Sexual harassment in the South Asian context

By Ali Hassnain

It is one of the most difficult topics to write on. One is at a loss of words; where to start and where to end. But it has to be done. The storm that was long in the offering has unleashed in Hollywood, and that’s a good thing. It involves harassment of more than 60 Hollywood actresses to date, most of them very famous, and the number keeps on rising with every passing day.

The predator is the famous Hollywood producer and executive Harvey Weinstein who has not run into serious legal troubles yet but his case has brought the focus on preventing harassment in the US. Who could have thought that women like Angelina Jolie would have faced threat of sexual harassment. Although she was new in Hollywood when Weinstein tried to take advantage of her, but at that time her father was very famous.  One can only wonder about the culture that existed at the time and how many women Weinstein molested who have not come forward and might never, especially the ones without a base in Hollywood and eager to become a star were the most venerable.

Similar culture exists in Bollywood and some people are coming forward there as well. The condition in our own Lollywood film industry, modeling and drama industry is at par with Bollywood and Hollywood. To think people like Weinstein are not in Bollywood or Lollywood, is wishful thinking. Recently a famous Bollywood actor, Irfan Khan said he faced inappropriate offers from both males and females in return for work at the start of his career.

Who do we trust to take an initiative globally? Before getting elected, current US President bragged about assaulting women which he dismissed as “locker room talk”.

If anyone thinks that social position and money protects you against harassment, think again. Weinstein the recently exposed Hollywood predator was even after the former Ms. World, Aishwarya Rai, who narrowly escaped his advances. Good to know like Jolie she escaped his sinister motives.

One of my favourite characters on TV is Kevin Spacey as a manipulative US President in House of Cards. Recent harassment claims against him have led to cancellation of the show. I have followed his work and I used to admire his acting skills but it’s sad to realize that he is a sexual predator.

The law regarding sexual harassment in South Asia needs dramatic improvement in short, medium and long terms. Thanks to a rotten system left by former colonial masters and a lack of will to change it, most people who are in jail for rape are innocent, and the actual perpetrators are at large. This is a sad reality in our society. Real culprits are rarely reported and mostly get away, especially if they enjoy a powerful position in society. This makes the problem worse.

In India, ‘stranger rape’ is probably a more serious threat than anywhere else. When you have Ferraris and world’s largest slum in the same city (Dharavi in Mumbai), problems tend to arise. When there are champagne drinking, expensive SUV driving, entitled youth and desperate homeless people, it is a very dangerous situation. Socio-political factors account for a lot of threats.

Let’s focus on schools that cater to the needs of middle, upper middle and upper class. There is a lot of peer pressure to get a presentable boyfriend or girlfriend. Confused teenagers mix the western concept of dating with our own culture of sneaking out which is a recipe for disaster. Then there is case of all boys’ school from the colonial days that prefer to hush up the matter and sweep it under the rug. In India, Delhi High Court ruled it a rape to promise a girl marriage and to have conjugal relations with her before marriage. However, Bombay High Court recently ruled it is not. Delhi High Court equated it with coercion. It is currently a hotly debated topic in neighbouring country where molestation is endemic. Especially the tourists are seen by many locals as an easy target in India. A CNN reporter was assaulted in live broadcast while covering a terrorist event. No words for it really.

Girls in South Asia should understand that if a guy promises marriage and demands conjugal relations before actually getting married, it’s time to walk away. The western concept of dating is a different thing altogether. Physical relations are acceptable in their society. If it is acceptable to girls and boys here, that would be a different picture but most of the time they are just seeking thrill and don’t know what they are doing. You get to hear horrible stories of ‘date rape’ in universities and even high schools. These girls don’t trust people; rape changes their lives completely and it takes decades to recover.

It’s a wrong assumption that strangers are responsible for most rapes. It has been debunked by countless researches. A girl is most likely to be raped by an acquaintance. The chances of rape by a stranger while present are relatively remote compared to acquaintance rape. It takes courage to share the darkest and most horrible aspects of your life. The problem is that Zina (pre and extramarital sex) is cheap and easy while we have made marriages expensive and complicated.

Calling girls names and abusing them from a distance constitutes harassment and there should be forums to address the issue. It is simply not acceptable.

In India situation is worse. A culture exists which is called “Eve teasing”. At evening girls returning from offices are harassed. People call them names, sing songs, are inappropriate and even get physical. It is very shameful and difficult to understand. Not only it is pathetic, it is silly and represents a sick and deprived mentality of men who think they can get away with it.

In Pakistan anyone teasing a girl is likely to be beaten and people join in the beating considering it a divine duty. However things have changed and it would not be appropriate to say it is always the case. Change is not always good and now a days people try to avoid getting in middle of something they don’t understand. However, this so called eve teasing is not only frowned upon in Pakistan, the perpetrators are likely to get a good old Pakistani style “Chitrol” (thrashing) too. But it is a problem nevertheless.

In Sri Lanka situation is a bit complicated, their culture prohibits the dating practice. But their religion and law is lenient. However, like India the dating concept has seeped into their culture. Young “couples” end up sneaking out in parks and beaches at day time. Suicide rate is very high among couples belonging to different casts. I met quite a few tourist girls when I was in Sri Lanka, some of them very young, traveling alone who didn’t face any harassment or mentioned the threat of harassment. It is difficult to say it was due to the culture in their country or foreigners were off limits. However I must admit I had a good time in Sri Lanka and what I observed was biased due to all the good people I met. Reports that come out state otherwise. According to a UNFPA report as much as 90% of girls in Sri Lanka are harassed in public transport. I have seen their public transport system; it is overcrowded.

It is prudent to tell the readers what is a ‘date rape’. Well, the girl goes on a date, after a few dates maybe the guy would invite her over, spike her drink and mix something that would at least partially incapacitate the girl. Most predators believe after the first stunt they get a free pass. And with each passing victim they tend to be bold. Most girls consider themselves complicit when they are not. NO means NO! Going to someone’s house or being friendly or even flirting is NOT an invitation to rape. But sadly in absence of law or society being on their side, they remain silent.

It’s recommended if the girls are going somewhere they should go in a group and watch out for each other and never drink anything from an open can or bottle. The concept of psychological therapy and rehabilitation is difficult to explain to people in South Asia. People do all kinds of things but when it comes down to seeking help, they consider it’s for “insane” people, which is very unfortunate indeed. Again! Girls! Never accept drink or food of any kind when not in company of trusted female friends. Even in group avoid drinks that are not sealed. Partying or hanging out with guys is considered deviant in our society as a whole so ‘blame the victim’ mindset is very strong. Girls should avoid going to mixed gender parties especially where alcohol is being served, some of the people are on drugs and prostitutes have managed to sneak in as plus ones or friends. Whether I disagree with it is irrelevant. It is there and girls get blamed, sadly. Law here is complicated and most victims avoid pursuing the matter, which they believe would be a waste of time and possibly bring them shame without achieving anything. These incidents of coercion and harassment exist both in Pakistan and India. It’s worse in India though and it also exists in most expensive co-ed schools and colleges there.

Then there is the unthinkable; when the mentor, the teacher is a sexual predator. It’s very difficult to write about it but it happens. The situation in my assessment is especially worse in professional colleges but that’s an opinion and I have to research to back that up. Some predators trade “favours” in exchange for marks etc.

Coming back to entertainment and news media, the less said the better. Police should run a sting operation to expose habitual predators at the least. Predators exist; they are in school universities and offices. I have seen boys put their hands around girls in a way which would make them extremely uncomfortable at the least. But as I recall almost every girl in such a situation laughed it off. I remember a teacher, who must be in his mid-20s, hitting on under 18 girls sitting in a group in a subtle way who ignored him with a smile.

The problem in South Asia is, it is difficult to explain that coercion equals rape. For example relationships between a superior in US military and a subordinate might be treated as rape because there is implied coercion. For example, it is possible they would get less dangerous positions if their superior is in a relationship with them and the dangerous ones if he is not pleased.

The answers lie in better law enforcement, more forums for victims, change in attitude and awareness about this topic. It should be emphasized that shame is on the rapist not the victim. At this point in time we should learn from Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Perpetrators, not victims were blamed then.

A girl raped is scarred for life; even with therapy it takes a lifetime to heal. Without therapy, she is condemned to live her life in silent suffering. There are immediate changes in behaviour that might last for a few months, years to a lifetime. There are people in positions of power, they are among teachers, corporate entities, small businesses and government officials who think they can get away with everything, and this should change. Campus rape and harassment in high schools should be taken seriously. If you are a privileged person, rich and powerful with your daughter in the best school, and you think they are immune to harassment, think again. Line of communication with your children is probably the base line for protecting them. That would not make them immune from harassment but decrease the chances dramatically. It’s a wrong perception that boys don’t face harassment. Molestation of male children is a serious problem and an overlooked issue, especially in the region bordering Afghanistan and it exists in our society too like all the others. Denial is not the answer. This curse should be rooted out. It is sad to see that child molestation is not only socially accepted, it is seen as something to brag about in neighbouring Afghanistan.

In our country however with right priorities it can and should be addressed. Boys should be taught that objectifying women is wrong. It is wrong to believe that if you think a woman is morally corrupt, it is okay to molest them. All the politicians should unite and formulate a policy, after all, it is a national issue of utmost importance and all the political parties should have the same policy on this. They should pool their resources. They should start by rooting it out of their own political parties.

If law enforcement is improved, we can advocate death penalty for rapist as Islamic law states, and a combination of reformative and punitive punishments for sexual harassment. We must not let the rape pandemic in India spill over to Pakistan. There is already an ombudsman for work place harassment in Pakistan. I purpose a mandatory counselor on harassment issues, who promises confidentiality, in all the schools, colleges and universities. Records of possible predators should go in the record at police stations. Secondly, I recommend government creates a registry of sex offenders with the DNA samples and finger prints of all the suspects and convicts on file. A close monitoring would help, something similar to US registry on sex offenders.

As Muslims and as humans it is our responsibility to tackle this menace.

Categories: Analysis

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