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.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Children's Day is not for children alone

It’s also a time for adults to revisit their childhood.

Most adults look at childhood wistfully, as a time when the biggest worry was a scraped knee, every adult was a source of chocolate and every fight lasted only till the next playtime. Since time immemorial, children seem to have nailed the art of being joyful, and adults can learn a thing or two about stress-free living from them. Now it’s that time of the year again when children are celebrated for...simply being children, and let it serve as a timely reminder for adults to board that imaginary time machine and revisit their childhood. If you’re unable to unbuckle yourself from your adult seat, here is some inspiration.

Start small, by doodling at the back page of your to-do diary as a throwback to that ancient school tradition. If you’re more confident, you could even start your own comic strip featuring people in your lives. You can caricaturise them or attribute them animal personalities for the sake of humour. Stuck in a boring meeting? Draw your boss with mouse ears or your coffee with radioactive powers. Just make sure you give your colleagues aliases.

Pull a prank, those not resulting in revenue losses of course. Prank calls, creeping up behind someone…pull them out from your memory and watch as everyone has a good laugh. Dress up a little quirky for work. It’s time you tried those colourful ties, or tastefully mismatched socks. Dress as your favourite cartoon characters someday – it’s as easy as choosing a ponytail-style, drawing a scar on your forehead or converting a bath towel into a cape. Even dinner can be full of childish fun. No, you don’t have to eat spinach if you don’t like it. Use the available cutlery and bust out your favourite tunes. Spoons and forks are good enough for any beat and for the rest, count on your voice to belt out any pitch. Better yet, stream the classic cartoons of your childhood instead of binge watching drama or news; they seem even funnier as an adult. If you prefer reading before bedtime, do a reread of your favourite childhood book(s). You’ll be surprised by their timeless wisdom.

A regular day has scope for childhood indulgences in every nook and cranny. While walking down a lane, challenge your friend to a non-stop game of hopscotch till the end of the tiled footpath. If you’re of a petite frame, insist on a ride in the trolley as you about picking items in the supermarket. Challenge your fellow gym goers and trainers to a hula hoop routine, and beat ‘em to it!

Children have an incredible ability to be completely immersed in the moment during play, and acting like one benefits adults too. Just count the moments of precious laughter you will have added to your day in the process. So, take time to indulge yourself and celebrate life with child-like abandon, as the video below shows.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of SBI Life and not by the Scroll editorial team.