Keep Your Hands Off ME

Keep Your Hands Off ME

► Women deserve respect

When Dilukshi Dalpethado stepped onto Bus 138 at the Fort Station in Colombo two weeks ago, she wasn’t looking for attention. And she certainly wasn’t expecting that the story of her ride would go viral.

Dalpethado, an assistant human resources manager from Kottawa, was just trying to get home after a long day at work. She says the bus was fairly empty when she got on, and for the most part it stayed that way. But a few stops later, an ordinary looking man walked on and, out of all the available seats, chose the row directly across from her.

“I was minding my own business, listening to my music. After a while, I realized that this guy across the aisle was staring at me. And then I looked up at him and I see him doing his thing, masturbating right there.”

Dalpethado recalls a wave of emotion overtaking her, including shame and anger. Mostly, though, she just felt hopeless.

“It was really embarrassing, I really didn’t know what to do. I was angry and I was upset, but it was an empty bus so I couldn’t shout at this man.”

“But,” she adds, “I didn’t want him to be looking at me. I could see him looking at me, looking at my legs and other parts of my body while he was doing his thing. And the only thing I could do was take a picture of him. When I took the phone out, he just shoved it back inside his pants. And immediately, as soon as I snapped the picture, he got down from the bus.”

The story writes itself, and it isn’t unique

When Dalpethado took the photo, she didn’t immediately have plans to use it. But in a situation which made her feel stripped of her own autonomy, her phone, with its ability to at least document what happened, was the only weapon she had.

She stewed over the evening’s events but hesitated to do something with the photo until two days later, when she found herself on the receiving end of a man’s unwelcome advances yet again. This time, she was on a train as crowded as the 138 bus had been empty. It made little difference.

In a sea of people, she was groped.

When she got home, she decided she’d had enough. Using the photo she’d taken of the man who’d harassed her two nights earlier, Dalpethado crafted a Facebook post detailing the week’s two incidents. She ended her message with an appeal to women:

“If anyone touches you in an inappropriate way please open your palms wide open and give him one thundering slap OR hit him between his legs so he knows never to do that to anyone again!!!!! Don’t be a victim of any kind of sexual harassment!!!!”

Dalpethado’s words struck a chord. At the urging of friends, she turned her post from “private” to “public,” and within hours it went viral. At current count, the post has been liked over 1,500 times, shared over 4,000 times, and received over 150 comments.

Among those comments, most expressed admiration and solidarity, containing echoes of “An identical thing happened to me last week!” or “I feel the same way!”

A nationwide problem

If she didn’t already know it, Dalpethado’s post reinforced the sad reality that as a victim of constant sexual harassment and assault, she is not alone. In her words, “This happens to me, and most women I know, at least once a week.”

The United Nations Family Planning Association (UNFPA) confirms as much, stating in a report released in March of this year that 90 percent of women in Sri Lanka have been sexually harassed on public buses or trains. Crucially, the report examines the connection between sexual harassment of women on public transportation and their further societal disenfranchisement, finding that the preponderance of such harassment negatively impacts women in other areas too.

On a base level, according to the report, sexual harassment of women on public transportation limits their mobility. Since public transportation is the most economically viable option for most Sri Lankans to move from point A to point B, its utilization acts as a catalyst for women’s economic and social growth, allowing them to participate in the workforce.

However, when harassment on public transportation becomes the norm, women are less likely to utilize it. Which means they are less likely to work jobs that depend on them accessing affordable means of transportation.

As the UNFPA report illuminates, that is precisely what is happening in Sri Lanka. The issue is outlined as follows:

“According to the Census of Population and Housing, Sri Lanka’s female labour force participation has decreased from 39.5 percent in 2006 to 34.7 percent in 2014. One of the key findings of the study was that 50 percent of the women surveyed used public transport as a means of travelling to their workplace. Thus, the issue [sexual harassment on public transportation] can be derived as a contributory factor to the decline in female labour force participation in Sri Lanka.”

Even Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, in an economic statement released last Friday, acknowledged safe transportation for women as a prerequisite to their participation in the labour force.

Why not report?

While most of the response to her viral Facebook post was positive, Dalpethado faced some skeptics, mostly men. They wondered why, if harassment on public transportation is such a persistent problem, she hasn’t reported it to law enforcement authorities.

According to Deputy Director of the Children and Women’s Division of Sri Lanka Police, W. A. S. P. Lanka Rajani Amarasena, when women face sexual harassment on public transportation they should immediately dial 119 or call the hotline, 2666666, and inform whoever answers of the bus number and the route, at which point the closest female police officer will stop the bus and inquire about the problem.

Dalpethado says her reasons for not reporting stem from a belief that her complaints wouldn’t be taken seriously, or, worse, that she might be asked what she was wearing at the time and otherwise blamed for bringing the harassment on herself.

Right or wrong, Dalpethado isn’t alone in this regard, either. According to the UNFPA report, 92 percent of respondents never sought help from law enforcement when facing sexual harassment on public transport, all for similar reasons as Dalpethado.

Attempts were made to contact the police and inquire about what efforts they might be taking to encourage more women to report, but they were unsuccessful.

There have been some external efforts to make reporting a more desirable option, such as the recent development of Women in Need’s (WIN) “2six4” personal safety app. The app aims to help women and other bystanders take action against gender-based violence by assisting users in emergency situations, connecting them to service providers, and providing them with crucial legal information in the aftermath of an incident of gender-based violence. But, in the months since its release, the app has been downloaded fewer than 1,000 times.

#MeToo campaign

Coincidentally, at around the same time, Dalpethado’s Facebook post went viral, an international dialogue on gender-based violence began taking place on social media.

Earlier this month, in response to the barrage of horrific allegations of sexual harassment, assault, and rape levelled against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, American actress Alyssa Milano tweeted the following:

“Me too. Suggested by a friend. If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

And with that, a fire was lit. In its first 24 hours alone, the hashtag #MeToo was used by more than 4.7 million people in 12 million posts.

In Sri Lanka, one of those people was Vicky Shahjahan, a feminist and transgender activist who herself has been the target of endless harassment due to the open expression of her gender identity. She says that when she learned about the #MeToo campaign, she was inspired to participate.

“I’m one of the victims of this crime, every single day. And this campaign was instrumental in showing me and women like me that we’re not alone.”

Along with an intimate self-portrait included in this article which she drew with graphite pencils on A4 paper, Shahjahan shared a Facebook status documenting the tribulations of life not just as a transgender woman, but as a woman in general. Like the response to Dalpethado’s, the response to Shahjahan’s post was largely positive and encouraging.

She says that in the aftermath of the campaign, she feels more empowered than ever to stand up for herself. She recalls an incident just last week when she was approached by strange men in Batticaloa who would not stop inquiring about her gender identity. In not as many words, she responded, “What’s it to you?”

“The #MeToo campaign has pushed me forward and shown me I no longer need to keep silent,” she says.

Upending power dynamics

A perennial issue for victims of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and other forms of gender-based violence around the world is that there is an imbalance of power between them and their assailants.

These power dynamics discourage women from reporting sexual harassment, and they mean that preventing it is largely out of a woman’s control. As the UNFPA report explains, if women avoid utilizing public transportation altogether, they risk disenfranchisement from the workforce. And as Dalpethado’s experiences prove, harassment happens in empty places as often as in crowded ones. Finally, as even the most modestly dressed woman can be and has been harassed, attire is hardly a determining factor.

So what’s a woman to do?

This brings us back to Dalpethado. Acknowledging that the odds were stacked against her, she was undeterred nonetheless. Using what little power she had, she stripped the man who harassed her on Bus 138 of his power by exposing him to the world, by shaming him publicly.

And she’s not alone.

Across the internet and beyond, women have been upending traditional power dynamics governing gender by calling out the men who dare harass them, either by image or by name.

Within the Sri Lankan social-media-scape, there are even arenas dedicating to pinpointing such activities and the people who perpetrate them. “Hi, Madam…bye Machang” is a group on Facebook made up of over 1,000 or so denizens of Sri Lanka which aims to expose by naming the men who take to messaging strangers on Facebook unprompted, despite how unwanted they may be.

Perhaps this is a sign that the tides are turning, that the balance of power is slowly but surely shifting. After all, there is a common thread linking together all these stories: gone are the days in which women took harassment lying down. Though still sceptical of traditional reporting methods, women are refusing to be silent. And in doing so, in airing their grievances and forcing others to hear them, they are managing to make a difference.

Shahjahan, for her part, is cautiously optimistic.

She explained that earlier this week, she came across a man who lives near her home and who, one year back, verbally harassed her friend. This man told Shahjahan that before the #MeToo campaign, he didn’t realize the negative effect his casually-slung words could have on a woman’s sense of safety.

In the aftermath of it, though, he realized the error of his ways. Reading the harassment stories of the women he personally knew online, he felt ashamed of his behaviour.

He asked Shahjahan to apologize to her friend on his behalf and then vowed never to do it again. (Jordana Narin-Dailynews)

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