The greatest irony about harassment is that the one who is harassed inevitably feels awkward, embarrassed, nervous and frightened about having the gall to call it into question.
Sometimes its ‘minor’, in scale and effect – the shameless gawking that auto rickshaw drivers do when you are standing close by – they look you up and down, scratch their private parts, stretch out noisily and yawn while nearly continuously sizing you up as though you were prey. And if you should dare react by acknowledging the many layered infringements they are committing, they actually get emboldened still as if to say – ‘you’re in public space, a female form, I have a fundamental right to at least stare’.
But at other times its major.
In choosing to send my 3.5 year old girl further away than most of my friends have done with their tots, I had wanted to ensure among other things that the travel arrangement by a school bus was foolproof and safe. I trialed it for three days with her and although I am more than happy with the kind, attentive and gentle maid on board, as well as with the civilised, pleasant and good driver, I was more than uncomfortable with the conductor – a young lad whom I found openly gawking at the young girls on board, in my presence.
I took it up with the supremely efficient and sensitive bursar who is also in charge of the school transport who said he would have the lad out.
But given how complex these things are, and how quickly his sudden firing could result in a terrible backlash that could affect me, the children on board the bus and so on, the bursar has wisely decided to keep him employed until the school breaks for summer but ensure that the pre-primary children who return earlier than the rest of the school, do not have to have him on board.
Given that I was the only parent on board the bus just before he was shifted to another route, the lad had of course quickly understood that I had complained about him in some fashion and I had noticed him pointing me out to his mates when they walked by me at school last week which gave me the shivers.
Reading the profiles of those who harass or attack women and children makes me aware that the most unlikely, nondescript, sorry-looking, small-built men can be exactly the ones who do the most harm.
I let the bursar know about this as well and he decided to put him back on our bus route but only in the mornings when the bus has about 20 children and often times at least two teachers in addition to the maid on duty. He said this way the lad would find it harder to blame me for his eventual firing.
I trust the bursar and I trust the school; very few are known to respond so swiftly so effectively and so subtly to problems of this kind.
But I can’t help think how strange it is for me to feel weak in the knees each time I think of him and remember his stupid gawking. It’s possible that he’s just a ‘gawker’, it’s possible he has no intentions of crossing any line, but to me, gawking at young children IS bad enough.