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Bringing an end to sexual harassment — Vizla Kumaresan

DECEMBER 1 — I was having what seemed to be like a very good Sunday on 13 November 2016. I had come out of a morning meeting with a group of passionate women volunteering for a good cause, and a quick lunch with some friends. I was in Brickfields where parking is short and I was walking back to my car after making a visit to the shops in Little India. In front of the Vivekananda Ashram on Jalan Tun Sambanthan, a man grabbed my left breast.

It took me a few seconds to realise what had happened. I looked to my left and saw a man. He leered at my breast and then uttered a condescending apology.

As much as I knew what he did was not an accident, I knew he was not sorry. I did not expect someone to treat me like that. He did not expect a woman he just harassed to retaliate. I yelled at him. A string of profanities escaped my mouth. He started to run. I gave chase. He got on his motorcycle which was conveniently parked nearby and rode off. On his face was an unmistakable sneer. He was having fun.

I do not know this man. If I saw him again, I would not recognise him. I wonder if he would recognise me. I wonder if he knows that what he did was an assault on my person, and my sense of safety in the world. I wonder if he knows that I could not sleep that night because every time I closed my eyes, I would live again and again that entire incident. I wonder if he realised that when I had to return to Brickfields a few days later, I would stop dead in my tracks every time I saw a man walking in my direction. Even two weeks after the incident, it is fresh in my mind and I get flashbacks to the incident when I look at the shirt I was wearing that day.

After the incident, I walked back to my car and when I got in I realised I was shaking. Needing to hear some reassurance, I called some of my loved ones and related what had happened. At home, in the arms of a loved and dear one, I broke into wracking sobs. I was upset, but it wasn’t sadness I was feeling. I was angry. I was livid that someone could think that it was acceptable to do something like this. That someone would find this kind of assault on another person fun or enjoyable.

The children who overheard my telling of the incident knew what he did was wrong without anyone having to explain why. They knew the incident would affect me, and when I cried they did not ask why.

I wondered later, if these children could understand this why couldn’t the man who did this to me. The children know this is unacceptable behaviour. Why didn’t he?

I have some things to be thankful for. Of all the people I related this incident to, not one of them asked me what I was wearing. No one asked me what I was doing out alone. It was clear that this was not my fault. This man is responsible for what he did. 

My loved ones were also angry. They were full of suggestions on how I should have retaliated physically. I, too, in my anger afterwards wished I had hit him. But, I wonder, would that have made him realise what he did was wrong? I think if I had hit him, it would be easy for him to shift the focus from what he did to what I did. I think people’s response to me would also have been different. The focus from others, too, would have been my violent reaction.

And, ironically, if I had hit him he could have pressed charges on me for assault. There are no laws against such street sexual harassment. If I had used assault laws against him, it would have been my responsibility to proof it. Mine would be an allegation. It would be a matter of he said, she said. How do I prove that what he did was not an accident? The law, in this case, is not on my side.

Is it justice, then, that he got away scot free? No. However, I think I get my justice by continuing to live my life without fear and exercising my independence. I get my justice by refusing to change how I live. I will continue to walk with my head held high and my back straight. I will not hunch or wear inconvenient and oversized clothes to hide my body. I have nothing to be ashamed of. He should be ashamed of himself.

There were suggestions later about how I could be safer in the future. I should be accompanied by a man when I go out, someone said. The irony of this statement did not strike them. I would need a man to protect me from the potential dangers posed by other men?

It is very sweet to hear that others are willing to inconvenience themselves for my sake. But, I do not need these men to stand up for me. Instead I need them to stand up with me. I am taking a stand that this ends with me. I will not tolerate any kind of sexual harassment.

You can do this, too. It is not difficult. Stop laughing at jokes that make fun of stereotypes of women. It isn’t funny. Just don’t laugh. Even if you are uncomfortable with it, do not laugh. Do not forward emails or social media messages that have these jokes. If someone is engaging in lewd behaviour that is supposed to be “fun” or “funny”, ask them to stop.

Every parent who is reading this should educate their sons to respect women, and to inform them what it means to do so. Every man who reads this should question the ideas of masculinity that we are told allows things like this to happen.

The man who did this to me – he is someone’s son; someone’s brother, friend, and employer or employee. If everyone started conversations about sexual harassment and how rampant and dangerously acceptable it has become, surely someone he knows will be having that conversation with him. If everyone came to understand and accept that this kind of behaviour is simply unacceptable surely he will, too. Maybe he won’t remember me enough to reflect on what he did that Sunday. But, if enough people inform him that that kind of behaviour is unacceptable, he will think twice about doing it again.

Maybe you are reading this and think that it is, really, my fault and that this man is not to blame. Perhaps, it was the way I was dressed, or that I had lipstick on that day, or that I was walking on my own. If this is the case, you would like to consider that irrespective of all that, grabbing a woman’s breast is just not good manners. And, there is very little regard for manners these days. In that case, it would be wise to stress the proper behaviours and manners one should adopt when faced with a woman walking on her own.

November 25th was the International Day against Violence against Women. It also marked the start of the 16 Days against Gender Based Violence. I hope this letter reminds people that violence against women is not something that happens to someone else, and it is not their concern. It can happen to anyone, and affects everyone. It is 2016 and we are still facing outdated ideas about what is expected of men and women, when we are striving towards advancements in other areas. What good is this modernity if we cannot treat each other – men and women, irrespective of what they are wearing and the proportions of their body – with respect and dignity?

*This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

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