A number of campaigns against sexual harassment endorse the stereotypes they set out to debunk
ByÂ Kavita Krishnan
THE STING OPERATIONÂ by TEHELKA brought to light several medieval myths that our âprotectorsâ nurture about women and rape. Embarrassed Delhi-NCR police officers have promised âsensitisationâ as a corrective to such attitudes. The trouble is: what kind of attitudes will be promoted under âsensitisationâ? The Delhi Police ad campaigns suggest that even when they think theyâre being âsensitiveâ to sexual violence, they are promoting rather dangerous patriarchal notions ofÂ mardangi(machismo). A recent campaign against sexual violence has actor-director Farhan Akhtar, saying, âMake Delhi safer for women. Are you man enough to join me?â
Such misplaced notions of manliness are evident in many womenâs safety campaigns. Another ad Delhi Police has been using for several years has a photograph of a woman being harassed by a group of men at a bus stop with some men and women simply looking on. This poster proclaims, âThere are no men in this picture… or this would not happenâ and urges âreal menâ to âsave her from shame and hurtâ. It suggests that 1) sexual harassers are not âreal menâ (asli mard), 2) women facing harassment feel âshameâ and 3) only âreal menâ can protect them. Can such ideas of machismo reduce violence against women? Or are they the root of the problem?
Interesting answers emerge as one widens the lens. Campaigns centred on sexual harassment rarely feature women who express their anger and protest sexual harassment in public places. Perhaps if a woman is shown angry, itâd be difficult to sustain the notion that she is experiencing âshameâ. Shame, in this case, conveys vulnerability and need for protection, reinforcing the need for a male protector. Publicly displayed anger or violent self-defence by women, on the other hand, is deeply unnerving.
The idea of an âasli mardâ too, calls for an intellectual inquiry. When men commit âhonourâ crimes to put an end to their sisterâs or daughterâs relationships, arenât they being âreal menâ, fulfilling their duty of being a âprotectorâ? Isnât the âprotectorâ also expected to enforce âdisciplineâ? When men harass women who challenge patriarchal norms (by dressing âlike a slutâ, visiting pubs and drinking, etc), donât âreal menâ see it as their job to teach them a lesson? Sexual violence too has a âdisciplinaryâ function â reminding women not to cross the âlakshman rekhaâ of patriarchal laws.
It isnât just the cops who believe a woman can invite a heinous crime such as rape. A noted columnist in the Sunday magazine of a leading English daily believes that women ought to be responsible for the way they dress. She writes: âLetâs say you decide that it is your right as a law-abiding citizen to leave your front door unlocked when you go out. Is this likely to attract the attention of your friendly neighbourhood burglar? Probably… If you dress to attract attention, then you must be reconciled to the fact that you canât control what kind of attention you will attract.â The problem is that the list of behaviours that will attract rape is endless. If you have a boyfriend or a male friend and they rape you, would you say you left your door unlocked?
The same columnist suggests that women would âcry foulâ if men were to âexpose fleshâ in public. But men can, in fact do, bare their chests in public, display âsix-pack absâ, get drunk in public, have sexual relationships with women, and move at all timesÂ without being accused of âinvitingâ rape! Their behaviour is never, ever compared to âleaving your front door unlockedâ. Why does womenâs behaviour carry a risk that an identical behaviour by men does not?
We donât need patriarchal male protectors, nor do we need sermons on how âresponsibleâ feminine behaviour can offer protection from sexual violence. We need to reconcile with the fact that sexual violence is not caused by sexual attraction. It is an assertion of patriarchal dominance over women.