Jakarta, 22 October 2010
Whenever holy Ramadhan rolls around, things change. Offices close earlier so employees can break the fast with their family. Some folks suddenly become pious, like my former boss who would take to performing her daily prayers in a shiny new mukenah (female prayer garb). When Ramadhan is over, much of this behavior and its symbols ends up back on the shelf, as in the case of my ex-boss’ mukenah.
When the state railway company started separating passengers by gender on the Jakarta–Bogor commuter trains during Ramadhan this year, it quickly sparked speculation that this was merely a case of a token act for the holy month, just as it had when TransJakarta organized bus queues by gender earlier this year. Both transportation companies imposed the rules after a spate of sexual harassment complaints from female passengers. It has been more than a month since Ramadhan, but it will take more time to determine the effectiveness of the policy.
I’ve only used those public transportation systems a few times; the commuter train back during my college days in suburban Depok, and the TransJakarta in the past few years. Yet I ride trains and buses a lot whenever overseas, so I’m familiar with the typical sardine-packed, rush-hour crowd and its potential pesky situations. And to this day, I still have friends who regularly use both mass transport systems. Yet anyone who has ever taken a bus, train or other form of urban public transportation would be familiar with the typical sardine-packed, rush-hour crowd and its potential for pesky situations. Sexual harassment tales come up now and then, and while told in hushed or heated tone never failed to project hurt.
Because this kind of abuse does hurt. Regardless of one’s gender, race, social status or other demographic traits, being abused or harassed by anyone, in any manner, sexual or not, publicly or privately, hurts one’s feelings and undermines one’s sense of being. Victims feel small, powerless and reduced to an inferior, dominated object. This might not be the technical definition found in psychology textbooks, but it sums up the experiences given in firsthand accounts by people who’ve suffered harassment.
Sexual harassment brings another factor into play, the ultimate battle of the sexes. True, women today have achieved considerable advancement compared with their mother’s or grandmother’s generations, even in traditionally male-dominated areas such as science, business and politics. Yet the world as a whole hasn’t really caught up with notions of equality even in countries such as Indonesia that have had a female president, because the old idea that a man is the head of family, or the ultimate breadwinner, or simply the holder of greater power over women, staunchly prevails.
Boys are raised to be brave and dominant, while girls are taught to be compliant and agreeable. Just look at the obvious husband-focused structure of the joint tax report form, oblivious to the increasing trend of wives as the family’s bigger or even sole breadwinner.
Within this context, men’s sexual harassment of women is tinged with an extra dose of cruelty: I’m bigger, taller, stronger, braver and I can exert my power over you with humiliating words or physical actions, and I know you, or society, will let me get away with it.
Many parents teach their children about appropriate physical contact, but my parents went further: They instilled in me a sense of knowing that when a line is crossed, then, because it’s my body, it’s my right and responsibility to provide an immediate response. My first action must be to let the intruder know, firmly and clearly, that his action is unacceptable and, if he continues, he will suffer the consequences.
Putting that lesson into practice hasn’t always been easy. I’ll share one ugly story here.
One weekend when I was studying overseas, I went dancing with friends. I was ordering drinks when I noticed someone close behind me. Such proximity might have been understandable considering the bar’s crowdedness, but then I felt something pressed against my derriere. It took me a few seconds to realize what that something was, and my stomach knotted. I felt violated, like some unsuspecting female animal during the raging mating season in Animal Planet TV shows.
Yet I summoned my courage and wiggled around to face the pervert, a tall and beefy man. With his body still pressed against me, I looked him straight in the eye and, in the fiercest tone I could muster, asked him to get his horny crotch away from me. He brusquely denied doing anything, so I repeated myself in a firmer voice. He relented.
An hour later, while I was dancing with friends in our own circle, the pervert tried his luck again, perhaps hoping the dim light would save him. This time, I decided to send a stronger message: I elbowed him in the ribs and stomped my stiletto-heel down on his toes, before turning around to voice my objections a third time.
Things get a little hazy then. The man shoved me and swore at me, while I fought back tooth and nail. The loud music prevented my confused friends from understanding what was going on, but bouncers quickly escorted us all to the manager’s office. The man continued to deny everything, but thanks to the bright-lit room I only had to point at his nether region, clad in tight pants, showing the full-mast glory. All hell broke loose when I pointed that out; my girlfriends started to jump and scream the bouncers had to throw the offender out before he could be pierced by pointy heels, strangled by handbag straps, punctured by cocktail rings or simply clawed by long nails. We never saw him again.
There have also been other incidents when I was alone, including once on a Jakarta street, when a man shouted a crude, graphic description of my private anatomy, to the amusement of his friends. I walked up to him, asked him firmly to be man enough to repeat his words to my face and think of his mother, for the very anatomy he shouted out was the part he might’ve passed on his way out of his mother’s womb. I’ll spare you the other details– suffice to say that while I don’t have Michelle Obama’s imposing physique or Michelle Yeoh’s kung-fu skills, but in my own way I made my objections to the man’s behavior very clear.
I agree with the women’s rights groups who advocate the eradication of this kind of sexual harassment through persistent education and tighter laws. I also understand that mass transportation companies must provide a quick remedy for female passengers. But beyond that, I believe women ourselves can assume chief ownership of our own well-being, breaking out of the outdated misogynist perception of the weaker or meeker gender that constantly needs to be rescued. Sometimes only you can rescue yourself, especially in those subtle or private moments when sexual harassment typically occurs.
And you should step up to the plate, before alerting family, cops or media. If you just let the pervert run free, he may not return to you, but he might have fewer reservations about molesting the next woman who, for all you know, may be your friend, sister, daughter or mother.
That’s not what we want, right, ladies?