Stalking is an extremely common form of sexual harassment in urban settings. It can range from being followed on the street to being bombarded by unwanted phone messages and emails. More often than not, this form of sexual harassment goes unnoticed, dismissed as being passive and harmless. Yet, such behaviour can manifest itself in ugly, even murderous, ways.
On March 8 – ironically, it was International Women’s Day – Delhi was shocked when a young student, Radhika Tanwar, was shot dead just outside her college on the South Campus of the Delhi University. The murder was perpetrated by a man who was obsessed with her and had been stalking her for many months.
|What makes a bad situation worse is the lack of public response to such behaviour. This “desensitisation” of society results in the burden of addressing the crime falling on the victim.
Most young women students in Delhi have their own experiences of being stalked, and a recent study, anchored by the Delhi-based resource centre, Jagori, as part of the Gender Inclusive Cities Project, estimated that stalking constituted about 15 per cent of all forms of harassment faced by women in the Capital.
Says Raksha (name changed), a student pursuing her Master’s degree in Political Science from Delhi University, “I don’t even remember the first time I was stalked by someone. It just feels like men have been stalking me forever. Perhaps it’s only over the last few years that I have started noticing my own discomfort about this.” Raksha’s statement reveals the unique nature of stalking.
Also there is a real fear that the stalker could react violently if confronted. Says Raksha, “It’s not as if I don’t retaliate when a guy in a bus stares pointedly at my private parts, but it is exhausting to keep doing it all the time. Sometimes you are also scared to retaliate because you don’t know whether the other person will back off or attempt to cause further harm. Sometimes it’s just more practical to ignore the stalker because, at the end of the day, you want to save yourself from getting physically hurt.”
What makes a bad situation worse is the lack of public response to such behaviour. This “desensitisation” of society results in the burden of addressing the crime falling on the victim. The situation then becomes a vicious circle, where the woman continues to ignore her discomfort at being stalked due to the fear of others not acknowledging her agony, or responding inadequately to it, which in turn encourages the stalker to continue his heinous behaviour.
The lack of public response is also an indication of uninformed attitudes and widespread public ignorance. For many young men, women exist solely for their sexual gratification and “chasing women” is presumed to be part of the male DNA. The idea of a woman’s consent is never factored into this assumption. A common argument is that women “ask for it” when they dress “provocatively”.
Sachin (name changed), a student at Delhi University’s South Campus, believes this is the case, “I am not saying that sexual harassment in any form is justified but sometimes people just ask for attention… and, yaar (friend), with guys it’s also an ego issue. Ladkiyan tardna to kool hota hai na (it is considered cool among guys to stare at women).”
Mahesh, a Masters degree student of Delhi University, presents another view. “I think that the mentality of men in Delhi is just flawed. They are made to believe that they can get away with almost anything. You can’t impose yourself on someone and hope to get away with it. Come on, I am a man and have sisters and a mother. I stand up for them in times when they need me, why can’t others see things this way?” he says.
Women students say they don’t want to be “protected”; they want to be respected as individuals. Reveals Akanksha (name changed), who is completing her third year as a Bachelors’ degree student at Delhi University, “Going by my experiences of being involved in the anti-sexual harassment cell at college, I noticed that when a few of us got together and confronted the stalker, he would back down. At times, even the police respond to your complaint when you manage to take a college teacher along or go to them in a huge group.”
Akanksha also believes that the existence of statutory bodies, such as anti-sexual harassment cells at the college level, help in providing students with a support base, especially in the case of students from outside Delhi, although it is also a fact that not many colleges have active anti-sexual harassment cells. She adds, “I have to say that it’s quite misleading to presume only women are stalked by men. In the process of running the cell, we came across cases of men being stalked by other men.”
In the attempt to make college campuses in Delhi safer for its inhabitants, a group of about 500 students across seven colleges marched on the streets of Delhi University’s North campus, two weeks after the Radhika Tanwar murder, shouting, “Bol ki bas ab aur nahi” (say that I will tolerate no more). This mobilisation was a part of an initiative taken by Jagori and the Delhi Police, aimed at sensitising different groups within the university to issues of sexual harassment.
The march was followed by the staging of a street play, ‘Dastak’, performed by the Asmita theatre group, which deals with violence against women on the streets. Through the play, an attempt was made to outline certain strategies of resistance which women could follow while being stalked. They included asserting oneself in front of the stalker by either confronting him directly or indirectly; informing friends and family; contacting helplines run by the police or civil society organisations, and approaching the police directly.
Says Prableen, who works with Jagori, “It’s very important to instill enough confidence in the victim so that she can acknowledge the harassment she experiences. It must also be made very clear that it’s not the women’s fault that she is being stalked or harassed. At the same time, we must collectively stand up against harassment of all kinds.”
Prableen believes that it is useful for civil society groups to work in collaboration with state organisations, such as the police, to ensure the accountability of the criminal justice system in ensuring women’s safety. “We have to work towards making redress mechanisms more accessible to women whilst simultaneously ensuring the accountability of these mechanisms,” she says. Jagori, in fact, has partnered the Delhi government to focus on issues like safety in public spaces and effective policing.
Among students, though, there is a high level of scepticism about the police. Many who had joined the recent protest spoke in one voice when they observed that the police are far too apathetic to the issue. “Is it too much to ask that the Delhi Police respond promptly to calls? Support women complainants and act swiftly and sternly against perpetrators of violence? Ensure that the complainant feels reassured when she comes to lodge her FIR, free from those who seek to pressurise her to withdraw her complaint?” they asked.
A lady police officer stationed at the gates of Delhi University’s Faculty of Arts believes she can make a difference. “I was transferred here recently and I hope that my presence as a woman ensures that other women feel more comfortable about reporting instances of stalking or any other form of harassment to me,” she says.
But the presence of a police officer here or there is unlikely to make much of a difference. What is most important in a city that witnesses the highest number of attacks on women in India is to build an environment of public safety in which everybody has a stake.
Is that too much to ask of Delhi’s eighteen million residents?
By arrangement with WFS