Everyday sexism

Let's call J&K minister fiddling with young doctor's collar what it is – sexual harassment

Lal Singh made personal remarks, he violated a woman’s personal space, he touched her person against her will.

This is a photograph of Jammu and Kashmir health minister Lal Singh “adjusting” the collar of a junior doctor in Lakhanpur. The doctor, the focus of everyone present’s attention, looks shell-shocked. Her colleague’s hand seems to be reaching for her own collar. The policemen in the picture, head tilted to one side has his gaze fixed on the young doctor. The civil servants seem to stare ahead as if the scene before them is entirely normal.

This picture should have been reason enough to sack Lal Singh, who in the recent past has publically humiliated another woman doctor for not wearing her white coat to a function at which he was presiding. It is clear he thinks its okay to comment on a woman’s appearance and touch her, should he have the urge.  But, the J&K government’s silence, as also the Bharatiya Janata Party’s, signal that they think he has done nothing out of order and there is no cause to sack him. The ministry’s officials – who are the young doctor’s bosses, also share this opinion.

This is what a senior officer present told the media: “The minister moved towards her and said ... 'Bitiya, your collar is not proper' and corrected it himself. The doctor said nothing. Another woman doctor, on seeing the minister admonishing the doctor, fixed her own collar.  There were lots of people. I do not think he acted inappropriately."

This defence appears to factor in current sexual harassment laws, which include not just actions of a sexual nature, but also words and comments of a sexual nature. Presumably, calling the doctor “bitiya” (daughter) and having several witnesses who can prove this, as well as the absence of any protest from the doctor herself, the officers feel, would make clear that the minister’s actions were not of a sexual nature.

The power equation

But that is neither here nor there. The minister’s conduct was not just inappropriate, it was wrong, any which way you look at it. He made personal remarks (that is what comments about people’s clothes, hair, size or skin colour are), he violated a woman’s personal space, touched her person against her will (intimidation and assault), and on top of that he was condescending to her, calling her “bitiya”. He did all this from a position of almost unassailable power. He is the minister in a system where checks and balances are only in name and she a young doctor in government service.

His actions and the defence proffered by the civil servants are old-style sexism plus. You put a woman down by humiliating her. Telling her she is not good enough. Lal Singh (and his supportive officers) undermined this young woman by ignoring who she is, what she does and why she was there. She is a doctor and she was in her own clinic. The minister, who is not a doctor, was there on an “inspection” of her clinic. What he did was to inspect her person and find it wanting. Worse, he showed her and all the world how little he respected her by fiddling with her person, so that she looked the way he wanted her to look. He did not call her doctor, a title she has earned and that identifies the service she does to society, but he called her “bitiya”, as if she were some little girl.

Crossing the line

People will ask why the doctor did not slap his hand down. Why did she not tell him he had crossed the line? The most likely answer is that she has learnt to keep her head down, borne the humiliation of everyday sexism and worse, rather than fighting it, just to survive. The reaction of the officials (who are her bosses) defines the world in which she and most women in India live and work and explains why it is so hard for them to raise their voices.

While the media and social networks are in a tizzy about the picture of Lal Singh holding the doctor’s collar “going viral”, none of them has called his crime by its name. This is perhaps because the majority of the media does not understand or acknowledge sexism. Hopefully, Telengana IAS officer Smita Sabharwal’s legal notice to Outlook magazine calling for a published apology for its sexist and defamatory characterisation of her will make at least some of the media understand the term. Sabharwal has said she wants Outlook to “to apologise to women across the country”. She is right. For while she was the object of Outlook’s sexism, the magazine’s characterisation of her was a reflection of how it sees all women.

In the same way, the humiliation of the young doctor in Lakhanpur, by Lal Singh and his silent civil servants, is our humiliation. We owe it to ourselves to speak out, now.

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