A matter of honour

There has been an increase in harassment of women at workplace and in public places. But most victims shy away from raising their voice. Does it help them or the perverts who commit such acts, Shazia Khan tries to find out.

Fresh out of college and quite excited by the prospect of getting a job, Nadia, a mass communication graduate, joined a media organization. Being the first among her batchmates to get a break, Nadia joined the group with high hopes and enthusiasm.

“A pat on the back from my boss for my hard work added to my zeal and started working more passionately,” says Nadia. However, soon she noticed some negative vibes in her boss.

“He (boss) was my father’s friend and would call me Ghobri (daughter), but his hand would go lower and lower down my back,” recalls Nadia.

Undecided between his words and actions, Nadia says she wondered whether she was merely imagining it. That was until one Sunday when he picked her up from her home to discuss a new documentary film.

Nadia recalls, “The meeting ended late and when it was over, he offered me a lift. As there was no transport facility available, I decided to move with him.
“During the travel he talked further about his project and asked me to take the responsibility of a researcher but suddenly to my surprise he started commenting on my looks which shocked me.

“First I could not understand what he was talking about but when he passed some comments, I slapped him and asked him to stop the car. I opened the car door and without speaking a word I moved out from his car,” she says.

Next day she sent him her resignation.

Nadia quit and breathed easier. Nadia is not the only woman to face harassment at workplace. Unlike her, 25 year old Shereen was not in a position to leave her first job.
A school teacher now, Shereen is a lone breadwinner of her family. After her father’s death the responsibility of looking after the family (her siblings and mother) fell on her.

“I never thought my liabilities would make me so vulnerable that I would have to compromise on petty things,” Shereen says, “I still get mad at myself for getting caught in such a situation.”

She was in the last year of master’s degree when she started working on a part-time job in an NGO. She was assigned to assist the programme coordinator in one of their projects.

Everything was going on smoothly until his programme coordinator boss started calling her on phone during night. She says, “Initially, he used to talk only about work but when he tried to become friendlier I avoided his phone calls.”

Even after his calls were not responded to, he did not stop there. Shereen says that he started sending licentious emails and text messages to her. “I stopped talking to him.”
One day in the office she says, while discussing the project he suddenly shifted his conversation from work to her looks. “He tried to cross limits. I warned him to be within limits or I will lodge a complaint against him.”

Things cooled down a bit. “He didn’t say anything after that incident and I too tried to remain peaceful in office.”

“I enjoyed my work and worked very hard but emotionally I was distraught. Meanwhile, he got engaged and that provided me a sigh of relief,” Shereen says. But a month later things went wrong again.

“One afternoon he was in his room when he asked me to take some notes. While dictating the notes, he sat next to me. He said, ‘The organization is thinking of promoting you but there are certain conditions that you have to fulfill’. While saying that he touched my hand and tried to indulge in indecent acts. It shocked me. I stood up, pushed him and ran away to save my honor.”

“I went home and cried. It took me a while to come to terms with what had happened. I thought of going to police but didn’t want to go through the hassle that would have followed besides the thought of my family’s reaction scared me,” she says. “I left my job quietly and decided not to discuss it with anyone.”

Shereen says after that nightmarish experience, she can’t trust any man.
Psychiatrist Dr Muzaffar Ahmad says that such experiences lead to loss of self esteem and causes immense mental trauma in women. “Sexual harassment affects both psychological and physiological health of the victim,” says Dr Muzaffar.

Women, by nature, are very emotional and ill treatment by a man can push her into depression, anxiety and sleeplessness. “Whenever such incident occurs the women victims blame themselves for it, which affects their psyche badly,” explains Dr Muzaffar. “In most of the grave cases many women used to remain isolated and even try to attempt suicide.”

The Supreme Court of India has enacted laws against sexual harassment. The Court defined sexual harassment as any physical contact and advances; a demand or request for sexual favors; sexually coloured remarks; showing pornography; or any physical, verbal or non-verbal sexual conduct leering, dirty jokes and comments about a person’s body.

Advocate Mihir Desai, gender rights activist explained in his book ‘Women and the Law’ that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination projected through unwelcome sexual advances, request or physical conduct with sexual overtones whether directly or by implication, particularly when submission to or rejection of such a conduct by the female employee was capable of being used for affecting the employment of the female employee and unreasonably interfering with her work performance and had the effect of creating an intimidating or hostile working environment for her.

While in case of sexual abuse charge the witnesses or documentary evidences are not always necessary to prove this charge. “If the evidence of the victim inspires confidence, the courts would be obliged to rely on it and ordinarily no sympathy should be shown in favor of harasser,” says Advocate Babar Qadri.

Muhammad Shafiq, Station House Officer of Kothibagh Police station in Srinagar believes that the harassment at workplace has increased over the years but the number of reported cases is very low. The Kothibagh station has registered at least 40 cases of sexual harassment in last five years.

Shafiq says, “Victims don’t speak up. They fear the stigma attached to fight a legal battle against the man who has harassed her.”

Most of the women and young girls say that they prefer to silently run away from such situations over raising an alarm or protest.

“Usually they don’t react because once you raise your voice you are misunderstood and are blamed for that offence,” says Khushnam a second year student.

A women’s rights lawyer Lubna Durani says there are other factors that force women to remain silent in such situations. “Scarcity of jobs is pushing women not to speak on these issues. The job security enjoyed at public sector is not same in private sector.”
However, she feels that the solution does not lie in silence or covering up the issue. “At times we are not protecting ourselves but these perverts. If we don’t take proper action, chances are that harasser might think that either you are not averse to the happening rather you are enjoying it or he feels you are scared of saying no. He will be bolder. If he can get away with the remarks (comments) today there is no stopping him from using his hands tomorrow”

Social activist Nighat Shafi Pandit says, “There can be no compromise with such violations. The sexual harassment of a female at the place of work is incompatible with the honour of a female and needs to be addressed, but at the same time it should not be highlighted publicly. Such cases should be handled with extensive care to maintain the dignity of a woman.”

The Supreme Court makes employers responsible for taking action against a harasser. It has issued certain guidelines that broadly defined sexual harassment at the work place and made it mandatory for any corporation to have committees against sexual harassment. “But in Kashmir valley such guidelines have no practical purpose,” says Dr Khubaan of Srinagar, who two years back was sexually harassed by her dean in SKIMS.

She filed a written complaint before the Director SKIMS. Dr Khubaan says, “First there was silence (after she lodged the complaint) but when I pursued it there was complete denial.”

The authorities, she says, accused her of lying. “They were very sore at me and said I had besmirched the department’s name. They even tried to force me to change my statement. But when I told my husband and parents they supported me. I even lodged a report in police station Soura but nothing happened, the case was referred to Court where it is still pending,” informs Khubaan.

Khubaan says she is surprised as in the last two years the court has held few hearings into the case.

“I tried to convince court but yet I didn’t get justice. I am sure I won’t get it (justice) in my life time,” she rues.

Another girl, Sehreen, lodged a complaint in Sher Ghadi Police Station some months ago. She says she was harassed while walking on road. The police referred the case to the court but the harasser never appeared before the court and the case was disposed off within a month.

According to officials in the Lower Court there are more than five hundred cases of sexual abuse and other such cases in court which are pending for last five years.
The delay in justice often force victims to turn hostile or make them to compromise with their offender, say lawyers. “When the victim finds that perpetrators are not brought to justice it demoralises them. They either withdraw their petition or avoid appearing in the court and finally the case gets disposed off without punishing the culprits.”

Victims want things settled in a less complicated way, says advocate Tufail Ahmad. “But unfortunately there is not a powerful Women’s cell or commission in valley that can nib this problem in the bud.”

In many cities of India women cells treat these complaints as confidential and within a month’s time they set investigations, report findings and recommend action against the offenders.

Although there is a state women’s commission and a women police station many victims say these are unable to make women safer.

The names of victims have been changed to protect their identity.

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