Gender-based harassment is spreading like an epidemic in European countries. Perhaps it’s time the West looked East for answers.
It was only last month that Parisian woman, Marie Laguerre, 22, posted a video on Facebook of her being hit in the face by a man, after she shut him down for his wolf whistling. The video has since gone viral due to the shocking nature of Laguerre being assaulted on Parisian streets in broad daylight. The perpetrator has been caught on video throwing an ashtray at Laguerre before running to hit her. The French lawmakers recently approved a law banning gender based street harassment, making catcalling a punishable crime. Under the new law, violators can face on the spot fines of between 90 to 750 euros, if found subjecting women to sexist or sexually degrading statements. Other provisions set protections for underage rape victims and jail time for anyone taking surreptitious photos of people under their clothes without consent- known as “upskirting”. Gender-based harassment is spreading like an epidemic in European countries.
The incident with Laguerre has sparked a broad debate on whether the act of catcalling should be more broadly outlawed. In America, conservatives believe that application of such stringent laws are a direct violation to the First Amendment Act (Protection of Freedom of Speech) which is held sacrosanct in the American constitution. In France, however the discourse around women’s safety is gaining traction, with the French having their own analogous #metoomovement called #BalanceTonPorc (or #SquealOnYourPig) addressing issues of sexual misconduct.
Marlene Schiappa, France’s gender equality minister is at the forefront campaigning for gender-equality issues. According to Schiappa calling a women “cute” under the new law shouldn’t count as sexual harassment. But if such were the case, then what if the woman was alone in some darkened alley and then called out? How does one decide the degree and severity of the crime? Is it possible for exploitation?
These questions are beside the point. No truly innocent behaviour is at risk of being punished. Unsolicited comments of sexual nature are never welcome, even if some are less disturbing than others. If banning them, with a pretty mild sanction makes men think twice before catcalling, then that itself makes this a conversation worth your time.
On the other side of the argument Conservatives in France have condemned the new trend triggered by the Harvey Weinstein scandals. They believe it amounts to an attack on the French way of life in the name of US style puritanism. They are against the Anglo-Saxon view of relationships between men and women. According to them France is not a country of platonic love and the new law will be bringing an end to French romance– the je ne sais quoi de l’amour; that leads people to place locks on bridges over the river Seine. Couples kissing and being public with their affection in candle lit cafes and apparently, freely yelling lewd remarks at random women on sidewalks. France has had its share of high profile leaders being involved in sex scandals. The country is asking some tough questions with the #BalanceTonPorc movement. Everything between consenting lovers is natural and allowed, but if someone says no, then respecting their no as finality is important.
Back at home, I wonder if such a legal crackdown would be effective. Truth be told, enforcement of such a law sends a message, but it is not realistic enough to implement. It would mean having police officers stationed on every street and every corner. They will have to be educated to recognise harassing behaviour, but even if these conditions are met, punishing harassers won’t address the problem as much as changing attitudes through education will. In a conflicting culture such as ours, where on one hand, it teaches us to worship Durga, Parvati, Kali Ma and places the mother above everyone else, but on the other hand, women are constantly harassed day in and day out. And not just on the streets, this problem persists at their workplaces and worse, even within their families. Being groped in crowded, public areas is now common practice. A term that I particularly dislike is the pretty, blanket euphemism – eve teasing- for all acts of harassment from being whistled at to being sexually molested. This phrase self-ridicules itself, providing an indication of the Indian society’s unwillingness to accept the problem as an important issue. Rape is taken seriously but eve-teasing pales in comparison.
I’ve lost count on how many instances I’ve encountered cat-calling, eve-teasing and gentle heckling (as one school counsellor called it). For the past two years I’ve stopped taking the subway near my college, due to cases of men randomly jumping women and then proceeding to masturbate in front of them. I remember sitting in a guest lecture conducted by a group of female lawyers, they gave us this fact: 1 in 3 women have experienced sexual abuse. To my right and my left were two of my friends who looked down as if they were responsible for their abuse.
I can say with utmost certainty that almost all women have faced some form of harassment and/or cat-calling in India. Age, dressing, background, appearance no bar. For most women, harassment starts early. It begins with local boys singing lewd lyrics while they are walking down the street and shopkeepers and other ‘uncles’ who begin noticing how ‘grown up’ you are. When mothers begin censoring their children’s behaviour in a buses or trains, getting angry for not behaving decently. As you get older you realise the actual source of your mother’s anger, was actually concern. And that now you have to protect yourself in every step of the way because you finally realise what’s happening.
When in such situations, women tend to stay silent. And before we attack their morals, it is important to consider the reasons for their silence. Newspapers carry stories of acid attacks on women because they spoke up against their perpetrators and told them to back off. There are police reports on revenge rapes and jilted ex-boyfriends who post revenge porn to humiliate their exes. One can’t escape the misogynist views of the general public who are likely to be present in such a scene, but unlikely to even raise a voice, let alone come out and help. Harassment of women has to do more with establishing power than of sexual interest. Perpetrators of sexual harassment often do it to control space both public (the streets, cafes, clubs, parties) and personal (a woman’s self-set boundaries). By only thinking of woman as the body, not the mind.
Under the purview of the Indian Penal Code, there are provisions that have been provided by the constitution to safeguard the rights of women. In a landmark judgment the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013 expanded the definition of rape to include more than just vaginal penetration. Stalking, voyeurism, acid attacks were all brought under the Act as punishable crimes. The age of consent was raised to 18 years, below which all penetrative sexual acts would now constitute as statutory rape. A rape shield clause was included, where the character of the victim was rendered irrelevant to establishing her consent. Under the Vishaka Guidelines, The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 was implemented in the Indian Penal Code, making sexual harassment an offence under Section 354 A, which is punishable up to three years of imprisonment with or without fine. Rights may be unequivocal and constitutionally secured; however, they do not automatically implement themselves. This is exactly where the problem lies. For every piece of progressive legislation that alleviates the position of women’s rights in India, the implementation of the law by women itself is very low. Under reporting and under registering of sexual crimes attributes more to this problem. India has its legal framework in place, but what it requires is a socialisation of non-violence and crimes against women. The root of which can be found in education and cultural norms and values. The absence of the latter is perhaps the reason why despite far-reaching legislation, sexual assault and crimes against women are still common in the country.
I believe that France is taking a step in the right direction. With such a law there is hope that men will think twice before wolf whistling and stalking women. However, she can learn from India’s mistakes and focus on also implementing a cultural reform. Shaming the harasser didn’t work for Laguerre whose snappy comeback was met with a punch to the head. I admire those women who find it within themselves to speak up to eve teasing and take matters in their own hands. Shaming these perpetrators and embarrassing them is the right thing to do, but for most women it’s a cost-benefit analysis of justice that has to be taken. If a restaurant full of customers could not stop Laguerre’s attacker from striking her, then the threat of a monetary fine would probably not faze him.
The women who fight back are heroes. Because such heroism is rare. While heroes are inspirational for other people, it is often at the cost of the ‘hero’ sacrificing herself for the greater good.