Many of the questions that women raise about the safety at the work place is defined in parameters that are legally endorsed. However, like neglect in a stable marriage, where partners may be oblivious of their duties toward each other, because it not convenient, or because competitive attention diverts them, the real questions of gender harassment are diluted by our refusal to recognise them.
For both men and women, unwanted attention from the opposite or same sex is a form of harassment. Some people believe that they have a right to pass judgment over the morals of others, and as a result, they diminish them by a gaze, by a comment, or by continuous slander. The worst of course are loud comments passed by those who officiously think they have a right to the other’s body because they are in some subservient situation. This can be extremely disturbing, because the reasons could be age, gender, race, or caste or class. The person who has been insulted could accost the bully, but he or she would say “I did not say it” or “I did not do it.” It would be for the person who has incurred a loss to actually counter this with more specific allegations, which then have to be proved.
People who engage in this sort of tacit violence against others do so because they believe that the victim is powerless against the actions that the perpetuator indulges in. Sometimes, women who are younger, have to accept the attentions of men, who indulge in promiscuous behaviour because they think they can get away it. The culprit is usually in a situation where he/she has provided some favour, and wants a return. The victim has no way of diverting attention from himself or herself, because he or she is made to believe that the indebtedness is so huge, it can only be paid back by accepting unwelcome sexual attention. After a while, such victims are affected by the Stockholm syndrome, where the victim begins to be habituated by the sexual attention, and no longer capable of aggressively pushing it off, succumbs to the flattery, the obligatory nature of the controller-controlled relationship, and is silenced by his/her guilt, and this appears to society as complacence and mutual gratification. After many years, the victim remembers the perpetuator with loathing, while at the time of harassment, the victim is generally susceptible to the moral qualms which accompany the acceptance of unwelcome sexual attention as a forced dilemma. To protect the perpetuator who is usually a relative or a family friend, the victim just decides not to talk about it, because nobody would believe him or her.
Men, as much as women, can be objects of sexual gratification by aggressors, who see in pursuing them, the fulfillment of their subliminal desires. In such cases, men become passive, because they do not want to seem discourteous to some female close to them. In time, they become aggressive and violent to these women who have haunted them with their own overarching desires, which again, may be hedonistic or intellectually fulfilling. Since it is a mutually destructive relationship, the victim may turn pathological, defiling the woman who has disrupted their normal life with secret venalities.
The gaze may be the most violating of the ways in which abstract harassment occurs. By presuming that women who have chosen a career are neglectful of their families being the reason for their being singled out. Remarks made to them include chastisement, or the idea that these are “loose” women and deserve society’s contempt. As a result, gender harassment occurs quite simply by devaluing their contribution to the work world, and emphasising their incompetence in the domestic sphere. In such instances, the women might be rendered dissolute in the eyes of the community by the language used against them. The women who accuse them of neglecting their duties may be friends, neighbours, older relatives and clan members. The idea of duty is then used to beat a woman with, so that she feels humiliated and embarrassed that though she is a women, she seemingly has no virtues, and is incapable of running a house.
Outright violence, such as rape, murder, molestation, verbal abuse, threats and beating are known offences. What men and women now come to terms with is because of their age and status they have been abused because they did not have the language with which to communicate their sorrow and loss because a friend took advantage, or that in the workspace a man or woman cornered them with protestations of affection and tender care which was unacceptable and without legitimacy. How do we define the ways in which we can protect our young from the unwelcome attentions that we received when we were young?
(The writer is professor of Sociology, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)