]

The single most important shift in conception and legal stand on sexual harassment however, happens as a consequence of the case Vishakha vs State of Rajasthan [1997(7) SCC.323] in the Supreme Court of India (SCI). The SCI effect the now widely held and known definition of sexual harassment in India. It stated that sexual harassment includes such unwelcome sexually determined behaviour as:

  • Physical contact
  • A demand or request for sexual favours
  • Sexually coloured remarks
  • Showing pornography
  • Any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature, for example, leering, telling dirty jokes, making sexual remarks about a person’s body, etc

Further, Vishakha Guidelines regarded it as a duty of the employer to prevent sexual harassment and to provide mechanism for resolution of complaints.

Reconfiguration of perception of appropriate sexual behaviour

What began as a genuine and reasonable concern about safety, culminating in introduction of strict laws against crime against women in India, the action in seeking safe working environment and by extension equal rights for women (often framed as oppressed sex) has lost its way. It only seems appropriate to label the current behaviour in men and women regarding appropriate sexual behaviour between them as an acute case of paranoia.  An almost militant imposition of rules of personal and sexual behaviour combined with a predilection to minutely read into every act of men in terms of an act of harassment or as an act of oppression, which is noticeable in several codes of behaviour for employees in organizations and businesses is evident in India. While it is acknowledged that women’s movements has certainly created a safe working environment for women, but it has in the process has left a free form, mutually determined relationship between individuals (same sex or opposite) into shambles.

Then, the credit that women’s rights group takes in having seeded and brought to fruition is not entirely true. Long before the term “sexual harassment” was coined men like Hillary Putnam, John Rawls and Bernard Williams were encouraging women to protest when men of the faculty (in academic institutions) harassed them.[3] In work places now, people feel significant pressure in minding their conversations and behaviour with the opposite sex, with the consequences that social interaction often is laced with anxiety and pressure to sound and appear correct. Such an environment at work place can be labeled adverse at best.

In the understandably passionate and defensive call for action by several women’s rights groups, one also notices that relationships have turned into a turf war with deviations from the determined ideal, hauled up the legal alley with dire consequences. In fact, there are concerns emerging from women’s groups themselves that the feminists have ventured out too far that now any reasonable and enjoyable conversations have become increasingly difficult to handle. Marx spoke of the “alienation” of self as a consequence in an industrial society. Extending that, one can imagine a similar alienation that is likely to befall men, women and other sex, if such an extreme form of perception and ideological bias of men being the oppressor, women the oppressed and that women are objectified, as a default position, is pursued.

Looking ahead, it would be necessary that the state of women and gender based violence as problems are not framed in women versus men binary; nor should it be seen as a male hegemony in the society. The debate and the quest to understand inequality among the sexes as well as gender based violence need to get much more nuanced than this. Factoring the role of media, projection of sexes in media as well “perfomed” roles[4] of various genders would make an appropriate starting point.

[1] Patel, Vibhuti. A brief history of the battle against sexual harassment at the workplace. Source: http://infochangeindia.org/women/analysis/a-brief-history-of-the-battle-against-sexual-harassment-at-the-workplace.html. Date Accessed – 3 July 2015.

[2] ibid

[3] Martha Nussbaum  in a conversation in UC Berkeley. Transcript: http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/people6/Nussbaum/nussbaum-con1.html

[4] “Performativity” as an  idea in gender was proposed by Judith Butler

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