Sexual harassment: A symptom of patriarchal norms

I am just another girl.

Sexual harassment, almost anachronistically in the face of so much social progress, has remained a common part of our collective daily lives—a norm. Having grown up in Bangladesh, a developing nation, and later moving to and living in the U.S., I have lived as part of two very different cultures: One with huge traffic congestion and no adherence to traffic rules, the other where people stop at red lights on empty roads; one with a 90 percent religious majority, and the other a secular country with people from all around the world; one being less than 60 times the size of the other. But even with these and myriad other differences, I stay very aware of one commonality: I have felt unsafe in public places in both countries.

Thå local shopping centers tend to be very crowded in Bangladesh. While growing up, I remember my mother being extra protective whenever we went to one. She made sure we were visiting at the times when the crowds are usually low, or we would be there for short periods of time. That is because incidents such as inappropriate touching, groping and mumbling of inappropriate sexual comments are a common thing there. I myself remember being pushed inappropriately by a guy who was trying to go ahead, when he could clearly walk past me from the side with no contact at all. I observed and experienced such behavior so frequently that it became second nature to carry myself in a certain guarded way in public places. But I have had a similar experience in a New York City bus. I was sitting by the window seat and suddenly felt something on my back. I assumed it was some defect of the seat itself, but when I turned around, I saw that it was the male passenger who had conveniently placed his hand on my seat. I had to turn around twice before he moved it away. I am certain that I have faced this kind of behavior more often than even I consciously know. That is because this kind of harassment is so normalized that it is difficult for me to be sure if it was harassment. I often do not know when to fight back or share with anyone, and I have come to understand that men can sometimes take advantage of this uncertainty.

According to an article published by National Public Radio, 81 percent of women have faced sexual harassment in their lifetimes, and most such incidents took place in public places. Even such a high statistic is probably an underestimation, because so many cases go unreported. One main reason for not reporting, I feel, is women’s fear of being criminalized themselves. The “what if” questions start coming to mind. “What if everyone thinks I am lying?” “What if no one supports me?” “What if I am misreading their intent?”

Another very important reason behind not reporting is obviously the patriarchal nature of society that is common to Bangladesh and the U.S., and pretty much the whole world. I can safely claim that any organization where I will work in the future will have more males in administrative roles and positions. Adding to that is income inequality; women earn 80 cents for $1 earned by men. These circumstances are not isolated facts. They are symptoms of a social structure that has favored males for centuries. In this environment, women can be understandably circumspect about voicing their opinions and even accusing perpetrators. What if they were harassed by someone in a more powerful position, as is often the case? The fear of losing one’s own position might serve as sufficient motivation for remaining quiet. Sexual harassment remains the most egregious of the symptoms of patriarchy.