Almost a decade ago, when I was in school, we had teachers who’d touch our backs and shoulders to make sure we were wearing petticoats or slips under our school uniform. One even went as far to put her hand up our skirts to check if we were wearing tights under it. At the time, none of us protested because, after all, they were authority figures, and we didn’t realize that what they were doing constituted as sexual harassment. “Respect your elders” is the age-old adage that is drilled into the mind of every Indian child right from the time when a child starts comprehending anything. That one motto often stands as a barrier whenever the actions of “elders” such as parents or teachers need to be questioned. It was only after many of my classmates and I recalled those incidents years later that we realized how bizarre and unacceptable they were.
Sadly, these incidents are fairly common experiences across India where sexual and emotional harassment has become a normalized part of schooling. While some institutions and educators were called out for their problematic behavior during the #MeToo movement, it has come to the fore once again after students and alumni of Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan School (PSBB) in Tamil Nadu accused a teacher of making sexual advances and sexually colored remarks at them.
Kripali, a model and alumna of the school, collated the experiences that current and past students of the school shared with her on Instagram about how the teacher touched students inappropriately, passed comments on their bodies, slut-shamed them and even shared links of pornography with his students. Others revealed that he also attended online classes wearing only a towel around his waist and had asked another student to join him for a movie. Many took to social media to share their anger around the allegations, but combing through the comments, you will not find much surprise or shock from women.
Just ask any woman or person from a marginalized gender when was the first time they faced sexual harassment in any form, chances are it would probably be before they even hit puberty.
Add to this, the frequency with which it happens and you’re left with a population that either represses these traumatic memories or has unresolved feelings around it.
A systemic issue that needs to be addressed
In a country where sexual harassment is a common occurrence, the onus is often placed on women of all ages to prevent it while perpetrators are routinely given a clean chit. Most schools have strictly enforced uniform and dress codes and harsh punishments are meted out to those who don’t follow through.
On the other hand, no such policing or punitive measures exist for people who are actually guilty of harassing young women. In the PSBB case, reports by the media state that many students had complained to the school authorities about the teacher’s behavior in the past but their pleas went unacknowledged.
Studies have shown that experiencing sexual harassment and abuse can lead to bouts of depression, anxiety and stress. When the perpetrator is a person in power, the skewed dynamic can also leave the survivors feeling helpless, affect their concentration and create a sense of dread in the environment where they encounter their abuser.
Thus, by failing to intervene even when a faculty member sexually harassed students, the school absolved itself of its responsibility to protect vulnerable adolescents. Such a lack of action on part of school authorities only emboldens others to engage in similar behavior. It was only after much media furor around this case that the teacher was arrested by Chennai police earlier today, an action that the school should’ve prompted as soon as the first complaint was filed.
Screenshots posted on social media around the incident revealed how many of the male students were not-so-innocent bystanders as they laughed along with the teacher indulging in inappropriate actions. Another statement by a few students from the batch of 2007 describes the teacher as “old-school, old-fashioned and affectionate” and goes on to say that “it is easy to misunderstand his intentions when the context is removed.” This comes as no surprise as Indian society has a long history of downplaying the seriousness of sexual violence and not believing victims even where there is ample proof on their side. Invalidating the experiences of numerous survivors as a misunderstanding is symptomatic of the larger issue that pervades our psyche that these “small misgivings” can be brushed under the carpet, overlooking the harm and trauma it may have caused people on the receiving end of it.
What institutions need to do
The responsibility of fixing glaring problems like these cannot fall on the shoulders of young people or survivors. Schools and other institutions where these challenges are rampant are obliged to amp up their efforts to better protect their students and include them as equal stakeholders in decision-making processes as far as possible.
The grievance redressal forum Internal Complaints Committees (ICC) need to have adequate student representation and look into complaints urgently, and act as safe spaces for students to have their issues addressed without having their identities revealed to the perpetrators. If we are to empower young people, it can only be done with knowledge. Sex education needs to be started at an early age to help children identify safe and unsafe actions and enable them to speak out even when elders are making them uncomfortable. Furthermore, they need to be aware of their rights and the recourses that are available to them in order to avail justice without fear or guilt.
(Edited by Sanhati Banerjee)