Just a few days ago, while standing inside a packed elevator in the building of a renowned telecom company, a thought crossed my mind. For a moment, I wondered: what if I could hold a placard in my hand, asking all men to stand at a distance from me? The thought came to me when two middle-aged men, one standing beside me and the other in the front, were intentionally coming closer towards me, while I was trying to squeeze myself into a ball in a corner. At one point, when I snapped at them and said that there was no more space and they were coming too close to me, both men seemed jolted by my sudden outburst and quickly moved away. This is not the first time that I have been subjected to harassment, nor am I the only woman to have faced this. But today, I am the voice of those hundreds and thousands of women who have been subjected to such abuse: silently, discreetly, but very aggressively.
A couple of days after that incident, one afternoon, our househelp was buying groceries from a shop in front of our house when the same happened to her. Two young boys were practically trying to grope her, when the shopkeeper shooed them away. She ran away from there and came home to report the incident to my mother—shivering and in tears, begging that we don't send her for grocery shopping again.
That same day, I saw a picture floating on Facebook of two women standing inside a bus, wearing t-shirts scrawled with the words (in Bangla): “Ga gheshe daraben na”. Instantly, I felt that this was exactly the social movement we need right now. The photo went viral on social media, and, as expected, social media users trolled not only the movement but also the women in the pictures, coming down on them with extremely sexist and nasty remarks. What was so offensive was that some educated men were seen mocking the campaign, whereas one would have expected them to stand by this much-needed revolution.
Last year, a study initiated by Brac Road Safety Programme with support from Brac Gender Justice and Diversity Programme found that 94 percent of women using public transportation experienced sexual harassment at some point of time. Such harassment takes place more often on public transportation than on the streets. But, it is worth noting that this kind of harassment occurs everywhere: in elevators, escalators, sidewalks, footbridges, and super shops as well.
Some five years ago, when I started my career as a junior associate at a law firm, I was a regular bus passenger. Sometimes the journey would feel like hell, sandwiched between men in a so-called “sitting service” bus, and on other days, I would silently curse the helper for his “ways” of getting me off the bus. Some days they would even turn around and laugh at a female passenger or make indecent gestures as they drove away. I am still afraid of being sexually harassed when I walk all the way to office instead of taking the bus. Because I am still not safe. Every time during a VIP movement, when roads come to a standstill, pedestrians wait to cross, and police remain busy trying to maintain order, there is always someone in the crowd who looks for ways to harass a girl or someone with his elbow sticking out so that they can brush it against a woman walking by.
So, what is so “wrong” with this campaign? The picture, which was taken inside a bus, was just an idea to spread a message: women do not want to be touched without their consent. Why is this so difficult for some men to understand and acknowledge? The scenario can be looked at from two different perspectives. Firstly, it should be noted that ordinary “jostling” cannot be brought under the purview of law, and is not an offence. In crowded places like malls, elevators, and even public transport, accidental physical contact may happen because there is not enough room for so many people. On the streets, a traffic rule in this regard can come into play and strict monitoring is required to ensure that not too many people are allowed to board a bus. If that cannot be ensured, then the government should focus on and invest in women-only commuting services.
On the other hand, if the contact is not bona fide, it may be an offence. In other common law jurisdictions, for example in the UK, minimal unlawful touch may suffice to constitute a criminal offence and is punishable by a court of law (Section 39 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988). Contrarily in Bangladesh, this unwanted contact will not be entertained by lawmen unless it falls under Section 319 of the Penal Code, which states that bodily pain, disease or infirmity to any person is required for the act to constitute as an offence. However, according to Section 354 of the Penal Code, any act to “outrage a woman's modesty” is a criminal offence. But the subject in question is not likely to fall within the definition and ambit of the section. Moreover, as per Section 509 of the Code, it is an offence to make words, gestures or sounds to “insult the modesty of a woman.” However, similar to Section 354, this section also does not fall within the purview of the situation in question.
So, can unwanted contact by men on public transport be termed as sexual harassment? That is where the debate stems from. Sexual harassment has been defined in many jurisdictions as unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature which violates a woman's dignity, makes her feel intimidated, degraded or humiliated and creates a hostile or offensive environment. However, there is no explicit definition of sexual harassment in Bangladesh's laws. It should be noted that Dhaka Metropolitan Police Ordinance 1976 addresses some things about women being “teased”. Furthermore, Labour Act 2006 (amended in 2013 and 2018) covers misconduct, and sexual harassment can be covered under it.
In the absence of a clear guideline or the criminalisation of such acts as sexual harassment, I strongly believe that the t-shirt campaign, now a subject of intense debate, is a timely move and a big step towards an imminent social revolution. In today's Bangladesh, women are playing a crucial role in every aspect of society. More and more women are stepping outside into the real world for all sorts of reasons. So, it is imperative that their right to safe mobility be ensured. The authorities must take action to address the everyday difficulties women and girls face in public transport which is not women-friendly at all.
The problem is not what clothes we wear; rather it's the mindset of some men which prevents them from thinking rationally. It's about time we started a revolution to educate our boys at school and men at workplaces. It is a man's duty to respect the dignity of not just their mothers, wives, sisters and daughters, but also their colleagues, classmates, and the woman standing next to them in crowded buses and tiny elevators.
Sumaiya Zaman is a journalist at The Daily Star.