Men against sexual harassment

Opinion

Man-Up: Let’s Make Mumbai Safe For Women

A call to action for Mumbai’s menfolk to take a stand against sexual harassment of women in their city.

In a 2017 interview with the New York Times, celebrated Hollywood director Quentin Tarantino rued, “I knew enough to do more than I did,” in reference to movie producer Harvey Weinstein who was implicated by several women of sexual crimes. Tarantino admitted to knowing about the producer’s history of misconduct toward women and felt ashamed that he did not take a stronger stand.

Tarantino’s admission will echo among men who hold themselves guilty of not doing enough. Some of us may have already experienced it. But regret cannot undo the damage that men permitted through generations of inaction and ignorance.

Quentin Tarantino’s very public regret came to light three years ago, but the shockwaves it emitted will last until justice catches up with every single perpetrator of sexual crimes. And until that time comes, no place can be deemed safe for women, and and no woman can rest assured that no harm will come in her way in the form of a man.

Let’s examine where Mumbai and Mumbaikars stand on the issue.

Google “how safe is Mumbai for women” and the result can be analysed thus: we know about it anyway; online search simply reiterates it to those who already know and makes it known to those who accommodate a kinder assessment of Mumbai’s track record in women’s safety. The truth occurs somewhere in between, as these women in Mumbai put on record.

News media frequently cites the ground realities of sexual harassment and related crimes in Mumbai. A report on sexual crimes against women in Mumbai by the NGO, Praja revealed that between 2013 and 2018, reported incidents of rape increased by 22% and sexual assault by 51%. No one knows how many incidents go unreported. The problem is too deep-rooted for authorities to police, and too widespread for citizens to assume it won’t happen to them.

There’s also the matter of differing viewpoints, some true and others ill-founded, about sexual harassment in Mumbai—perpetrators are products of rough and deprived neighbourhoods; sons of faulty upbringing; consequence of the misogyny and violence against women that is depicted in popular culture. Some analyses blame women for “bringing it upon themselves” through clothing, behaviour, speech… anything a woman is not “supposed” to do to avoid falling prey to scum.

Often times, we direct the blame on migrants: the paradoxical “outsiders” we need at times and want out at others. When a migrant man becomes part of a sexual crime, he tends to be generalised as a depraved offender from a culture in conflict of our own. As for the migrants, they continue to flock to Mumbai regardless of its failing record against women’s safety, and notwithstanding how many of them will become perpetrators and how many will end up victims. It’s possible they come from places that are worse. It does not, however, mean they are comfortable in Mumbai’s unpleasant truth. Perceptions of Mumbai being safe for women are outdated, and the defensive comparison with worse cities is well, indefensible.

Perpetrators of sexual harassment in Mumbai hail from across socio-economic and regional groups. Yet, how aware are we as men of this and other facts? Not very aware, I’m afraid. Many men are still unfamiliar with the definition and purview of sexual harassment, and by consequence, unable to comprehend or tackle the problem.

I recount five true incidents to illustrate the reality of sexual harassment in Mumbai, and to dispel long-held myths and inaccurate notions. Each incident portrays a dimension of the problem, investigates the role of men in preventing or intervening in a sexual harassment incident, and offers practical insight about what men can do.

Incident 1

Don’t look the other way when you see sexual harassment on Mumbai streets

A married couple from the Central suburbs out shopping get briefly separated on a busy weekend. In the few seconds the woman is alone, a sexual harasser makes a swift and deliberate move, brushing up against her body. The woman spots the man but isn’t quick enough to prevent contact. A heated argument ensues as the couple confront the man and his companion. He denies, and gets progressively hostile and abusive, charging and threatening the woman. A crowd had gathered. Not a soul moved. Even when the husband risked physical harm to himself and his wife when shielding her from visibly drunk aggressor and his openly supportive companion.

The men went far enough to suggest they didn’t mind going to the cops to prove their innocence. They hope standing their ground proves their innocence to bystanders and exasperates the couple who will abandon thoughts of involving the law. Meanwhile, a local hawker walks up to the husband with this advice. “Jaane do sahab. Tamasha ho raha hai.” (Let go, sir. You’re making a scene.) The spunky couple didn’t back down, and forced the men to the police station where they fittingly dealt with.

Now, step into the couple’s shoes. They were subjected to public apathy, and risked physical harm from two aggressive, bigger built wrongdoers in broad daylight. The woman found no support for defending her dignity from a bully. Her husband acknowledges his wife is not one to step back, which makes him uneasy thinking what might have happened if she were alone. That day, he lost faith in fellow citizens as first responders to sexual harassment in public.

Takeaway

Mumbaikars were looking, but in the wrong direction.

Lesson

Don’t be a silent bystander to sexual harassment on the street. Help. It’s not so difficult, and the positive consequences can be far-reaching.

What men can do

  • To report a sexual harassment incident you witness, call the 103 helpline or dial 100 for police.
  • If you see a beat cop or police vehicle in the vicinity, direct them to the spot. Incidents can take place close to police presence without them being aware—the law can’t have eyes everywhere in a city the size of Mumbai. If you can get police to intervene, perpetrators can be apprehended and brought to justice before they get away.

Incident 2

Stand up to sexual harassment in Mumbai’s workplaces

A young woman joins a multinational digital media company in South Mumbai. Days into the new job, she senses unwanted attention from a male colleague. He stalks her and misses no opportunity to make conversation. His advances leave her uncomfortable, confused about how to react and who to ask for help in a new setting, and unsure of how her actions could affect people’s perception of her and her prospects and associations at work. She tries best to avoid him but the man gets bolder, his conversations more suggestive—going as far as inviting her home to party when his family might be away.

At the end of the rope, she reaches out to newly befriended co-workers, including male seniors who offer support and assurance, and guide her to confront the offender. Should that fail, they instruct her to report the matter to a manager.

Mumbaikars often blame outsiders or men from certain sections of society for many ills, sexual harassment included, but this offender was an educated (IT company types), middle-class Mumbaikar who didn’t fit into most people’s perception of a sexual harasser. In dealing with sexual harassment at the workplace, call out the offender, no matter what his rank or influence, your own or your co-workers’ perception of him.

Takeaway

Sexual harassment at workplaces have underlying consequences aside from the obvious ones. Not all perpetrators of sexual harassment fall under stereotypes.

Lesson

Listen to a female co-worker who confides in you about sexual harassment. Offer any help you can. Call out sexual harassers. Be proactive and supportive in tackling sexual harassment at your workplace.

What men can do

  • Take a stand against sexism in your workplace. Don’t make sexist jokes, and refrain from viewing and circulating such material at work.
  • Beware, stalking is a punishable offence in India. Don’t do it, and advise others against it.
  • If you are close to a co-worker who has sexist views or is a proven sexual harasser, hold him accountable and apprise him of the consequences. Inaction in such cases is morally and ethically wrong, and amounts to complicity.
  • Report sexual harassment to a superior. If no action is taken, escalate the matter to the HR department. Sexual harassment by even one man in your workplace can taint its reputation and safety record and show men in poor light.  
  • If you are a manager or person of authority, follow the process laid down by your company without delay. Inaction and delays trigger dire consequences. The Me Too movement exposed numerous cases that could have been prevented through timely and decisive action. Let reputations not matter, because every unpunished sexual predator at a workplace multiplies the number of victims, makes the workplace less safe for women, spreads discontent and fear among them and jeopardises the confidence and careers of new female recruits.
  • Many organisations provide a mechanism for formal and/or anonymous reporting of sexual harassment. Use it.
  • If you expect that working women who are your friends and family be treated with respect, afford the same treatment to those you work with.

Incident 3

Report sexual harassment in a public place in Mumbai

An advertising professional boards a stationary train at CST returning home from his Nariman Point office. It’s 8.30 pm and the crowd is thin. Seated by a window, his eye is caught by what transpires in the adjacent stationary train. A man comes up from behind a woman standing at the footboard, kisses her on the cheek and hurriedly crosses platforms via the parked trains. Two males follow, laughing at their companion’s deplorable antic. The rattled woman can only yell at her violator as her train departs before she can gather her wits.

Without hesitation, the adman gets off his train and confronts the trio. When pushed to reveal his identity, the perpetrator states he is as a doctor and resident of elsewhere in Maharashtra. They attempt to squeeze out of the situation, but the determined adman forces the main accused to the RPF (Railway Protection Force) station at CST and gives an eye witness account of the incident.

Takeaway

Sexual harassment is all too common in Mumbai’s suburban trains and stations. Yet, it cannot be allowed to be a normal.

Lesson

Report sexual harassment when you witness it on a suburban train or station, show alertness to help prevent an incident.

What men can do

  • Report sexual harassment incidents on railway premises and trains to 182, the RPF national helpline number.
  • RPF polices train stations and platforms 24/7 and women’s coaches at night. Yet canny perpetrators will find ways to victimise unsuspecting women, taking advantage of crowded spaces or isolated settings.
  • While the law requires a sexual harassment victim to formally complain, men can help with the process if the victim is distressed, unaccompanied. A few words of support and an offer to help the victim find RPF personnel, or supporting the victim’s claim if you witnessed the incident are a good start.
  • If you find yourself in a position where RPF personnel are not at hand in a sexual harassment situation, attempt a silent intervention to prevent an incident from occurring or stop an incident in progress, especially during late hours when Women’s First-class compartments are open to general public, or unaccompanied women feel safer travelling in general compartments.
  • For instance, if you notice an unaccompanied female commuter in a near empty general or first-class compartment at a late hour, keep her in your line of sight, and make your presence felt if you believe a harasser is onboard. A male presence in such cases indicates a potential victim is not alone, and can deter a sexual harasser. Regular commuters acknowledge that unaccompanied women in empty compartments are easy prey for harassment, and a male presence in such cases can create an active deterrence.  

Incident 4

Act when you see a sexual harasser committing an offence

On my way to the railway station to catch a train to work, I noticed the weird gait of the man in front. Each time a woman approached, he swayed in her direction, deliberately colliding, then quickly moving ahead leaving and weaving his way through the crowd, leaving no time for the victim to sight him. But from my vantage point just behind him, I soon figured a sexual offender in the act.

While alert women avoided contact, some failed, including a schoolgirl caught unawares in the rush hour crowd. I sneaked up on him before he could target anyone else and angrily shared my observations. Caught by surprise and clueless about how to react, he mumbled incomprehensibly. I gave him a strong rebuke and warned to personally report him at the police post a few yards ahead. Before he scurried, I made him aware that this time period being his daily commute, I’ll be looking out for him at the same time thereafter.

Incident 5

Be the lone wolf that wards off another

In one more incident involving public transport, a young IT professional in a crowded BEST bus en route to his workplace in Andheri intervened in a shameful incident. A young man standing in the aisle by the seat occupied by a Catholic nun and her female companion, frequently rubbed his groin on the nun’s shoulder. Initially unaware of his design, the nun appeared to give the harasser benefit of doubt on a crowded bus. When his persistence betrayed his innocence and the nun comprehended the situation, she looked up at him with discomfort and disgust.

Watching with intent, the IT man who stood a few feet from the pervert and other standees, chanced his opportunity and moved next to the culprit. He positioned his head turned toward the culprit, and gave him intermittent, angry stares. As passengers alighted over the next few stops creating space in the aisle, IT man repeatedly asked the sexual predator to move ahead from the spot he was rooted to. Seeing his game was up, the now nervous molester quietly slipped out of sight. The next time the nun looked up, she saw a smiling gent, unaware what transpired in the previous minutes. She smiled back.

Takeaway

It’s amply evident from incidents 4 and 5 that not all interventions in a sexual harassment incident need be chivalrous or public. They can be discreet yet impactful.

Lesson

If you are in a position to prevent a sexual predator from victimising a woman on public transport, do it.

What men can do    

  • It’s not too difficult to spot sexual harassment on public transport. Women keep an eye out for harassers all the time. Men can too through telltale signs. Look out for men who furtively glance around to check if they’re being watched, constantly stare at women, stalk them, sneak up and molest, and attempt a quick getaway. It only takes alert observation to spot a molester and thoughtful action to foil his plan.
  • You can deter a molester without or even before reporting his crime to the law. Being spotted or pointed out and faced with the prospect of being apprehended by the law or trashed by an angry mob can make harassers give up or take flight.

If these stories compel you to help make Mumbai a safer place for women by preventing sexual harassment, remember this.

  • Before you go to the aid of a victim, be sure that the incident you witnessed is a genuine case of sexual harassment. If an unaccompanied victim is in a position to speak, verify her account of the perpetrator and the incident before reporting it.
  • It’s important to listen. A woman subjected to sexual harassment may experience a range of negative emotions, not all of which are explicable to others. When she confides or reaches out to you, it may not be only to seek help. Listening can help you see things from her point of view. If she confides in you about an incident or person, she trusts you to listen, seeks your opinion on the guilty party, wonders about due process for reporting… There could be a range of reasons. Listening will help You only need to listen to know what her reason is.
  • Never attempt to take the law into your hands through any form of physical violence, even when the act is committed on a companion or family member in your presence. You and your companion or group risk physical harm and assault, especially if you are outnumbered or faced with hostile and criminal elements. One can’t predict how a sexual harasser will react when caught. They could be criminals, armed, violent, inebriated, unpredictable or attempt to get away—physical contact can lead to unintended injury to perpetrators and to you.
  • If a sexual harassment incident where you are with a victim threatens to get out of hand, call a police or helpline number or ask bystanders for immediate help.

Not only in Mumbai, women everywhere do not deserve to be violated or threatened by sexual predators and harassers, or live under the shadow of sexual violence by a few while a majority of men can and should do what it takes to make a woman, any woman, feel safe and supported.

Men have allowed themselves to be compartmentalised into those who commit sexual offences against women and those who don’t. But is swathing of men in black or white justified? Not quite if the men in our stories are examples to go by. There’s no reason you cannot be one of them.

In closing: Names have been withheld to safeguard privacy. In incidents 1 and 3 where the matter was reported, swift and appropriate action was taken by Mumbai Police and Railway Protection Force personnel respectively.

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  • Last updated on October 26th at 2:51pm
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