Pain: A heart-wrenching analysis of sexual harassment at IIT Delhi
"...I was not sure if I was harassed."
"...at first, I thought he touched me by mistake."
"...harassment might be too lewd a word for those photos."
"...as nothing physical happened, I am not sure if it comes under the category of sexual harassment."
For several people, these words may feel unfortunately familiar. They are generally accompanied by a feeling of discomfort and even confusion, as the person going through such an experience may not even understand what’s happening until they look back on the incident or tell someone about it and realise that what they went through was not normal and in fact, far from acceptable.
As described by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and adopted by the U.N., "Sexual harassment is an unwelcome and uncalled for behavior, sexual in nature." It not just includes the act of making sexual advances but also ranges to wrongly normalized acts like eve-teasing, cyberstalking, and the exchange of explicit messages and/or images. Every act that explicitly or implicitly targets any specific gender and poses a danger to their sexual well-being can be considered an act of sexual harassment. All genders are equally at risk of facing sexual harassment and it is not a crime limited just to the female section of the society.
IIT Delhi, though one of the premier institutes in India and worldwide, isn't free from sexual harassment cases. In recent times, there has been an increase in the cases of sexual harassment, be it physical, verbal, or cyber, on campus and at the hands of people affiliated with IIT Delhi. Such cases are discussed within the closed walls of hostel rooms but seldom reach the authorities. Though the institute has set up bodies like IGES and GIC where cases of sexual harassment can be reported, there is an agonizingly massive disparity between the number of cases reported and the number of cases that actually persist at the campus.
To better understand the deep-rooted problem of sexual harassment against women, in particular, BSP reached out to the residents of girls hostel at IIT Delhi to gather experiences. Of the 70 residents we reached out to, 42 have experienced sexual harassment at least once in their lives. 25 experienced harassment on the campus and at due to someone in IIT Delhi, be it a professor, teaching assistant, senior, or a fellow batchmate. 30 of them faced web-based sexual harassment. With the augment of social media, the world wide web has become the new-age platform for harassing and attacking young adults' sexual and, more importantly, mental well-being. Another disturbing yet eye-widening fact is that out of these 42 victims, just 3 of them reported to the authorities. Others reached out to their families and friends but didn't officially report the crime. 16 respondents didn't tell anyone and are still suffering alone, in silence. These experiences are more disturbing than saddening. They raise questions not only on the awareness about sexual harassment but also the institute policy regarding the same. This article aims to help our readers better understand the acts of sexual harassment and the help provided to the sufferers by the institute, in particular.
Acts of Sexual Harassment
For many people, the use of the term sexual harassment paints a slightly extreme picture. Therefore, it is unfortunately commonplace for people to dismiss some acts that fall well within its definition as too ‘minor’ or ‘not really harassment’. As pointed out by IGES in their Prevention of Gender Discrimination and Sexual Harassment (POSH) document, the lack of certainty of the victims regarding what is harassment and what is not is one of the reasons such cases aren’t reported.
Today, sexual harassment frequently takes on more subtle forms. It includes but is not limited to getting provocative late-night messages or photographs, unwanted sexually-charged comments, or invites to meetings with shady intentions. Sexual harassment is just as likely to occur outside of the workplace these days, via emails, social media, or other means.
Physical Sexual Harassment:-
"...because of the crowd, I wasn't able to tell if being touched by someone was just by mistake at first. His hands grabbed my waist, and my mouth was blocked. While navigating through the crowd to get away from the molester, I was grabbed four more times by different individuals."
"...one of my family relatives tried to physically abuse my cousin. But like always, all people tried to calm her down and asked her if there might be some kind of misunderstanding."
Physical Sexual Harassment lies on the more recognisable end of the spectrum. It is not just the act of touching someone inappropriately without consent but involves any kind of forceful or sexually inappropriate behavior targeted towards an individual. We encountered several instances of varying types of the act when we reached out to people.
Physical sexual harassment may manifest itself as instances of uncalled and inappropriate touching (‘One of my lab partners was standing behind me and was touching me inappropriately from behind’). It also includes stalking and following an individual without consent (‘...here was an instance of a guy continuously stalking me everywhere I went and he even reached my home.’), forcefully showing pornography, or flashing among many others.
Cyber Sexual Harassment:-
"...Someone from my official HUL group sent me nude pics without my consent."
"...a senior from IITD contacted me on Messenger after seeing me at a party. He continually kept commenting on my looks and figure and asked me to meet, even after me explicitly saying that I'm not interested. I had to block him eventually."
Harassment can be non-physical as well. Period!
A grave misconception prevailing across minds is that something physical should occur for the act to be called harassment. This is indeed not the case. Cyber Harassment and Verbal Harassment are as much a crime as physical sexual harassment is, and with social media and its exponentially increasing growth, Cyber Sexual Harassment is the new age demon.
It is not just limited to social media sites like Instagram but is also quite prevalent on messengers like WhatsApp, informative social media like LinkedIn, and shockingly on mailing apps like Gmail.
Unlike some misconceptions people have, receiving lewd messages is not out of the domain of sexual harassment. This category also includes circulating inappropriate morphed photographs, sending unsolicited photographs to an individual without consent ("...shameless guy sent me some inappropriate unsolicited pictures to which even LinkedIn warned me before opening"), sending unasked pornographic stickers, GIFs, images, or videos ("... 2-3 people entered the official Himadri group and sent various porn stickers and wrote vulgar and unacceptable messages"), cyberstalking etc.
Verbal Sexual Harassment:-
"Someone made a porn joke about me and also said that he'd like to record me being fucked by all of my male friends."
"...an auto vala was making suggestive looks while he drove in the inner circle of Connaught Place."
In several circles, lewd comments, inappropriate jokes, and sexist remarks in the purview of humour are extremely normalised. Verbal Sexual Harassment might be the most common yet the most ignored form of sexual harassment, as many people feel it is ‘not enough’ to be counted. However, the dismissal does not help attenuate the trauma. The fact that the seriousness of this offence is diluted many folds by the victim themselves speaks volumes of the unawareness around verbal sexual harassment.
Seemingly harmless actions like cracking sexually obscene jokes specifically targeted to make someone uncomfortable, making sexually suggestive gestures, to asking for sexual favours in return for preferential treatment come under verbal sexual harassment and should be reported. It is also important for people making such comments and dismissing them as ‘harmless banter' to understand the discomfort and trauma they may be putting the other person through.
Help available to you
"...I didn't report to the authorities because I wasn't sure what the response would be, and I didn't really want to face it."
"...felt that if I do register a complaint the burden of proof would lie on me, and it would also mean reliving that incident every day which I don't have the mental capacity for"
"...I tried reporting it to authorities but no action was taken"
Not only are the episodes painful and traumatising, these seemingly 'insignificant' offences may serve as a doorway to gendered physical abuse later on. We may be able to avoid something even worse from happening in the future if we can disrupt this behaviour with the force of authority early on. The POSH document lists out distrust/apathy regarding the system or its mechanisms, protracted committee processes with uncertain outcome, fear of retaliation and bystanders’ apathy as the common reasons why sexual harassment cases are not reported.
Complaint Filling and further process at IGES and I.C.C.
The initiative for Gender Equity and Sensitisation (IGES) and Internal Complaint Committee (ICC) was set up by the institute to prevent sexual harassment at campus and help the sufferers. Referring to the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2013, the institute devised the Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal of cases of Sexual Harassment of women at the Workplace policy to minimize such acts and spread awareness amongst the community. The question to ponder upon is, to what extent is the policy followed by the institute? For instance, according to the said policy cum guidelines, regular workshops and sensitization programs are to be organized to increase awareness. However, no such prominent sessions have been conducted with the student community in the past few years.
Besides the preventive measures, the policy states the procedure to lodge a complaint at I.C.C. The entire process of filing the complaint is considerate in nature and takes into account the victim's mental well-being while also giving a fair chance to the accused to prove their innocence. The complaint registration with I.C.C. could be done through mail or in-person via the sufferer or their legal heir. However, only a three-month window is provided for the same. The internal committee is required to hold an unbiased inquiry, and if the complaint is found legitimate, the committee will give the complainant a choice on whether they wish to solve the matter internally or through an official F.I.R. In case F.I.R. is preferred, the committee is expected to provide proper guidance, advice, and encouragement regarding the process.
To understand the entire procedure of lodging a complaint and the help offered at IIT Delhi, follow the link- Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal of cases of Sexual Harassment of women at the Workplace
Immediate helpline numbers:-
IIT Delhi Security Control Office:- (011) 2659-1000/6101
NCW Helpline for Sexual Harassment:- 7827170170
Counseling Services on Women in Distress:- 3317004
Delhi Police Helpline Number:- 1091
Delhi Commission for Women:- (011) 23379181/23370597
Email Ids to lodge a complaint at IIT Delhi:-
Internal Complaints Committee, IIT Delhi:- email@example.com
IGES, IIT Delhi:- firstname.lastname@example.org