It happened within seconds, seconds which are now etched in my memory like a slow-motion clip. He stood behind me, as I bent down to pick up my phone which had slipped from my hand.
Every atom of my body wailed in protest, as I felt the hand on my rear end. It was there, and then it was gone. I straightened up immediately, quickly swiveling around to face him, only to lose my balance.
As I felt myself falling, I reached out to the flight attendant standing nearby, digging my fingernails into her hand. Lifting myself up with my other hand, trembling, I indignantly whimpered, “he touched me!”
Another passenger quipped that he had witnessed the incident. The attendant tried to go against my grimy perpetrator, who had been inebriated from the start of the flight. But he denied any such action on his part. A few minutes later, attendant had walked me away, given me a cup of water, and relocated my seat.
No big deal, right? It was just a second. Or maybe two. He had felt me. And I, him. But, for the next eight hours, as our flight cruised at thousands of feet up in the air, I sat hugging myself, the lump in my throat refusing to dissipate, as I played those few seconds in my head over and over again.
What right did he, a stranger, have to touch my body without my consent? I consider myself to be a strong, independent woman. Yet, the incident had left me reeling in horror, wishing to rewind.
So that I would not have been in that situation. So that he would not have had the opportunity to touch me. So that I would not be feeling as dirty as I was feeling.
Back in the safety of my home after I had landed, when I was finally alone with my mom, I burst out in tears describing a seemingly innocuous incident.
The trauma that follows
Sexual harassment, ranging from staring and eve-teasing to groping, flashing, and assault, is a daily reality for many women across the world, from all walks of life. These violations can happen at home, at work, at school, on the streets or, as in my case, on board a flight.
The perpetrators can range from complete strangers, to close ones and family members. There is no doubt that such violations are unacceptable in and of themselves, as frequent discussions on the media and public forums point out.
However, the consequent emotional and psychological trauma that a victim faces, both immediately after and in the long run, must be emphasised in conversations surrounding harassment.
The body of research investigating the aftermath of sexual harassment indicates that a victim may experience one or more of the following symptoms, depending on the particular individual and the nature of the encounter: Anxiety, frustration, depression, sleeplessness and/or nightmares, difficulty concentrating, headaches, fatigue, shame, guilt, powerlessness, helplessness, anger towards the harasser, loss of confidence and self-esteem, withdrawal and isolation, and suicidal thoughts or attempts.
Harassment is too often perceived as an unavoidable fact of life, and subsequently, its prevalence and impact are conveniently stowed away
A University of Connecticut study found that people who experience street harassment are prone to greater body shame and pre-occupation with physical appearance, as well as heightened fear of rape. Feeling unsafe, disgusted, and objectified are also common reactions to harassment.
The effects of sexual harassment on a victim are not limited to emotional or psychological domains only, but may include behavioural changes. A book by Holly Kearl, who is an expert on gender-based violence, describes the effects of street harassment as ranging from women reducing their time in public places alone, being perpetually alert, and even changing jobs and moving homes out of safety concerns.
One American study found that, as many as 10% of women quit their jobs in order to avoid a harassment-heavy commute.
Moreover, in the context of neighbouring India, research by the Gender Study Group found that 45% of women felt that their personal or academic development was hindered due to sexual harassment faced on campus.
They chose to avoid using library facilities as well as keeping away from particular institutions and courses in which they felt unsafe. Sexual harassment has also been associated with limiting social interactions, absenteeism from school and work, and general decline in women’s freedom and mobility.
Why the silence?
Harassment is too often perceived as an unavoidable fact of life, and subsequently, its prevalence and impact are conveniently stowed away. In fact, many women who experience harassment believe that no one will think anything of significance has happened to them, choosing to move on silently.
On the other hand, perpetrators may view various forms of harassment as harmless, and perhaps even complimentary (much thanks to Bollywood pop culture of the 90s where stalking, verbal leering, and pulling off women’s dupattas all constituted romance).
The silence, or lack of adequate noise, surrounding sexual harassment fosters a prevailing cultural environment in which gender-based violence and discrimination are acceptable.
There are many reasons why these crimes go unreported and perpetrators unpunished, including social stigma, shame, fear of retaliation, fear of victim-blaming, insensitivity of law enforcers, ineffective legal procedures, implications to career or academic pursuits, etc.
In my case, during the eight hours in which I was obliged to remain seated a few metres away from my perpetrator, the only action I could take was to fill out an Unruly Passenger Report, which I did. Traveling alone, in the midst of many (single, male) overly curious fellow passengers, I was also averse to “creating a scene.” I had already had to shut off questions from a couple of on-lookers and was trying hard to avoid their stares.
Once I landed, Bangladesh airport police staff (who I had requested the airline crew to alert) escorted my perpetrator and myself off the plane. Although I had every intention to see that he was punished, I could not wait around for the magistrate to show up and deal with the case, which could take up to an hour or more, as my family waited outside.
I also had no desire to face my perpetrator again or have to recount the story of being inappropriately touched to several different (male) officers. Ultimately, he received a warning and went free.
Will the warning keep him from believing that he has rights to another woman’s body in the future?
The concluding part of this long form will be published tomorrow.
S Hasan is a freelance contributor.