Lessons from Being on a University Anti-Sexual Harassment Committee

Why is that committees against sexual harassment are not seen as a credible alternative to the behemoth of legal structures and the police?

The list of alleged sexual predators within academia (which is apparently still being expanded), followed by statements on Kafila by well-known Indian feminists, have unleashed a virtual tornado. Restating the raging debate would be both superfluous and impossible. There are excellent commentaries that point out problems with the hit-list approach, as well as with the Kafila statement.

This is actually a good time to step back and move the focus away from the list towards the real problem that it highlights: widespread sexual harassment on campuses. The unfortunate reality is that centres of higher learning are as prone to sexual harassment and the domination of a patriarchal, conservative, misogynist mindset as the rest of society is. Lest we think of this as a reflection of an “Indian” psyche, we should note that sexual harassment is not a hallmark of poorer countries or specific cultural or religious contexts (as the Harvey Weinstein case in the US indicates). It is omnipresent.

What are the contours of sexual harassment in educational institutions? How can we deal with it? How should we guard against discourses of moral turpitude and focus exclusively on harassment, without penalising consensual interactions between adult men and women, sexual or otherwise? What has been the experience of committees against sexual harassment (CASH)?

Following the Vishaka judgment in 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that employers had to constitute committees to deal with complaints against sexual harassment at the workplace. These guidelines were to be implemented till legislation was passed to deal with the issue. In 2013, the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act was passed. After this, the CASH structure was disbanded and succeeded by the constitution of an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC).

Incomplete compliance or false complaints?

The description “draconian” gets attached very easily to any measure or law that seeks to protect women, as it raises fears that women might misuse it to settle personal scores. In the case of sexual harassment too, the fear of false complaints dominates public discourse, instead of the real problem, which is the underlying pervasive, ubiquitous sexual harassment that transcends class, caste and educational categories. This is very similar to the perception of the 2013 modification of the anti-rape law that expanded the definition of what constitutes rape. People seem to be more worried about the misuse of the rape law and less agitated about the phenomenon of rape itself. This reaction is not unrelated to basic premise of sexual harassment or rape: it happens because women “ask for it” or start something consensual, only to change their minds either during or after the act.

Also read: My Story of Sexual Harassment Is My Own

However, it can be easily checked that the workplace sexual harassment Act contains penalties for false complaints. What we really need to verify is this: while these committees were mandatory, their actual operationalisation might have been less than desired. What was the experience of these committees and what can we learn from that experience? Admittedly this varied across institutions; I am sharing experiences from my own association with this process.

Experiences of sexual harassment committees

I was the chairperson of the CASH at the Delhi School of Economics for several years. While it is important to recognise that there are asymmetries of power that tilt the balance in favour of professors, which some might construe as a license to harass students (female and male), the fact is that sexual harassment is not a preserve of male professors. Similar to other CASH accounts, we too got complaints of harassment against teachers, administrative staff and fellow students.

The first challenge was an inadequate understanding of what constitutes harassment. The more direct or egregious cases (such as the ones doing the rounds currently) are relatively easier to identify; however, most often, despite the evidence being clear as daylight, it is disputed: “But what was she wearing?” “Why did she get in the lift with him?” “Was she drunk?” So imagine how much harder it is to define harassment when there is a whole ocean of men who are oblivious to the fact that their behaviour – in their view innocuous – might be causing distress to their colleagues or juniors.

Students on the lawns outside the Delhi School of Economics. Credit: DU website

Students on the lawns outside the Delhi School of Economics. Credit: DU website

There was a case of a student who complained that her professor (the only case I dealt with which was against a teacher) sent her regular text messages (these were pre-Whatsapp, Facebook or Twitter days) at 10:30-11 pm at night, and while he never propositioned her or touched her, she felt uncomfortable around him. She found his repeated texts objectionable and out of line. If she replied, he sent her more messages. If she didn’t, he would ask her the next day why she hadn’t replied. When I brought the complaint to the attention of the professor (who I knew personally), his first reaction was one of dismay. What’s wrong with a few harmless texts, he asked. It took several meetings to convince him that his intentions are not the point – if a woman finds the attention unwelcome for whatever reason, it is harassment.

Then there was the case of a male student who would sit in the library every day opposite a female student (who eventually complained) and stare at her incessantly. He too didn’t touch her or proposition her directly. When confronted, his reply was, “I love looking at beauty, and she is breathtakingly beautiful. I am not doing anything to her, then why is just looking at her a problem?” Again, another example of a simple but incredibly difficult to fathom idea that what might seem like a harmless mild gesture to a man could be very annoying and offensive to the woman. And if she feels harassed, it constitutes harassment.

Sensitisation: Are women asking for it?

As waves of freedom and change envelop universities, there is a counter-current of reaction and conservatism. Lowering of inhibitions in the interactions between men and women and changes in dress and habits, especially in urban India, are often seen as “proof” that women want it both ways. When they get what they want, they call it empowerment or liberation. When they don’t, they raise the bogey of sexual harassment. In other words, women who make choices about their (sexual) lives cannot be victims of sexual harassment, since they must have done something to provoke it.

Also read: To Promote Contemporary Feminist Politics, We Need Sexual Harassment Watchdog Bodies

A big challenge during my time in CASH was to initiate sensitisation measures that might challenge these ‘ways of seeing’. Sexual harassment is never justified – certainly not on the basis of what the woman was wearing, consuming or her location (such as out on the street at night or in someone else’s house). But trying to spread this awareness was among the hardest things I have had to do. It was challenging to get an audience for film shows or talks that explicitly tried to explain what constitutes harassment.

Did these committees have teeth?

Unfortunately, these did not. The rules and procedures of indictment under CASH were very similar to those under the ICC. Even a cursory look at these procedures should make it amply clear how difficult it would be to get any action initiated against sexual harassment. The checks and balances should also help allay fears of false indictments. Also, it was easy to bury the complaint under layers of bureaucracy, so that in the end CASH would lose its appeal as an accessible first port of call, as a credible alternative to the behemoth of legal structures and the police. Thus, in most cases, how effective CASH was boiled down to the individual initiative of its chairperson.

One definitely negative consequence of the move from CASH to ICC has been that a university the size of Delhi University now has one central ICC, replacing an earlier decentralised network of several CASHs that culminated in an Apex Committee at the top. This makes the ICC very distant from a possible complainant.

Going forward, we need to firmly acknowledge the ubiquity of sexual harassment on campuses, move away from a “name-and-shame” approach for reasons I have discussed elsewhere and demand a decentralised network of committees that are approachable, accessible, accountable and have teeth that are able to bite when necessary.

Ashwini Deshpande is a professor of economics at the University of Delhi.