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Sexual harassment: Tightrope walk to justice

The belief that sexual harassment is a case of `misinterpreted signals' is very strong. Often, the first thing a victim is asked is how long she has known the perpetrator, and why she took so long to come forward with the complaint. Her irresolution is used, or misused, to disbelieve her, and to doubt whether the incident happened, says RADHIKA CHOPRA, highlighting the key issue of response.

SOON after an incident of alleged rape on the campus of Delhi University in the last week of July came another incident of molestation and sexual harassment. On August 4, a police constable sexually harassed a student. In the latter case, we know a few things. First, the student was harassed near the gates of a university campus hostel. Second, we know who the perpetrator was. Most significantly, the student went across to a police patrol car in the vicinity to report the incident. But the police refused to register her complaint.

Undeterred, she went to the station house officer at the university police station, and insisted on filing a formal complaint. She also demanded that her complaint be registered — as a First Information Report (FIR).

The two incidents are linked in terms of timing, and the way the established facts of the second case allow us to decipher elements of the first. From the tenor of the newspaper reports, in the incident of harassment, it appears that the student provided the information herself. Now consider the reports about the rape. A close reading of newspaper reports makes it seem that the only source of information available is the police. But there are people in Delhi University who know that the victim was raped earlier, and that this was a second rape. However, the newspapers (or the police) tell us that the earlier rape in April was not reported, and there is no FIR or complaint.

This "non-reporting" of the first rape is being interpreted in a variety of ways. The most appalling one casts doubts on whether the second rape happened at all. This rests on the principal "fact" that the girl did not file a complaint the first time. A second is that the police may well have refused to believe her. And she, in her traumatised state, did not go all the way up the procrastinating hierarchy within the hostile space of the police station and insist on her complaint being recorded. The likelihood of this scenario is given credence by the dismissive behaviour of the police in connection with the second case.

At this point, we cannot be certain how and when the first case happened. The victim is reluctant to make herself the object of public enquiry. Her right to do this must be unconditionally respected. But an issue that must be tackled — with or without her account — is whether molestation remains "unreported" in this, or in any other case. First, we need to understand that abuse is not followed by complete silence from the victim. This is a myth. Those who have sat on committees to examine reported and registered complaints of harassment or molestation know and understand that the victim does, in fact, break the silence almost immediately.

What is the nature of the "information"? First, it is unlikely to be a complaint. It is also highly unlikely that the victim will rush off to make a formal complaint and go through all the processes entailed in the formal record of rape or sexual harassment. In some senses, the student who insisted on filing a complaint within minutes of being harassed by the constable is an exception, not the rule. A formal complaint is usually a "climatic" event and is preceded by the victim sharing the information with friends, or relatives. And then, perhaps, with colleagues or those in positions of some formal (though not necessarily legal) authority.

Only then is the complainant finally registered as a formal case in available forums — employers, heads of institutions, the police, and so on. However, most people treat this as the "first complaint". This interpretation is a mistake because it takes no cognisance of the earlier attempts to make the abuse known.

In almost every case of sexual harassment, there is a history to the abuse that needs to be uncovered. This is essential because neither the abuse nor the "complaint" is a one-off event. Abuse and "complaint" — by way of sharing experience or trauma with friends — are a continuous pattern of behaviour that happen over a period of time.

The reason the victim does not share her trauma immediately (sometimes not even with close friends) is because she also participates in the common perception of abusive behaviour — he misread the signals; or he will stop when he realises "no means no"; and so on. She will possibly adopt a series of soft stances that will, in all likelihood, go against her.

The belief that abuse is a case of misinterpreted signals is very strong. Often the first thing a victim is asked is how long she has known the perpetrator, and why she took so long to come forward with the complaint. Her irresolution is used or misused to disbelieve her, and to cast doubts on whether the incident happened.

Understanding the nature of complaints has come through a process of engagement with issues that swamp sexual harassment. The Delhi University Forum Against Sexual Harassment (FASH) is one group that has addressed these questions.

At the most practical level, FASH has been struggling to get the University to institute a policy against sexual harassment in consonance with the 1997 Supreme Court guidelines. Members of FASH have sat on committees, both within and outside the University, which have examined cases of harassment.

FASH has also been battling an insidious war with the attitude that sees formal — and hence actionable — complaints as a "weapon" in the hands of women who, in all irresponsibility, will misuse it. I know of no case of sexual harassment or rape, on which the first public response hasn't been a curled lip of disbelief.

Unfortunately for women, there are not many groups like FASH. Also there are not many people who think that the ability to walk to work safely is as critical and substantitive a right as the right to vote. Walking safe on a public street may seem a small freedom, but as the two cases demonstrate, it has enormous consequences for women.

Women's Features Service

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