As a Western woman I’ve sat in seminars, read the numbers and heard the statistics regarding sexual harassment on college campuses, the workplace, etc: “At least 1 in 4 college women will be the victim of a sexual assault during her academic career,” “31% of the female workers claimed to have been harassed at work.” Most of the time my response is a yawn and the thought, “That would never happen to me!”
While living in Hyderabad, India I became that statistic on a regular basis.
Perhaps the most disturbing personal account is the time I went to catch an auto (the yellow tuk tuks that race madly around Indian cities) with my friend Kate. We were sitting in an auto on the way to dinner to meet friends when out of nowhere, three guys on the back of a motorcycle came up to our auto and jeered at us, grabbed my left breast and zoomed away.
“How could this happen to me?” was my first thought. After the rage surpassed intense humiliation and hot tears poured down my face: they had enjoyed that, found joy in my humiliation and anguish. “They’ll probably go and tell all of their friends that they grabbed some white girl and be so proud of themselves,” I thought to myself, the anger beginning to sizzle again. What’s worse, the auto driver had just sat there and not even said anything or tried to intervene in anyway.
Getting cat-calls on a weekly basis and putting up with rude and inappropriate staring was something all women in the fellowship had built up an immunity to over time. The last straw for me was when, one day on the way to work, two autos pulled up next to mine, both drivers jeering at me. I was wearing the traditional Indian salwars and kurta and my head was wrapped with a scarf, yet I was still eliciting attention, even though my entire body was covered with (might I add) unflattering, shape-concealing clothes. Roughly 10 people had been witnesses, including the auto I was sharing with another woman, the passengers in each of the other autos, and my driver. And not one of them had said a word or done anything to try to stop what was going on.
For me that was the breaking point. Following the age-old adage, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!” I did what most Western people would consider to be an abhorrence.
I bought a burka.
The school I worked at was in the middle of the Old City, the gathering area for shops of all stripes and colors, so I had no problem locating a burka shop. The man helping me did not think it odd at all that I was buying a burka, even though I was a white Westerner. When he asked me why I was buying it and I told him “For protection,” he merely nodded as thought someone had told him it was raining outside, and continued to sift around his store, searching for a pre-made burka that would fit me. He understood.
I use this personal narrative as means of giving weight to the statement that many women brush off “It could happen to you.” Sexual harassment is a problem, no, might I use the word epidemic, that plagues women of every shape, size, color, race, ethnicity, women in rural and urban areas, women who are rich and poor. It does not discriminate and there is unfortunately no vaccine. While reports on sexual harassment vary in scope and study, I found two different reports on female sexual harassment in the workplace, one study focusing on the US, the other India. The results? The same: both reports found that 88% of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. What is it, then, that makes sexual harassment a more difficult battle for our sisters in developing countries? The lack of infrastructure and accountability. In a study conducted in New Delhi by a women’s group, Jagori, it was found that “the majority of women expressed a lack of confidence in the police, and said they would not automatically turn to them for help in the face of harassment in a public space.” Additionally, over 40% of the women said that the police would not act, or downplay the complaint. A shocking less than 1% of Indian women who have experienced sexual harassment have gone to the police.
How do we move toward finding a cure for this endemic issue, then? Especially if the legal structures in many countries are not even in place or are corrupt? One article states that the physical infrastructure in cities can be enhanced to increase women’s safety. This would include changes like better lighting and improved systems of public transport. However, ultimately there needs to be a shift in mentalities and attitudes. While on my fellowship in India the co-hort before me established Camp VOICE, a non-profit dedicated to helping empower young girls. During the summer they attend workshops on everything from how to take care of their bodies to how they can achieve the careers they want. However, men need to be an important part of the conversation too, and in the near future VOICE plans to conduct an equivalent camp for young boys.
Back in the US my burka is folded away in the back of my closet. I feel immensely thankful and grateful to live in a country that recognizes my rights, that gives me the freedom to express myself how I want, to pursue a career that I want. But it still gnaws at me when I think about all of the women out there who don’t have these privileges, whose faces are the students and teachers that I knew and grew close to back in Hyderabad. It’s the people who let big issues gnaw at them that become the catalysts for creative change. Right now there’s no cure for sexual harassment but the spirit of optimism is changing, one VOICE at a time. (see next page for sources).