Sunday, May 16, 2010

Retaliation is the best way

Women in Kochi who have been sexually harassed by men take the offensive, with beneficial results

By Shevlin Sebastian

Meena Menon was five months pregnant. One day she boarded a bus at Panampilly Nagar. There were no seats. So she stood, holding the rod above her head. A young man got in from the front, came up to her, fondled her breasts and carried on walking towards the back. Meena raised a hue and cry. The passengers turned around to look. The panic-stricken boy jumped down from the running bus.

“He was stunned that I retaliated,” says Meena. “He expected me to remain quiet, like most women. I am sure he will think twice before attempting this again.”

Christina Joseph is a regular at the Novena prayers at the St. Antony’s Shrine at Kaloor. One Tuesday evening, she had joined her palms together, and raised it upwards.

At that moment, a man standing next to her took the opportunity to press her nipples. Christina shouted, “Why do you come to church and do these things?” The man just slunk away.

Latha Devan was coming out of a jewellery shop when a man, who was coming from the opposite side, groped her breasts. “Luckily I had my umbrella with me and gave a whack on his head,” says Latha. “He ran away as fast as he could.”

Increasingly, most women these days are fighting back. “Whenever we react, they flee,” says Latha. “They are cowards.”

Meena agrees. “When you react, the eve-teasers feel afraid,” she says.

However, despite these bold actions, whenever women venture out into public spaces, like in a bus or a train or a movie hall, they feel anxious.

“I am scared about how people are going to behave,” says Meena. “It is a degrading experience when men behave badly with you.”

Christina says she becomes doubly tense when she goes out with her teenage daughter, Anna. “I try to protect her as much as I can,” she says. So when they are leaving a theatre after a film, her husband, James, will walk in front, Anna will be in the middle and Christina will be at the back.

Christina says women need to take such precautions. “The big drawback in Kerala is that when a woman is harassed the public will remain silent,” she says. “They will only watch. So, you have to fight the battle on your own.”

She says that it is important that the people show support to harassed women. “It is only then that incidents like these will stop,” says Meena. “Those who are watching silently should remember that they have mothers and sisters at home.”

When asked for the reasons for this bad behaviour by men, Meena says, “They are sexually frustrated. These men have the misconception that women are crazy for sex. They believe that if they molest us, we will get excited the way they do.”

Incidentally, most of the men who have harassed her are 45 years and older. “I am sure they are married,” says Meena. “They probably do not have a good sexual relationship with their wives.

Apart from middle aged married men, there are the labourers, mostly from north India, who look at us with such unbridled lust, it is a horrible feeling.”

A cynical Christina says, “All men are like this. If James, my husband, were not educated and came from a good middle-class family he would have behaved in the same manner.”

So what is the expert’s view on man’s degrading treatment of women in Kerala?

Psychiatrist Dr S.D. Singh says that Kerala is a sexually repressive society. “Men get little chance to express their sexuality,” he says. “So, when women come close to them in public spaces or when they stand or sit next to each other in a bus or a train, they ventilate their sexuality by harassing the females.”

Interestingly, in the West, these public harassments occur very rarely. “There, the men are able to express their sexuality by going to parties and nightclubs,” says Singh. “There is no stigma in men and women kissing, hugging, and talking to each other, unlike it is here in Kerala.”

In western countries, if you physically appreciate a woman, who is a colleague or a neighbour, it is taken as a compliment, and the woman will say ‘thank you’. “Here, it will be defined as a ‘comment’ or a ‘pass’, and will not be accepted in a dignified way by the women,” he says.

So what is the way forward? Latha says that the police or NGO’s should hold awareness courses for men on how to behave in public with women.

“Co-education could be another way,” says Dr. Singh. “Men and women should be encouraged to interact often with each other. At the same time, women should be taught to defend themselves against men who cross social norms and behave badly.”

(Some names have been changed)

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