Road rage, rasta roko, face blackening, public humiliation. Every day we read about people who have decided to take the law into their own hands.

Parts of Delhi came to a standstill recently when irate parents and others attacked a school where it was alleged that a teacher was blackmailing girls and pushing them into prostitution. The media exposed this through a sting but for the enraged citizens, the law was the last recourse.

Perhaps they were justified given that some law enforcers seem to believe the same. How else can you explain the ghastly incident in Bhagalpur where an alleged chain snatcher was beaten by the public and then tied to a motorbike by a policeman and dragged until he fell unconscious? That television footage will haunt us for a long time.

The last refuge?

Earlier last month, women members of a political party in Mumbai pulled out a professor in full view of TV cameras and blackened his face because he had allegedly sexually harassed several women students. Could they have used the law to deal with the man? Apparently not, or at least they did not believe the law would make a difference. So they chose the strategy of public humiliation while also projecting their party as a defender of innocent women.

It is vital that women express their views so that a legal framework emerges.

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Also in Mumbai, the police managed to catch five men in the act of harassing women. These men would travel every day in the men’s first class compartment and routinely pass lewd comments about the women in the adjacent women’s first class compartment. A wire mesh separated them. So no one was physically touched. But the non-stop stream of explicit comments was as good as physical assault. In this case, the law did act. Policemen dressed in mufti nabbed the offenders and booked them. The next day their faces appeared on the front page of a local paper. Thus law and public humiliation were both used.

We know for a fact that women are sexually harassed on the street, in homes, in workplaces, anywhere that men and women occupy the same space. Yet, if women complain, they are told they are being hyper-sensitive, that they have no sense of humour, that these are occupational hazards of working in places where men and women have to be together. But should women just grin and bear it? Or should there be some protection under the law for them? On the other hand, can even a stringent law really act as a deterrent? Or is this another of the many societal problems that cannot be legislated away?

Since 2001, women’s groups have deliberated on this issue as they discussed with the National Women’s Commission whether a law to curb sexual harassment ought to be enacted. The Supreme Court has already laid down certain guidelines that are supposed to be followed. But the implementation of these guidelines has been unsatisfactory. A law, it was hoped, would be taken more seriously.

The draft law went through many stages of discussion between the NCW and several women’s groups and lawyers. The former chairperson of the NCW, Poornima Advani, pushed through a draft that satisfied only a few. The current chairperson, Girija Vyas, subsequently pulled it back. Now apparently it is once more up for discussion.

Overt violence against women is a difficult enough issue to deal with but sexual harassment that is often impossible to prove is a covert form of violence. It is premised on unequal power. It humiliates and disempowers the victim. The very fact that it is difficult to prove adds to the power of the perpetrator of the crime. Against this reality, can we expect a law or laws to solve the problem? In the early stages of the campaign against dowry, women’s groups would protest outside weddings where they knew dowry was being given and taken. They hoped that social ostracism would work in curbing the custom. In the end, neither that, nor the law, really helped.

There is also the tricky business of the false complaint or politically motivated complaints. How can one guard against these even if these are exceptions and not the rule? Also, if a woman cannot prove sexual harassment, should we presume that she has made a false complaint? And should she be punished for this? The current draft of the law recommends that she be punished. Women’s groups have vigorously opposed this provision. Yet, the fact remains that false complaints do take place and there has to be some way out. The solution, however, is not to victimise the woman.

Invisible struggle

Public humiliation is also not a tool that can be used by a woman as she could be charged with libel if she names her tormentor. As a result, the struggle for justice remains behind closed doors. Even if the crime is established, what should be the punishment? This is another area under debate for which there are no obvious or easy conclusions.

What is salutary is that the issue is out in the open and is being discussed. It gives a chance to hundreds of women who have faced situations for which they thought there was no solution to come forward and share their experiences. The more such evidence comes up before those framing the laws, the greater the likelihood that what finally emerges will have some value.