Sexual Harassment and the Desi Woman

The Tehelka sexual harassment scandal has brought to the forefront of my mind all the incidents of sexual harassment desi women have faced in their lives. The predatory colleague at work, the anonymous groper, the drunk uncle – which woman hasn’t faced these and other incursions on our bodies and our personhood?  One thing’s for certain: the pain never really dies. The humiliation never really leaves you. It’s burned on to your skin along with the stares, the words, the touches.

When you’re a desi woman and you are sexually harassed, at work, at school, or in the home, you struggle with a kind of guilt that I’m not sure is mirrored or matched in other parts of the world. That’s because there’s a type of misogyny that exists in our South Asian culture which other cultures do not have. It places all the burden of guilt and blame squarely on the woman’s shoulders because she dared to leave the safety of the house to go out and work in an office or go to school on her own whims.

You see, a “good” Pakistani or Indian woman doesn’t go out of the house to mix with strange men. She never needs to stay late at night at work because she doesn’t work. She never needs to fear the spectre of sexual harassment because her chador, her demeanour, her morals will protect her. A “good” desi woman will immolate herself in fire to show her faithfulness to her husband. She will fast for the health of her husband. A”good” desi woman devotes herself to her house and her children, because that’s her role in life. She doesn’t seek fulfilment and excitement outside the house, like a man does.

So if you were at work and your boss decides you are his personal plaything and forces himself on you while you are in his office, or in the elevator, on a work trip, it’s your fault. If you are at school and the teacher assaults you because he is powerful and you are weak and small, it’s your fault. If you are walking in a market and someone touches you because he can get away with it, it’s your fault. You should have been at home, not outside.

And if you were sexually harassed by your husband’s brother or father, or a cousin or your own uncle, then it’s your fault too, because you must have done something that drew his attention, that attracted him. Maybe you didn’t cover yourself properly. Maybe you talked too loudly, smiled too much. Maybe you were too “bold”. Maybe you wore makeup. Jeans. High heels. Maybe you still did everything right but he touched you anyway. It’s still your fault. Men are like that. Women have to endure.

I can’t imagine the hell the Tehelka journalist who blew the whistle on Tarun Tejpal must be going through right now. She must be wishing that she’d never said anything, that she’d kept quiet, because if she had, this would have all gone away and she’d be left alone to deal with her pain and her grief. She would have internalized it, found a way to blame herself for it. She might have hung on to her job and then quit a few months later, unable to face seeing Tejpal in the halls of the office. Now a mighty media icon has been shown to have genitals of clay and it’s all her fault.

Perhaps the Indian media will rally around her. Perhaps not. Tejpal is a powerful man and he has his allies, male and female. Powerful men always do. They will find ways to justify his actions. They will say that his recusing himself from work for six months while his ‘misjudgment’ ‘lacerates his soul’ is punishment enough. If the details of the case prove sexual assault instead of harassment, there will be an outcry, but it will not stop women from being harassed or assaulted anywhere in South Asia.

And the young woman will be forced to immolate herself in fire to prove that she is blameless. But women never are. They are at fault by very virtue of their existence. She was there and I could not help myself.

Cop-out. Fade to black.

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