Sexual Harassment of women in public transport

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Our Collective Silence Will Not Help Our Sisters and Daughters

We Need To React

Sexual Harassment of women in public transport
Sexual Harassment of women in public transport

I had been observing for some time now that the number of women drivers in Srinagar has gone up phenomenally. I was amazed to find more and more girls and women on two-wheelers and four-wheelers.

I decided to write on this increasing trend for our magazine, Kashmir Central. I was looking at it as a happy story – the account of how more and more girls are choosing to drive. I spoke to many girls who are riding two-wheelers and four-wheelers. Their statements left me both sad and shocked.

From the statements of the girls that I spoke to, I discovered that persistent, shameless sexual harassment on our public transport vehicles is making more and more girls and women opt for private vehicles.

Yes, as a Kashmiri I have known this phenomenon for years. I myself have experienced sexual harassment on our public transport vehicles since I was a teenager. But the fact that this shameful phenomenon is still continuing with impunity has left me saddened.

As more and more women spoke to me about the blatant and rampant sexual harassment faced by them on the buses, I was reminded of the multiple times when this had happened to me when I was studying at University of Kashmir. Sometimes I had to use public transport to go to the university or come back home. I had to change three vehicles in order to reach the university.

I faced sexual harassment many times. The first time it happened, I remember that I had taken a Sumo from Exchange Road, Srinagar, to reach the university. I  was sitting in the back seat of the Sumo. A man was seated opposite me. As usual, the Sumo was crowded. Somehow his legs were on both sides of my legs. In a few minutes, I felt that he was squeezing my legs between his. I immediately tried to shift my legs away, but he tightened his grip. I remembered that there was a needle in my bag. I took it out and poked his leg with the needle. He was startled and thereafter he stopped. After that, I always carried some sharp object in my bag with which I could poke or hurt the molester.

Why Do We Judge The Victim?

We are proud of being a society where the modesty of women is protected. But are we protecting the modesty of a woman if men rub themselves against women in public transport shamelessly and pose as if they have not done anything? Why do others pose as if nothing has happened?

Media reports and even the social media are full of instances where Kashmiri girls have shared their tales of woe. In response, we encounter a collective silence.

One of my friends who does not want to named told me that once, she was in a bus that was going from Lal Chowk to Batamaloo. A man sitting next to her tried to fondle her breasts. When she asked him what he is doing, the man said that he is trying to sit comfortably as there is very little space. She was left shocked. What distressed her even more was that none of the other passengers said anything to the man. Most of them looked at her with disgust, judging her because she chose to confront her harasser.

KASHMIRI GIRLS ARE MENTALLY TRAUMATIZED TO ENCOUNTER SEXUAL HARASSMENT, BUT THEY CRY AND SUFFER IN SILENCE

WHY DO GIRLS FEEL SHAME IN QUESTIONING AND CHALLENGING THE PREDATOR?

Now when more and more girls started telling me of the sexual harassment faced by them, I was astounded to observe that they cry and feel traumatized, but they don’t question or challenge the molester in a bus or Sumo or other such vehicle which is full of people.

Their accounts have revealed to me that each girl faces emotional anguish at being subjected to these ugly touches. The girls whose families can afford to buy them a two-wheeler or four-wheeler opt for private transport. Some opt to walk as much as possible to their place of work, some quit. Some continue to suffer the molestation.

But most girls that I spoke to said that they did not question or expose her molester out of fear. They did not cry out to co-passengers to help her. We know why the situation is so. I am not the only one who has gone through this. Harassment of Kashmiri women in public transport is a common phenomenon. But the worst part is that when girls try to speak about it or seek help, they are judged.

People start commenting on how these girls dress, and the way they are inviting the sexual harassment. This is shameful and hypocritical for a society. These sexual harassment apologists – do they have any answer for harassment of even those girls who are covered most modestly from head to toe? And even if a girl decides to dress according to her choice, does it give license to the men of our society to sexually harass her?

The Quran commands that women must dress modestly. Equally, the Quran commands the men to lower their gaze before women. The commandments of the holy text are for men and women alike. Then why are women judged harshly if they try to expose men who molest them, or if they try to seek help?

Men touch us inappropriately or they do not let us board the bus or they shout taunts on the road.

One of the first girls I spoke to was Ishrat, a resident of Srinagar. The soft-spoken girl told me with a touching honesty, ““The main reason why I brought Scooty was to avoid sexual harassment in local buses every day. I decided that I will commute on a private vehicle in order to save myself. It is extremely distressing that the men of our society think that girls who are on a public transport are available to touch inappropriately and harass. I know that all men are not like this, only a section of them. But this section makes life hell for us. They do not let us board the bus. If we decide to use private transport, they shout taunts at us. These men are yet to accept women drivers on the road. But after experiencing this, I have realized that I can ignore or tolerate their taunts and shouts. I cannot ignore or tolerate their ugly touches. Hence I don’t go on the bus. I use a two-wheeler,” said Ishrat.

A Crowd On A Bus Should Protect A Woman

 Collective Silence And Willful Ignorance Help Predators

Women commuters in Kashmir, particularly college and school-going girls, continue to face sexual harassment on public buses. The predators are rarely questioned. If they are, their standard response is that the bus is over-crowded, and the girl judged the situation wrongly.

Girls largely continue as silent victims of this sexual trauma day after day. Those who consider it any less than a trauma have no idea how deeply humiliating and violating it feels, both for body and spirit.

Sadly, girls find it taboo to communicate to their family members or file complaints with the police station. This further emboldens the predators. This is the reason why women, especially girls, are finding it increasingly difficult to travel by public transport. They dread being subjected to an indecent act.

Examine the shocking reality. A large number of people on a bus gives the predator an opportunity to subject a girl to indecent touches. A crowd on a bus should be a girl’s protective shield. Instead, it makes it convenient for a certain section of men to sexually harass girls. Since Kashmir is a very conservative society, women often bear sexual assault, sexual abuse or sexual harassment in silence. They don’t report such incidents for fear of being judged and hurting their reputation.

Everything Is Made A Woman’s Fault

A friend told me that she was in a mini-bus when a young woman stood up and questioned the man sitting next to her as to why he kept touching her indecently. The whole bus including the man fell silent, but nobody said anything. The woman decided to get off the bus. After she left, the man proudly announced, “If this spoiled princess has a problem moving in public transport, let her parents buy her a car.”

Strangely, the other passengers starting commenting that the girl was not from a good family. They said she should wear a veil or at least wear a hijab. This is not uncommon. Men casually start lecturing women in public.

Travelling On Personal Vehicles

When a section of men are perverted and they are not questioned, their abhorrent behaviour shall continue irrespective of the situation. Such perverted men are often seen making indecent gestures and shouting at women drivers. Young women commuting on two-wheelers are often followed by men in cars or two-wheelers, who throw slurs at them. This has even caused accidents at times.

In one such incident, one woman from south Kashmir lost her life. She was commuting with her cousin when two men on a motorcycle started chasing them. The girl lost control and in the mishap that followed, she died. This proves that it is not the transport system which is to be blamed for the harassment of women, but the predatory nature of men who are not checked by society in any way.

If a girl questions it, she faces a social stigma. The predators are rarely confronted. Then they blame games and mudslinging. The women are asked to stay silent.

Former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti started special buses for women, but that misses the moot point. It is not our sisters and daughters who should face exclusion because of some perverted men amidst us. These perverted men must be called out and excluded.

WHAT THE LAW SAYS

According to Section 354(A) of the Indian Penal Code, a man who engages in any physical contact with uninvited advance and explicit sexual overtures; or demands or requests sexual favors is guilty of sexual harassment. The punishment under this Act is strict imprisonment for a period of up to three years. Any obscene behaviour in a public location, or uttering any phrase or making any gesture meant to degrade a woman’s modesty, is considered harassment under Sections 209 and 509. The accused may face a jail term, a fine or both.

The country’s law safeguards women and provides protection. Then why does this ugliness keep repeating itself? The answer lies in social conditioning, where our sisters and daughters are told to pretend that there is no sexual abuse, as it might ruin the reputation of the woman and also her family.

The muzzling of female voices in our culture is the result of conservative customs paired with harsh paternalism. Girls are raised in a patriarchal environment, where even speaking loudly is considered indecent. Subservience is lauded. This makes girls fearful of protesting abuse. Girls who break these unwritten social rules are labeled as shameless women from bad families.

When I was a child, I used to hear that women are safe in public spaces in Kashmir. When I grew up, I found this to be a pompous mirage of our society. I have observed that our women continue to suffer silently as the result of male chauvinism. The inability to speak or protest makes women vulnerable to mental health diseases. I feel sad for the girls who would have given up their dreams of building a happier life for themselves and their families because they faced sexual harassment on public transport, and could not afford a private vehicle.

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