Reflections on our state of being

A paper I had presented on International Women's Day 2006: The days of active feminism and days of being inspired by Ulrich Beck's Risk Society: Cheers to those days:

We talk of discrimination of the girl child, complain about the sexual harassment at the workplace, celebrate International Women's Day with great fervour, but we somehow become very resilient when it comes to initiating changes in our lives, in terms of gender justice. In most cases, our feelings are relegated to thoughts alone and our actions are often a compromise with our surrounding situations.

This "so-called hypocritical" stance which, we, the women of a risk society, like Kolkata , adopt, is due to the prevalent idea that a woman's life is all about risks.

Discrimination of the girl child has been rampant over the ages. However at today's time, discrimination dons a completely new garb. It is neither education nor opportunities, where she is discriminated against, it is "fear" .Parents are more scared about the well being of their female child in her day to day activities. Specific time limits are often set by society, within which a woman is said to be safer from the risk of sexual harassment than the rest. For example, often parents strictly instruct their daughters to be home by 9p.m. However, what is not realized is that sexual harassment has nothing to do with time. It can happen in broad daylight with equal probability as at 8.55p.m or at 9.01 pm or at 12 noon.

Moreover, the dressing sense/ choice of a girl is often sought to be strictly monitored by the parents or boyfriends or husbands. This is so, for it is still believed that women who wear western clothes or "so-called" revealing clothes, project themselves as objects of lust and are therefore at greater risk of being sexually harassed.

However, sexual harassment has nothing to do with the clothes worn by a woman, for if it was so, then women of a particular social strata, observing a particular dress code, would be at risk, which is not what happens in reality. Sexual harassment is more of an expression of the power relationship between man and woman, rather than as a satisfaction of sexual urges as patriarchal institutions and values want everybody to believe. The sexuality of the woman is as if a "toy" in the hands of the males, by which they can establish their stronghold in society.

However it is not that we are only at risk with regard to our dress code or the time at which we return home. In the real sense, we are not safe anywhere, in whatever endeavour of ours.

The risk is often not so blatant, as dressing sense or time. The subtlety with which , the risk, hits us, makes it all the more dangerous for us. Speaking in terms of risks , our educational institutions, whether schools, colleges, or universities, are not very safe, however safe they may appear to be. Often normal classes are laced with sexual innuendos, which are very objectionable. Sexual harassment is not restricted to physical touching only. Communication with sexual references are a very severe form of sexual harassment, where often the woman cannot retort back, as the man in question, refers to sexual innuendos. Often we are harassed in the guise of praise. Often male teachers start praising us and that praise is just the premise they build for the verbal sexual harassment which awaits us. More often than not , these incidents remain hushed up, and even if the girl confesses of the incident she can often do very little against the accused, owing to his superior power position. So in spite of our knowledge about what is sexual harassment, and even our will to save ourselves, we can often do nothing, other than feeling helpless and disturbed.

In my case , things have been slightly different. I was in my final year of graduation, in the most renowned college in the city, which recently got its autonomy. We had a guest lecturer, who was a big shot in my subject, and who was one of the framers of the syllabus that we followed. The professor concerned, resorted to rampant verbal sexual harassment , with great ease. After tolerating all this harassment for some time, myself and a friend of mine , who is currently a correspondent with The Times Of India, decided that we had had enough. We explained to our friends that what they were hearing in class, was a form of sexual harassment. It was not an easy task, but we succeeded in the end. We gave a petition to our Vice-Principal, and after a lot of trouble, he was shown the door. But we were still at risk, as he was one of the paper checkers of our final exams. But we stuck to our ground without thinking of the consequences. This same person also teaches at the university, where I study now, and continues the same thing over here, although he does not take my classes. However I do not see any of his current students objecting against this, all though some of them come to me and state that they feel uncomfortable. Not everyone can be as radical as I am , but we all should try to make some difference, in whatever way we can

Verbal sexual harassment has also found a new form in this sms age Often working women receive sms jokes with explicit sexual content, from their male colleagues. Often when the women complain about the same, their male colleagues say that jokes are after all jokes, and they should not over react. However this is very objectionable, where often the women cannot do anything, other than feeling extremely uncomfortable This is the present state , where we are aware of the risks, but can often do nothing , other than feeling angry that nothing could be done, or very depressed that we are always interpreted in terms of our sexuality.

There is another risk we face, where we are always interpreted in terms of our sexuality. No matter what we do , it is always our sexuality which is of concern to all. For instance, when I took up a particular special paper, I was told by a teacher that I was somewhat unsuitable for the subject, as I was very fair complexioned, and had coloured hair and dressed in a particular way So my physical appearance was more important than my capabilities, for success in the subject. Moreover when I first joined the university, I had to hear comments that I was only about good looks, and branded clothes and overt feminism and students should sit with "good" girls at the other corner of the class.

So our sexuality is as is if the only asset we have , for the people around us. And anyone can take advantage of it .However, in a film called Jism , which was touted as the press as a sexual thriller, showed in a sequence a woman who tried to strike a difference in this male chauvinist world. There is a stereotype that women who wear western clothes are loose, moreover if the woman goes to a pub then she is interpreted as a woman who is inviting trouble, and if anything happens to the women then the men are not at fault, as the women invited it and even enjoyed it. Such is the belief on which society thrives. But this film, Jism showed a woman , who wore a revealing western outfit, and went to a pub alone, when her husband was out of town But this woman slapped a man as he tried to make a pass at her and stated that she maybe wearing what she is comfortable in, and no one has a right to make a pass just because she has come to the pub alone. This I feel was quite a statement, but unfortunately it was lost in the eroticism of the rest of the film.

There is another risk we face, our opposition to sexual harassment , often, paves the way for further trouble for us. It is as if a section of women are teaching the others to oppose such behavior, so they should be punished in some way. Feminists are seen as corrupting the minds of other women against the order of nature. This is so pathetic, that sexual harassment of women is as is if what is destined by nature. This is the reason for which my parents often tell me not to react to lewd comments on the road and just avoid them, as if I did not hear them at all. So we hear objectionable things and remain quiet, as opposition maybe dangerous for us.

The risks which await us are innumerable, and we are still very helpless in spite of our awareness. Beck spoke in terms of manufactured risks, and we can speak of risks manufactured to subjugate the women all the more she strives for her liberation.

Socialized with the "risk" of such "risks pervading all around us" , we suffer from a great sense of fear. For example, in my case, I may be speaking for the rights of women, protesting against cases of sexual harassment against students, be a non- conformist, I feel safer when my boyfriend is with me, when I return home at night. Moreover I dress up in a different way when I know that my boyfriend will drop me home, then when I would be coming alone. The world may say that I am "hypocritical", but compromising with my surroundings to some extent is the only solution I have, when I know that I have to travel across the city, [from Birati to Alipore ]in public transport, and often return late alone.

So we, the women of today are trying to make a difference, but in this endeavour we are falling prey to the clutches of the patriarchal set-up, where we often have to depend on another male---- our boyfriends, husbands, fathers, brothers, friends, for saving or protecting us from the "risk of other men."

1 comment

  1. yes....true....cant agree more....we males feel the pinch if our close associates (sister, girlfriend) come across such an ordeal....else ....shut your eyes n close your ears....who cares?
    and by the way .....i know the revered professor u r talking about :D