A few years ago, a male friend of mine slapped me, and tugged my clothes on a busy street in Dhaka over an argument. He was just an average guy my age and we studied at the same university. But being a man, he dared to physically abuse me in broad daylight in front of a crowd.
He had already taken away my mobile phone to make sure that I was unable to call my family. I felt numb with fear. My senses stopped working. I caught a glimpse of a group of security guards who were standing just a few feet away, watching the drama. None of them bothered to interrupt and say, “What the heck is going on here?”
Now every time I notice an adult man walking towards me, my mind goes into special alert mode. I start calculating his expressions, appearance, age, movement and speed of walking to determine what I should do if he comes too close to me. My brain has run this algorithm so many times that it takes only a fraction of a second to get the result and take action — sometimes I just cross the road, sometimes I start running. I know no-one is going to intervene to help me.
I’m not alone. In New Delhi,40 percentof women have been sexually harassed in a public place such as a bus or park in the past year. Almosttwo-thirdsof women in the UK say they were victims of unwanted sexual attention in public. The figure is even higher for women inIsrael. What’s worse is that there are often witnesses to the abuse but they are too stunned, too scared or too indifferent to intervene.
On 20 March 2016, a 19-year-old girl was brutallyraped and murderedin Comilla, a small city in Bangladesh. Ten days before that, a woman wasgang rapedon a bus in India and her 14-day-old baby boy was killed by the rapists in front of her 3-year-old daughter.
Around the world, many women wonder daily if they will be able to reach home safely. It seems that for women and girls, safety is not a right, it’s a privilege.
It’s telling that while many people like thevideoof Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying, “I am a feminist” on Facebook, they still turn their faces away when a man gropes a woman on the street. Be it strangers harassing a schoolgirl in a busy city or an abusive husband beating his wife in a remote village, more often than not, there are people nearby who choose to ignore instead of act. This collective silence indirectly offers the perpetrators impunity.
Sometimes people are not sure what to do when they do witness harassment or they worry about their own safety. I acknowledge that sometimes people who intervene get hurt, as recently happened inLos Angeles, or even killed, as happened inEgypt,Germany, andUSA.
But there are ways to reduce the risk. Thanks to the Internet,creative ideasthat motivate bystanders to speak up are just a click away.Distractions and indirect interventions, such as asking for directions, asking for the time, talking loudly on the phone or simply clearing one’s throat to make a noise, are easy ways to stand beside the victim. Women’s groups such asPolli Shomajin Bangladesh andGulabi Gangsin India have successfully shown that bystanders can make a real difference.
Every time a man looks at a woman in an obscene way and others nearby just turn away, he gets a simple message, “Enjoy. No one will stop you.” Encouraged, he may become bolder, and take things a step further. Leering may lead to whistling, whistling to groping, and groping to attempts to force a sexual encounter.
When an attack results in murder and becomes a media sensation, people watch the news feeling a sense of shock and pity for the victim. But they forget that the perpetrator didn’t become a rapist overnight. When he was a 10-year old boy and started whistling at the girls passing by, perhaps no one told him his behavior was inappropriate. Today, someone else paid the price.
I am not suggesting that we should stop talking about the victims of harassment. But we should also focus on those who witness the abuse. Women, men, victims, perpetrators, bystanders - we all are part of the conversation and we all have a role to play. However, discussion around this issue often solely focuses on women, leads to dos and don’ts for women, and pushes the burden of guilt towards women. If we are in a position to do something, but we don’t do it, the blood stains our hands too. So rather than pointing our fingers at women, please, can we instead ask ourselves this simple question? “Next time when I see someone being harassed, what will I do?”