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Saturday, January 12, 2013

Sexual Harassment In India–Not So Easy To Address

An American colleague and his wife lived in India for five years in the early 70s, and she – like most Indian women - was subjected to all the sexual harassment (‘Eve Teasing’) that has been brought to wide public attention in the last few weeks.  No matter where she went or whether she was accompanied or not, she was subjected to groping, taunts, leers, touching, and fondling. 

Surprisingly when they left their post in Delhi and travelled to South India (Bangalore, Madras, Trivandrum) and Bombay the harassment stopped.  His wife could walk anywhere and be left alone. They of course wondered what could be the reason for this striking disparity. One inescapable – but unproven – assumption was that it was because of the high proportion of Muslims in the North whose young men lived under harsh rules of sexuality.  Hinduism, for all its social conservatism, embraced sexuality and even more so, sensuality.  The sculptures at Khajuraho are good examples.

Tantric : North-East India, X Century A.D., Basalt

Yet erotic art was common in the Muslim (Mughal) period, so an erotic Islam in India certainly had its full expression.  Images of the Mughal courts depicted in classic miniature paintings rarely if ever showed women in burqa or chador.

A Set of Ten Northern Indian Erotic Paintings

What certainly had happened from the Mughal days to the present day in India was that a more severe brand of Islam spread throughout the country and especially in the North which – since the days of the Delhi Sultanate – has always had a high proportion of Muslims.  This, of course, has been a trend throughout the Muslim world, but it has been resisted in the more open, Hindu majority India. There have been few outward signs of the restrictive Wahhabi type Islam in India.

At the same time the absence of sexual harassment in the South might have had little to do with religion and more to its relative wealth – the South has always been far richer than the North; or to its English language capacity.  South Indians have always spoken English as a second language and filled the lower bureaucratic ranks of the British Raj because of it.  Perhaps because of its relative isolation from the more austere strictures of Islam, or its insulation from Northern wars, the South was more tolerant, less socially conservative, and more outward-looking.

In any case, the picture has completely changed from the early 70s.  Incidence of reported sexual assaults are now as common in the South and East as in the North, and sexual harassment is endemic and epidemic.

The Indian Ministry of Home Affairs (2010) published a state-by-state analysis of sexual violence in India and it is clear that it is not at all restricted to the North.  Andhra Pradesh has far and away the highest number of reported cases of sexual violence; and Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka are not far behind. 

Those states with especially high proportions of Muslims – Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Kerala and others – have high rates of sexual assaults; but states like Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan which have relatively small Muslim populations also rank high on the list. While a Muslim connection cannot be ruled out, other factors are clearly in play.

A breakdown on ‘Eve Teasing’ or sexual harassment shows the same patterns as for sexual assault cited above.  Of course, these statistics are based on reported cases, and it is common knowledge in India that very few incidents are ever reported.  Most, in fact, are not assault or violence, but less aggravated unwanted touching, etc.

The unavoidable conclusion is that sexual harassment occurs at an alarming rate throughout the country.  Some observers have noted that India may be among the worst places in the world for sexual harassment:
Halarnkar [Times of India Correspondent] then offered as proof a survey that caused indignation in India last month: a poll of 370 gender specialists around the world that voted India the worst place to be a woman out of all the G20 countries. It stung – especially as Saudi Arabia was at the second-worst. But the experts were resolute in their choice.
Every Indian woman the Guardian spoke to for this article agreed that harassment was part of their everyday lives. Mahanta revealed that she always carries chilli powder in her handbag if she ever has to take public transport and needed to throw it in the face of anyone with wandering hands. Deepika Patar, 24, a journalist at the Seven Sisters newspaper in Assam, says city buses were notorious for gropers. "If women are standing up because there are no seats, men often press up against them, or touch their breasts or bottom," she explains. (The Guardian, Helen Pidd, 7.23.12)
Pidd goes on to suggest that the roots of such harassment may be in fundamental negative attitudes towards women:
"In India, women and girls continue to be sold as chattels, married off as young as 10, burned alive as a result of dowry-related disputes and young girls exploited and abused as domestic slave labor," said Gulshun Rehman, health program development adviser at Save the Children UK, who was one of those polled.
Other reports address the same issue:
Unicef  in 2012 found that 52% of adolescent girls (and 57% of adolescent boys) think it is justifiable for a man to beat his wife. Plus crimes against women are on the increase: according to the National Crime Records Bureau in India, the biggest leap was in cases under the "dowry prohibition act" (up 27.7%), of kidnapping and abduction (up 19.4% year on year) and rape (up 9.2%).
A preference for sons and fear of having to pay a dowry has resulted in 12 million girls being aborted over the past three decades, according to a 2011 study by the Lancet.  Forty percent of child marriages in the world take place in India.
A complicating factor may be the rapidly changing Indian society.  Some observers have noted the dramatic rise in sexual violence and attribute this to the rapidly changing social environment in the country:
According to the New York Times, rape in India has risen about 25 percent over the past few years; increased reporting partly explains that rise; but some have speculated that it is also driven by the realities of a modernizing society that brings women into public spaces and professional life in greater numbers, phenomena that some young men view as threatening. Interestingly, a 1960 Time magazine article describing the “eve-teasing” problem also cited a society in transition as a contributing factor. (Council on Foreign Relations, Isabel Coleman, 1.2.13)
Whatever the factors contributing to sexual violence and harassment may be, they are extremely difficult to address, for they are deep-seated and traditional, reflecting a society’s view of women.  It is not a question of changing behavior but changing social norms.

Behavior change campaigns have been notoriously ineffective because they have underestimated the staying power of traditional beliefs, overestimated the power of ideas and the media, and underestimated the economic and social costs of changing behavior.  Smoking rates have declined substantially since the first public warnings in the early 60s, but it has taken almost 50 years for anti-smoking to become the social norm in the United States.  Now it is considered gauche, ill-mannered, and uneducated to smoke; and most of the persistent 25 percent of smokers are in low-income, low-education categories. 

Wearing a seatbelt is now in the same category, as is animal waste removal.  Associates will remind you to buckle up, and neighbors will yell at you if your dog shits on their sidewalk.  Sexual harassment is down in the United States because of aggressive public advocacy, the economic and social rise of women, and stringent, punitive laws. The use of condoms for pre- and extra-marital sex is at historic highs because of aggressive promotion of the idea that “AIDS is everyone’s disease” and the insistent educational hammering in schools and other public forums. 

In all cases, the social norms have changed through a combination of individual behavior change – citizens ahead of the curve who spoke out or quickly adopted new behavior; laws; public information and advocacy; and economic progress. All the positive changes in social norms listed above took time – a lot of time – to become part of American society.  Other negative social norms – obesity and assault weapon ownership – have been resistant to change.  As more and more people become obese, the more a fat person resembles the prevailing norm, and the cycle continues.  The issue of gun ownership goes back to the nation’s earliest days and therefore has been and will continue to be resistant to change.

These are nothing compared to the challenge India faces concerning sexual harassment. Even if new laws are passed protecting women, the education of police – who come from the same pool of sexual harassers as their perps – necessary to ensure enforcement will take years.  Education of boys and young men in school to address issues of gender, sexuality, and aggression will take decades since sex education in its simplest form is still widely taboo in India. The alarming radicalization of Islam and its concomitant suppression of women will be as hard to resist in India as it has been in other moderate Muslim majority or minority states (e.g. Turkey, Tunisia).

Empowerment of women to give them the confidence to confront gropers will take even longer; but American programs to confront bullying may have some relevance. Bullying is as endemic in the US as ‘Eve Teasing’ in India, and as old, traditional, and tolerated.  Enforcement of no-bullying policies in schools have been largely ineffective and have become intrusive and self-defeating, for the Internet offers far more anonymous ways to harass and intimidate.  One new idea is to promote a No Tolerance policy among peers – that is, for peers to support a classmate who may lack the gumption to stand up to a bully.  This campaign citing honor, courage, and friendship has been promising and may be appropriate for India; but imagine how long it would take for this to take hold.

The explosive outrage shown in India after the recent gang-rape and murder is impressive for a usually reticent society; and expresses what must be the pent-up rage of millions of Indian women. Any woman, knowing that there are already legions of sisters supporting her, may gin up the courage to speak up the next time she is groped. If social groups, NGOs, businesses, and governments take up the cudgel, there is a chance that the time it will take to change social norms will be less than if this unfortunate incident had never happened.  If such public outcry is itself institutionalized – that is that No Harassment policies are instituted widely – and if laws are quickly passed and instituted; and if the media do not lose interest, change might be accelerated.

Perhaps the most promising scenario of all is the rapid economic development of India. Few fully economically developed societies tolerate gender inequity and male aggression.  As Indians move up the socio-economic scale, they will be less citizens of traditional India and more active members of the larger world economic community – a community, as above, which is intolerant of sexual intimidation.  In other words, for all the goodwill of community groups, politicians, and government bureaucrats; normative change is most often associated with socio-economic progress.


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  2. you can still go on without groping in the south, don't worry. The only reason other parts in India are safer than the north, apart from just education, is their strong cultural values. North somehow seems lost, unable to decide which to chosse: Hindustani high culture, which is a mixture of Hindu and Persian(from the mughal period) or purely Hindu owing to its majority. It has created an insecurity in them adding to their lack of intelligence and a total mess

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