Sexual Harassment: A Structural Question

(Includes excerpts from an article by Kavita Krishnan, ‘Gendered Discipline in Globalising India’, Feminist Review, July 2018, Volume 119, Issue 1, pp 72–88)  

WORKPLACE sexual harassment is not just to do with the “mindset” of men, it is to do with the structure of society. In Marxist terms, we would say that sexual harassment and gender oppression are not superstructural alone, they have a strong structural dimension. This becomes very clear when we see how sexual harassment is used as a tool to discipline women workers in the modern globalised workplace - and is likewise deployed to maintain a feudal caste-gender supremacy of upper caste landlords over Dalit women agrarian labourers in rural India.  

Struggles against sexual harassment and rape were an important aspect of the CPI(ML) movement in rural Bihar in the 1980s and 1990s. Kalpana Wilson notes (Kalpana Wilson, ’Patterns of accumulation and struggles of rural labour: Some aspects of Agrarian change in Central Bihar’, Journal of Peasant Studies, 26:2-3, 316-354, 1999):  

“The most striking aspect of the movement is that it enabled the dalit poor and landless to challenge the practices which underpin the social and economic authority of both the older and the more recently emerged dominant classes throughout central Bihar. These are forms of oppression based on caste and gender as much as class. Thus dalit women frequently explain that the men from higher caste landowning families used to sexually harass and abuse them, physically assault them if they missed a day’s work, or refuse to allow them to take breaks to drink water telling them to drink the water in the drainage canals, but now they no longer ‘dare’ do these things. …this primarily reflects a perception among all classes and castes that there has been a shift in the balance of forces in those villages where the CPI(ML) has a presence, rather than a change in the mentality of the landowners.

Wilson described how “Women have also led marches of thousands to physically occupy land for redistribution, and have been at the forefront of resistance and protest against the repression unleashed by the landowners and the police.” She notes that  

“Because of the movement’s focus on rape and sexual harassment by upper castes, they (the women) perceived these struggles as primarily struggles for their own dignity. At the same time, these women’s involvement has led to their challenging oppressive domestic relations - particularly domestic violence, cases of abandonment of women by husbands, and the increasing incidence of dowry among dalit families.”

In her article on the struggles of the Dalit agrarian landless labourers and the Bathani Tola massacre, Bela Bhatia likewise observed that “… many prominent upper caste men have been involved in raping (dalit women). …the son of Deep Narayan Chowdhury is known to have raped several women including a Yadav woman of the Bhagwanpur tola of the village. Deep Narayan Chowdhury, quite unconcerned, once commented “maine saand pala hai” (I have raised a bull).” (Bela Bhatia, ’Justice Not Vengeance: The Bathani Tola Massacre and the Ranbeer Sena in Bihar, EPW September 2013)  

But sexual harassment is by no means just a feudal hangover - it looms large in modern workplaces, as the #MeToo revelations from the US to India underline.  

A report, ‘Production of Torture: A Study on Working Conditions including work place harassments facing Women Garment Workers in Bangalore and other districts’, prepared by PUCL Karnataka; NLSIU, Bangalore Vimochana; Alternative Law Forum (ALF); Concern-IISC; Manthan Law and Garments Mahila Karmikara Munnade (2016) documented the ubiquitous nature of sexual harassment in the Karnataka garment factories producing for global corporations. The report noted:   

Sexual harassment is also common ( including ‘staring hard at a woman worker in a sexual manner; making obscene threats, such as saying that chilli powder will be applied on the woman’s vagina if she did not work efficiently’; as well as ‘scolding’ using sexual expletives’.

Reports from garment factories of both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka indicate the systemic way in which the garment industry exploits the precariousness and vulnerability of women to exploit them financially and ‘fashion a more disciplined and hence cheaper workforce of women’ (PUCL et al.)

In the Tamil Nadu factories, the women workers are younger and unmarried – and in their case, factories draw on parents’ anxieties about dowry payment as well as about preventing daughters from contracting ‘unwanted/undesirable’ (read: in violation of caste and community boundaries) romantic/sexual relationships to justify their incarceration in hostels, relentless surveillance, bans on mobile phones and on social interaction with male workers. Though the rationalisations for gendered restrictions on the freedoms of women workers invoke concerns of ‘culture’ and ‘safety’, the fact is that these restrictions have an immensely practical value of deterring unionisation. And in fact, the absence of the unionisation achieved by so-called ‘safety’ measures of surveillance and restrictions on socialisation and mobility, renders the women workers unsafe - by making them vulnerable and isolated, and less able to resist the structural violence, exploitation and sexual harassment they face.

The women workers in the Karnataka factories tend to be older, married women. In their case, sexualised shaming tactics also help deter them from seeking support from husbands or in-laws. The abusive conditions of work at the place of production (the factories) strain the conditions of life and social relationships at the site of social reproduction (the households). Likewise, women’s vulnerability to or fear of violence or humiliation in their own households, and the pressures of having to earn to support economically precarious families make them more likely to submit without complaint to the abusive disciplinary regimes at work.

These practices are found even in other locations where women are part of the globalised workforce. One such instance can be found in the Export Processing Zones (EPZs) in the Dominican Republic, as outlined in a study which enquires into the deployment of practices of sexual harassment to keep women from organising (‘Sexual Harassment in the Export Processing Zones of the Dominican Republic’, Pantaleon and Dominicana, 2003).  

Thus regimes of surveillance, sexualized abuse, sexual harassment and public humiliation are integral to the production process, and are used to keep the women workers insecure by pressurizing them to meet impossible production targets.

Women’s vulnerability to shaming through suggestions of sexual immorality helps deter their mutual solidarity – in communities as well as in factories, women are expected and encouraged to maintain a distance from the ‘immoral’ woman, and to strive to prove their own respectability by their willing submission to regimes of surveillance and restrictions on mobility and means of communication.

The gendered methods of disciplining women garment workers in Bangladesh, as described by Dina Siddiqi (‘Do Bangladeshi factory workers need saving? Sisterhood in the post-sweatshop era’, Feminist Review 91, pp.154-174, 2009) have striking parallels with the Indian contexts. Siddiqi observes that the women workers are regulated ‘through a distinct moral regime, separating the “good” girls from the “immoral” ones….A highly sexualized regime of verbal discipline, as well as more overt forms of sexual harassment, also serves to keep women in their place. In this universe, the good woman is the good worker – those who are morally disciplined; that is, those who do not protest or draw too much attention to themselves – are deserving of managerial protection. Those who challenge such norms are much more vulnerable to managerial sexual advances’ (2009). As in the Karnataka factories, sexualized abuse – such as hurling insults that question the morality of the worker’s father or mother – are common in the Bangladesh factories.    

The old Left slogan - ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’ carries an extra layer of relevance in the context of women: unity needs workers - both women and men - to reject and resist every attempt to brand a woman “immoral” and shame/isolate her.  

The struggle against sexual harassment, for workers in India’s organised and unorganised sector, is integrally linked to the struggle against neoliberal globalisation that seeks to dismantle, deter, and punish unionisation and collective bargaining. Where women have organised in the face of all odds - Bengaluru’s Dalit sanitation workers are an example - they often join hands to collectively confront and take direct action against contractors who sexually harass or abuse them. While the demand for Vishakha Committees or the ICCs mandated by the law must be pursued, it must be recognised that such committees function only in a larger climate of industrial democracy. In the absence of unions and collectives, in the absence of job security for the workers, ICCs will simply serve the bosses alone and complainants will simply be thrown out of jobs.   

Every woman worker in India would have a ‘Me Too’ story. The journalists, artists, actors and women whose testimonies of ‘Me Too’ are finally making themselves heard, can help women workers’ experiences of sexual harassment to be heard and addressed. At this #MeToo moment, every workplace in India open itself to a social audit in which employees can speak up about sexual harassment, casteist abuse, and conditions of work that enable such abuse and violence to thrive. Workplaces would naturally include the streets and homes which are the workplaces for street vendors and domestic workers respectively. These audits - by activists of Unions, women’s groups, Dalit groups, LGBTQI groups - can be the basis for measures to ensure ‘Time’s Up’ for sexual harassment of the most vulnerable sections in India.