Not just Vishaka’s Problem, Sexual Harassment Starts at Schools

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As a male student who chose to study in the ‘Arts’ stream, as opposed to the male-dominated Commerce, Engineering, Science or MBA streams, I have had the opportunity to interact with and observe at close quarters some of the foremost feminist activists in the country, an opportunity, I am sure not even many of my male colleagues in the social sector have had.  I am also usually the only man or one of the few men in most conferences and seminars that I attend as a part of my work as a Counselling Psychologist. I am in fact the only male employee in my own organization. Given that most of my classmates in college, and coworkers over the past 3 years that I have worked in the social sector, have been women, people often look at me as someone who is trying to ‘fit-in’ when I try to speak about ‘feminist’ issues as a man. Female classmates of mine during my post-graduation would often say that I, as a man, can never be considered a feminist because of the male-privilege society affords me.

Most recently, an online feminist community denied admission to me citing a ‘women’s only’ policy. The incident, which was not a first for me, left me annoyed and amused in equal part.  I wondered why, even in the social sector there continues to be a distrust around well-intentioned men who want to be part of the fight against patriarchy. I didn’t really have an answer to it till the Tehelka controversy erupted a few days ago. The way things have played out in this incident have shocked most of us in the social sector to say the least. Tarun Tejpal emerging as a sexual offender, Shoma Chaudhary being as callous and boorish as can be in her interactions with senior journalists, Madhu Kishwar naming the victim and then saying ‘so what, so many others have done it before I did’ have all forced us to look at the people we would usually trust to be on the right side of most issues pertaining to Violence Against Women with a doubtful eye. It’s not surprising to me anymore that men are looked at with suspicion regardless of their purported stance on women’s issues.

As is the case with most media spectacles, certain terms become buzzwords. The buzzword this time around seems to be ‘The Vishaka Guidelines’. For the uninitiated, the Vishaka Guidelines come from a 1997 Supreme Court judgment in the aftermath of a brutal gangrape of a grassroots social activist in Rajasthan – Bhanwari Devi. The guidelines call upon employers to set up a Committee Against Sexual Harassment (CASH committees as they are usually known in office-culture) in order to protect female employees from sexual harassment. In the wake of the Tehelka controversy, most people today are of the opinion that having a Vishaka compliant CASH is the answer to the problem of sexual harassment, especially since the victim in the Tehelka incident herself asked for a committee as such to be instituted in her organization. While I completely stand for the fact that each organization should have a committee as such, I believe that such committees are not completely sufficient to deal with the issue. Committees against sexual harassment, come into the picture (or into existence as is the case usually) after an incident of  sexual harassment has taken place. Their preventive value, as such, is quite limited.  In reality however, girls start to face sexual harassment much before they’ve even thought of what they want to be when they grow up, and boys routinely harass women who are often older than their mothers.

Now for those of you who haven’t caught my drift, let me provide you with a bit of background.  I completed my schooling, right from kindergarten to SSC , at an overcrowded, all-boys school.  In case you aren’t familiar with how things work at an all-boys school, let’s just say that one would be shocked at the amount of sexual harassment female teachers have to face at the hands of a bunch of 12-year olds. Off the top of my head, I can remember an incident in standard seven where my science teacher approached my class-teacher teary-eyed with a complaint that some back-benchers had been eyeing her top-to-bottom in a most lecherous manner, and when she finally finally confronted them, she saw that the Leonardo DiCaprio inspired twelve year olds were working on a rather detailed nude sketch of her. That apart students ‘accidentally’ bumping into teachers during recess, brushing against them as they walked through the crowded rows of the classrooms, writing love-notes to teachers which put the ‘T’ in TMI were so routine that no one really registered that these were all forms of sexual harassment. The hooting, whistling and name-calling that would happen outside the gate of the all-girls school next to my school was a different matter altogether.

What the above mentioned examples aim to highlight is the fact that boys learn at a very young age that they can get away with this kind of behavior, even when it is aimed at someone who is an authority figure. I am unsure whether there is any redressal mechanism for this kind of sexual harassment for teachers or female students. Worse still, nobody talks to the boys about how such behavior is not acceptable. These very boys, after school step into colleges, most of which are co-ed, most often without an iota of understanding of women are to be treated, and here once again, no one really tells them what is not acceptable. Slut-shaming on confession groups, nicknames based on physical appearance, and gossip about who slept with whom, continue unabated as a consequence.

Somewhere between all of this, we expect these young men to earn a professional degree, become ‘professional’ in their behavior and not harass a woman when they start working. A pretty tall order, if you ask me. I am not saying that it is in the nature of men to be like this. I myself have come from the same background and know several others who are genuine nice-guys despite growing up in such environments. The point I am trying to make is that for boys, there is never a reason to curb such behavior, nor is there an incentive to engage in the feminist conversation. In my opinion therefore, if we want to seriously to do something about sexual harassment, leaving the task to committees constituted as per Vishaka guidelines mean leaving it too late in the day, because by then, the idea that this is just ‘friendly banter’ is set in stone. 

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2 thoughts on “Not just Vishaka’s Problem, Sexual Harassment Starts at Schools

  1. First off, I have to say I don’t agree with the viewpoint of your classmates who thought you could never be a feminist because of your male privilege. That is really sad. Most of us welcome male members who are aware enough to realise that they are in fact, feminist.

    Secondly, I agree whole heartedly with your article. During my internship at St. Anthonies school at Vakola, we ( a group of young female counsellors) were heckled by boys in the 5th grade! ( Let’s not talk about the 9th graders, who were much worse). I was shocked that this was happening when they were in class, with the (helpless) teacher just looking on. I remember thinking the exact same thing you have mentioned in your article. Worse, when I discussed this with colleagues and adult men, the answer I got was that ‘they’re just kids, they don’t mean anything’ or ‘ they will grow up fine’ and the ubiquitous ‘boys will be boys’ answer.

    People need to realise that children’s behaviour is not innocuous, but often clues about the kind of adults they grow up to be. Since they are malleable and vulnerable at that age, what they are exposed to can have a large effect on their thinking and behaviour. We must aim to exert a positive influence. By educating and raising awareness when these boys are as young as 7 or 8 ( or even younger) , we can curb a bit of the menace.

    • Paras

      Hi Tara,

      Nice to hear from you again. Thanks for the feedback. One aspect I didn’t touch on from my experience was that most schools prefer hiring female counsellors, because there is an unspoken distrust around male counsellors. It’s almost like saying ‘What if the male counsellor molests a female student?’.

      What they don’t realize, as you have pointed out is that female counsellors face a lot of sexual harassment like you mentioned. Moreover, I think if we have male counsellors in schools along with female counsellors, they can model the right behaviours for the boys, and tell the girls what is it that they should or should not accept from other boys.

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