sexual violence

Four reasons why even gender equality does not prevent sexual harassment

The problem is not an intellectual but a cultural one, argues the writer of a forthcoming book on being a woman in modern India.

It is now a self-evident truth that girls should be educated. It is also conventional wisdom that women have a right to good health, economic and political participation. These advances are vital. But India needs to learn from Sweden’s example that great progress in these areas does not by itself protect women from harassment, sexual molestation, or rape.

The myth of Swedish gender equality has broken. Year after year Sweden has ranked in the top five of 144 countries on the Gender Gap Index of the World Economic Forum. But it also has a serious sexual harassment problem about which women, men, civil society and government have been silent. There was cultural silence. Culture trumps every objective indicator of progress. Even while Sweden supported programmes to end violence against women in other countries.

The #MeToo movement has evoked a tsunami of responses in Sweden, involving thousands of women including high school girls writing their stories of harassment, abuse and rape, mostly anonymously. Women’s years of silence were governed by fear. Fear of not being believed. Fear of being ostracised. Fear of losing everything. Fear of being alone. And this is in a liberal democracy with among the highest numbers of women in parliament, 43%. But now, every industry in Sweden including the Swedish Academy that awards Nobel Prizes has been implicated. Clearly neither wealth nor whiteness nor modernity nor female leadership inoculates women from violations by men.

This is a wake up call not just for Sweden, but also for India and for every country in the world in which living a life of dignity for women is still a struggle. It is time to recognise that the core assumptions on which the women’s rights movement has been based so far are flawed and incomplete.

The four flaws

The first flawed assumption is our belief in the superiority of the intellect over culture, that we are rational creatures. But Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics for showing that human decision-making is anything but rational. We are cultural creatures, and habits settle into us early. Our educational institutions focus only on sharpening the intellect and completely ignore how culture regulates the way men and women behave towards each other.

Second, we wrongly assume that culture, which is man-made, is somehow sacrosanct and therefore cannot be touched. The reality is that culture is an accretion of behavior repeated over time. This is why we continue to have highly intelligent men abusing or casually harassing women, and being puzzled when women object, or when a 17-year-old Indian film actress objects to a male executive flying in business class allegedly touching her from behind and going up and down her back. In reaction, on Whatsapp groups, educated men have called her a “spoiled brat” and state that they will never sit next to a woman again.

But the majority of women in India still keep quiet, being good, even when they may be successful or wealthy. Women’s behaviour far more than men’s has been bound up with morality, being good. This is equally true in the USA and in Sweden, even though the specific forms of misbehaviour vary a little.

Our third flawed assumption is that the best way to measure and encourage change is by counting things that can be easily counted. We have established a variety of global indices and set up global goals to be achieved. The Global Gender Gap Index of the World Economic Forum uses the gap between men and women on four measures: economic participation, education, health and political leadership. The irony of the Swedish example is that across society women can be almost equal in each of these measures and still be beaten or sexually abused by men. And keep quiet. Because it has been an unspoken cultural expectation and acceptance. An entire culture decided to look away. Until women collectively blew the whistle.

A fourth flawed assumption is the implicit opposition to men held by the women’s movement, as seen in the Gender Gap Index which focuses on the gap between men and women rather than women achieving full participation on each score. This has many negative ramifications. It deflects attention away from the cultural systems that deny women any power. It blames all men without effectively teaching behavioural change to either men as harassers or silent condoners. Nor does it teach women to claim their power, to stand up for themselves and each other rather than keep quiet and silently accept men’s misbehaviour as the price of being a woman.

Fear and power

Finally, no country can claim to be a democracy when half its population is living in fear, despite education, wealth, and being the right colour, class, tribe or caste. Accountable and responsive governance agencies have yet to build women’s realities into their work. It should be in the DNA of Niti Aayog and all the work it finances. To its credit, the Government of Sweden, in response to the recent revelations quickly set up a Gender Equality Authority to address violations of women and men in every form.

Unless we focus on what we have avoided, power, we will continue to have highly educated women acting powerless. This is a systemic issue. It is a time of reckoning for both men and women. It is a time to learn new behaviours and create new cultures that enable women to own their own bodies and claim their own power and support other women. It is time for men to explore new definitions of masculinity and appropriate behaviours in conversation with each other. Some of the most powerful conversations and change happen in mixed gender groups when men and women learn to listen, and hear one another’s experiences without judgement. It is also time to measure things like human dignity and daily forms of harassment that we presently consider difficult to measure, just as we once thought about education, household income, democracy and climate change.

Our cultural assumptions are habits of thought. These habits must change.

The Swedish anomaly needs to wake us up to change so we don’t need to wait for another two centuries for dignity and a safe world for women.

Deepa Narayan’s forthcoming book is titled Chup: Being a Woman in Modern India. She is a development specialist and a former Senior Advisor at the World Bank.

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