The collective action of reporting sexual harassment at the Sanskrit Centre has received much support from all sections of the campus community. This example forces us to rethink our notions of sexual harassment. The spate of freshers’ parties and the humiliation that new students have been subject to forces upon us the recognition that the predominant culture in our campus in very much a patriarchal culture (that is no doubt also casteist). This culture actively discourages women from participating in the social and political life and restricts our access to space (literally and metaphorically).
What , after all, is sexual harassment? A culture of patriarchy manifests itself in various ways. Some of them are so obvious and physical (like rape, molestation, battery) that they shock us, and few can deny them, or deny the need to act against them. Some, on the other hand, are less obvious: stares, comments…the ‘small’ things, the ‘non-issues’. At a freshers’ party, no-one usually touches a woman (or man) without their consent; why then has a debate about sexual harassment started?? We have to understand that there are ways of harassing women without touching them. When a woman’s body is compared with an object (or worse, a popular sweetmeat), or when an exhibit is made out of her body, or item numbers are played as the women students walk up to the stage…it makes that woman (and other women) an object to be consumed by the male gaze. Is that not harassment? And what of the streets, buses, dhabas, classrooms and protest sites in JNU? What of the passing comments, the 'harmless' jokes, the unwelcome handshakes, the disgusting stares that others do not even see? ALL of these things constitute the patriarchal culture that intimidates and silences women. Imagine, being a new (or even old) student coming to a protest or stepping out for a chai or reading in the library: and having men stare at, comment on or follow you…how comfortable would you be? Protesting, having chai or even studying? Let us ask ourselves, why should women constantly have to modify their behaviour out of fear and discomfort?
How do we react? Unfortunately the automatic response to any questions regarding the gendered nature of our notions of 'fun' and 'entertainment' is a defensive "no we are not patriarchal!". It is difficult for us to accept that we may be complicit in sexual harassment - it is something that 'other people' do. Harassment is often so hidden and to make matters worse, attempts to deny and cover it up are never rare. Questioning ourselves so difficult; and yet, question we must. Individual questioning, however, is not an end in itself. The only way to dismantle the cultures of patriarchy is to struggle against the structures that generate them. Sensitizing men is important, but things will change only when we, as women, refuse to sit down or shut up.
In an earlier pamphlet we pointed out that events that had transpired at the CESP freshers’ party were of a sexually objectifying nature. In ‘response’ to that, instead of being self-critical or trying to have an open discussion about why other people found it problematic, some students of CESP put up an open letter summarily declaring that there “was no sexual harassment”. Following this, a pamphlet by concerned students was published giving details of the events at the CESP party and provided the first public account of what had actually happened. Unfortunately, this pamphlet was removed from most mess halls before it could reach students. These undemocratic acts only reinforce the silence surrounding sexual violation. Another open letter signed by CESP students has regretted the incidents. While we feel this is a positive gesture, the description of the ’incidents’ as ’unintentional’ is deeply problematic and denies the gravity of the harassment that women students faced.