Most forms of sexual harassment are difficult to define, let alone prove.
Ask any group of college-going women today to list what they consider sexual harassment and they are likely to come up with a list like the one below:
Whistling or hissing, inviting by winking, soliciting or beckoning, writing songs with suggestive words or tunes, using amorous words, grasping and squeezing the wrist, caressing, placing a foot on the toes, touching the breasts, embracing and clinging, knocking down or forcing to lie down, assaulting while lying down, etc.
The list would include not only actions that can invite criminal charges under India’s current laws but also the many invisible forms of harassment that women face every day — be it at their workplaces or elsewhere — and which make them feel violated.
But here is the surprise. I did not compile this list by talking to students. I stumbled upon it while researching India’s matrilineal Garos for my book, A Field of One’s Own. It was prepared in the early 1950s by a missionary, who wrote down the ancient oral code of “moral laws” followed for generations by the Garos of Meghalaya. The actions described were punishable if reported to the village chief.
The list (or rather code) is compelling for many reasons. To begin with, it is amazing that such a nuanced understanding of what can cause women “shame and embarrassment” existed in an agricultural community so long ago. But equally, the code reminds us that rural women — working in the fields, grazing cattle, selling wares, producing at home — are among the worst sufferers of sexual harassment. The code details many forms of harassment that could take place in any space, not just a defined workplace.
Many of these elements are missing in the two major Indian laws that seek to legally protect women against harassment and assault today: the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, and the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013.
The most important lacuna lies in the way a workplace is conceptualised. The law is framed largely keeping in mind formal workspaces — offices, factories, other institutions and enterprises — where complaints can be referred to committees set up under the Vishaka guidelines. But a majority of women don’t work in institutions or enterprises, or in cities. They work in the informal sector — in the fields, on the roads, or as self-employed producers or vendors. Their workspaces are everywhere, and there are no watchdogs to prevent the continued…