KATHMANDU: Do men feel the same level of discomfort and awkwardness when they are mistakenly or intentionally touched by a stranger in a public space, especially during a public commute, as women do?
Many people living in a metropolitan city may have at least one story to tell about having gone through such discomfort in a closed public space. While some of such stories fade away with time and are eventually forgotten, others remain ingrained in a person’s memory- sometimes resurfacing, voluntarily suppressed the next moment.
People, mostly women, face various levels of sexual harassment in public transportation which are rarely expressed and even if they are little or nothing is done about it. Incidents involving a person violating another’s personal space and freedom to travel with peace of mind has become more frequent than it should.
Many such incidents ‘pass’ without much noise or notice given that public transports are crowded and that with many unknown faces overfilling the cramped spaces. The discomfort and embarrassment, however, lingers on. The embarrassment which should have been felt by the perpetrator hits the wrong end. The withdrawal happens in a bid to avoid the attention of the crowd because we have for long been taught that even if we have been wronged, the shame is ours.
I was returning home from work one fine evening, standing by the bus window at the end space and the bus gradually became crowded. A while later, a girl quickly shifted towards me to stand by the window too. Behind her stood a man in a pale shirt. Only later did I realise that the man, who reeked of alcohol, had his eyes fixed on the girl and was advancing towards her.
I, with the girl, shifted away. However, that man who had every intention to sexually harass us shifted towards us. I told another passenger about what was going on. By then, the culprit had moved a bit further and shifted his gaze to another woman. The other guy that I sought help from asked this woman to stand in another corner and she shifted. All eyes were then on the harasser who then moved towards the bus door hesitantly.
Such perpetrators will act upon their needs, on their terms, without being at all concerned about anything else. And the victim in their hesitation will find themselves in a mental conflict about how to react. As a witnesses, what we can at least try to do is consider what the victim would expect of us, or how we, if the roles were reversed, would expect others around us to act.
This is just one representative case and there are countless such cases. Such jarring incidents which continue to occur frequently despite many debates and measures around the issue make us question- when a woman will start feeling safe?
The aforementioned incident wherein people showed support to the intended-target of abuse may be viewed as one with a positive outcome. However, women do not always receive such support.
A woman, who wishes to remain unnamed, also a mother of two, shared how she had once witnessed harassment inside public transportation as a man laid his hands on her friend. She said her companion acted aggressively in response and the man spoke back indecently while no other passenger bothered to speak out in her favour.
Another woman, a regular traveler by bus, shared a similar story. “These things happen especially while you’re standing in a crowded bus when men standing behind you try to push you from behind while you can perceive their intention without an inch of doubt.” She added, “You ache to speak out or push back but instead but end up doing nothing and wait for the congestion in the bus to loosen.”
Other common but not as widely discussed issue that women face while using public transport is manspreading.
Manspreading, a term which was initially coined by women on online forums expressing dissent over a peculiar habit exhibited by men, has now been formalised by Oxford Dictionary.
The dictionary defines Manspreading as the practice in which a man, especially on public transportation, takes a sitting position with his legs wide apart, in such a way as to encroach on an adjacent seat(s).
A man may not even realise the way he is seated or how it is bothering someone else. But a woman or any other passenger sitting next to a ‘manspreader’ will be discomforted by such clumsiness.
It is always best to speak out, react to inappropriate behavior- whether molestation or Manspreading- so that such behaviour doesn’t go unchecked.,
However that is easier said than done. A victim under such circumstances may find it difficult to react for various reasons, the most common reason being the fear of being misunderstood. In case a woman retaliates and demands some space, the other person take it on their ego.
During one such incident where a woman asked for some space when a man got too close, things escalated to an extent where an elderly man came in defense of the fellow male passenger and pulled a satire that men and women should travel by different buses altogether.
The viability of such a scenario is certainly questionable on the ground of possibility. But shouldn’t there be a better way to tackle the situation where respect for fellow travellers comes naturally without being asked for?
Because basic civic sense is not so common, responsible state mechanisms could perhaps formulate regulations to protect commuters from sexual harassment in public transportation.
A decade or so ago, women and girls would not have spoken out for their reserved seat(s) in public transportation. But now, especially after the campaign to enforce the provision of reserved seats on public vehicles stated by the Motor Vehicles and Transport Management Act, 2049 BS (1993 AD), the scenario has changed. It has to some extent safeguarded women and girls from the perpetrators of abuse.
There’s more that can be done. The solution lies inside the human mind and within human sensibility. The solution is multi-dimensional. Everyone has a role to play and a sentiment to understand. The main idea is to be open that it could happen to anyone and what we as individuals can do is speak out.