How exactly one could differentiate harassment from a good will gesture?

          Harassment; My Perception

 From Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s stance on harassment over Facebook friend request to accusation of sexual harassment on Harvey Weinstein, it is no doubt the hottest selling news nowadays. Feminists from all around the world gather on social media to give voice to their opinions about harassment. Many women as well as men are breaking silence over their past experience with this social taboo. People are defining, redefining, criticizing and elaborating their perspective over this issue. The term is being used and abused by many people around the world and it is very important to spread awareness among people regarding the definition and dynamics of harassment.

“Harassment” is defined as an act causing intimidation where the victim feels violated by the verbal or physical act of someone else. It is one of the hottest contemporary issues and is being highlighted mostly by the feminists because in our society the most common form of harassment practiced by people is sexual harassment aiming particularly at women. With the rise of feminism and activism, people are raising voices to spread awareness about harassment and problems faced by women. Feminists are being praised as well as mocked for breaking the silence over it and sometimes for overusing the term “harassment:.

            The main problem with any social issue likewise harassment is that these are based on social values and beliefs. And these values are different for different persons or groups, therefore creating value conflict. An act might serve to a person as an act of harassment depending on his/her perception regardless of the fact that the other person might not be intending to harass him/her at all. Values are based on a very personal perception and this creates problems and minunderstanding.

            Harassment is the same case. Conflicts occur over the basis of difference of opinion. Rape is the universally accepted act of unaccepted interaction. But some other acts might or might not be consider inappropriate. Approaching a girl in a Pakistani society might be considered an act of harassment but it can easily be seen through social media where a person has the option to send a message or a friend request to any girl/boy. And the idea that any person using social media sites do intend to interact with new people, gives another advantage to the people approaching strangers.

Another conflicting situation is created by the clash of cultures and civilizations. We, the Pakistani are currently stuck between the Islamic, Indian sub-continental and Western civilizations. Our official religion and state laws are Islamic; our culture and values are an amalgam of Islamic and Indian culture and our media is influenced by the West. It becomes difficult and confusing to follow such a mixture of values and norms while defining boundaries of personal space and freedom.

So how exactly one could differentiate harassment from a good will gesture? How could we define what exactly are the boundaries of harassment?

            The word is “Consent”-A word complimenting harassment. This is what differentiates the love-stories from criminal episodes. A girl might feel “loved” if the guy she likes follows her to her home, college or workplace. The same girl would feel “annoyed” if someone she doesn’t likes do the same. For some girls “anybody” following them would be inappropriate. And consent is not just limited to girls. The same implies to boys and trans genders as well. If they feel “violated”, every act even if intended as an ordinary one, would serve to be harassment. It is the “unwanted” or “unpleasant” social interaction where one person is the victim and the other is the offender. And the victim possesses the right to ask for legal proceedings against the offender.        

            Some unbiased and universally accepted acts of harassment are the sudden, unwanted physical interaction such as groping, touching or being unnecessarily close, all acts leading to violation of personal space and freedom. Verbally these are abuses, sexual expressions or displeasing names, titles or statements projected on the basis of race, color or gender.

            Many acts still go undefined. SharmeenObaid case is the same, where she felt her sister being harassed over a friend request and many people criticized her for misusing the term “harassment”. In such cases, again the word “consent” does the job of defining and separating the inappropriate from the appropriate. Since the request was “unwanted” it automatically felt like harassment to her and her sister. She went offhand with her word and was heavily mocked for that since she is an active social icon but it doesn’t really make the act of the doctor justified. The Harvey Weinstein case portrays act of quite inappropriate physical gestures so it is widely accepted as an act of harassment.

            Harassmentis subjective rather than an objective idea. It is different from person to person and groups to groups. And subjective ideas cannot be defined or confined to certain limits. They evolve with the individual’s personality and are often confusing or misleading.

            My personal perspective is that for me harassment is the act undertaken without my consent. But before declaring someone as the offender I would clarify the boundaries which define my limits. If someone is offending me, he/she would need to know when it comes to confusing cases like friend requests, messages, eye contact etc. And if he/she continues then I would be justified to declare that person as a “harasser”. Yet certain acts are clear and there is no confusion in them. As many people do harass other women willingly and fully aware of the situation and the effects they are going to cause like following, gawking, touching and passing comments. There are laws present and women should be confident enough to stand up and raise their voices without fear of being slut-shamed. But the cases where there is a clash of values, the accused should be informed first that his/her act is annoying and then further proceedings should be done. Instead of presenting the word harassment which is ambiguous, a better and vibrant word such as consent should be publicized. So that people would feel free to identify their boundaries and limits and would be able to exercise personal freedom and dignity without any doubt or ambiguity.


By Hafsa Ameen

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