It has been a year since the #MeToo movement became a global phenomenon. I have learnt that the #MeToo movement indicates and acknowledges the widespread occurrence of sexual violence and that it is a campaign against sexual violence, aiming to disrupt the systems that allow sexual violence to thrive. “It is beyond a hashtag. It is the start of a larger conversation and a movement for radical community healing” according to activist Tarana Burke, who initiated the movement a decade ago. In 2017, #MeToo was searched for in 196 countriesand 85 countriesstarted using the hashtag at the beginning of 2018, thereby highlighting the significance of the movement globally.
Recently, the movement has reached our neighbour India, with many stories surfacing, including a high-profile government figure having to resign following accusations of sexual harassment from several women. However, over half the world remains silent, including Bhutan, which echoes the full-throated endorsement that sexual harassment and sexual assault are completely normal. We would be wrong to take pride in our lack of presence in the global #MeToo movement. Perhaps, the silent half is gathering the strength and confidence to share their stories: I finally made up my mind to share mine.
‘Eve-Teasing’ or catcalling is common in Bhutan, from whistling to making lewd remarks to girls and women on the street and in public spaces. This is not men or boys trying to be friendly; but a pure demonstration of the power and privilege they have as men in our society. Whether intentionally or not, it is to remind women and girls that we belong to them, a mere perpetuation of patriarchy. I have been catcalled countless times in my life, but the one incident that I vividly remember is due to the fact that I tried my hardest to fight back. In 2010, I was relentlessly Eve-teased by a male truck driver, near where I lived, every time I walked to and from school. He catcalled other girls as well. I was aware what Eve-teasing was and that it is illegal, but I always ignored it. One day, my mother and I got back from shopping after school and we met the same man, who was as usual on his worst behavior. I would have ignored it if my mother had not been there. I requested him to stop and apologize, but he refused saying that he had not teased us. What made it even worse was that there were several other men who witnessed everything but chose to stay silent when I asked them to confirm that the driver had teased us. The harasser kept on denying that he had done anything wrong and that got on my nerves. I warned him that I would call the police if he did not apologize, and I did end up calling the police.
The police arrived. They took the man away and I was asked to come along. A classmate of mine saw me in the police car and looked stunned as I gave an unapologetic smile. After describing the details of the incident, the police asked if I wanted him locked up. Without hesitation, I said yes but not knowing for how long. In the meantime, my father showed up at the police station. I thought he would be angry and beat the man up, but he did not do anything. His reaction made me sad, as he had always been protective of me, until he passed away a year later. However, I chose to put it into a different perspective; being a kind person he perhaps wanted me to be forgiving. Deep down in my heart, I wish I could have asked my father if it was really kindness or an act of keeping brotherhood intact. I still like to believe that it is the former, as this keeps my heart intact. So, I listened to him and requested the police to issue the harasser with a warning in lieu of the jail time. He also had to write a statement vowing never to repeat his misconduct. Thereafter, he stopped catcalling me and other girls when we walked past him or saw him in the neighborhood.
Many of us may think that Eve-teasing or catcalling is not as grave as sexual assault or harassment. But let me break it down for you: Eve-teasing or catcalling is just a euphemism for public sexual harassment and sexual assault, to make it sound less of an issue than it really is, or to make it sound fun or less scary (check out the difference between tease and harass and you will see what I mean). While we do not have specific clause on Eve-teasing in the Penal Code of Bhutan 2004 (amended in 2009), there is a whole Chapter (14) dedicated to sexual offences, in which there is a clause on sexual harassment as “A defendant shall be guilty of sexual harassment, if the defendant makes unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal abuse of sexual nature and the offence of sexual harassment shall be a petty misdemeanor.”
While Eve-teasing is sexual harassment, it is the kind of sexual harassment, which usually occurs outdoors and in public or in open spaces by strangers. Given the lack of specifics on sexual harassment in Bhutan, people – predominantly girls and women – lack understanding on their rights and fail to report incidents of sexual harassment. It would be helpful for the general public to comprehend more on sexual harassment, if there was a break-down of sexual harassment: including non-verbal, verbal, physical abuse of a sexual nature outdoors (basically Eve-teasing or catcalling). The grading of sexual harassment in Bhutan is as a petty misdemeanor and it “provides for a maximum term of imprisonment of less than one year and a minimum term of one month for the convicted defendant.” The drawback of this level of offence is that the offender can escape imprisonment by paying thrimthue (a fine), if they are not recidivist. Moreover, sexual harassment being graded at the lowest level of offence, shows what little importance is placed on this issue and it has become an ineffective deterrent in curbing or eliminating sexual harassment.
Policy-makers, especially women parliamentarians, must understand the need to move Eve-teasing or catcalling from being a petty misdemeanor to a misdemeanor, but without the condition of thrimthue applied. Moreover, other forms of sexual harassment where there is unwelcome physical abuse of a sexual nature – such as unwanted touching or kissing – should also be moved from petty misdemeanor to fourth degree felony. Eve-teasing or catcalling is clearly sexual harassment, which is violence against women and girls. Strong legislation must be in place to protect them from their freedom and right of walking on the streets and in public spaces being violated.
The lack of #MeToo tweets or status updates from Bhutanese women and girls, men and boys on social media does not mean that there is no sexual violence in the country. There are social media users in Bhutan who have shared stories of sexual harassment without the hashtag. It is perhaps because they are not aware about the movement or chose not to. #MeToo movement is a source of courage and not an embarrassment: those of us who have been sexually harassed and sexually assaulted, and Eve-teased must identify with the movement. Eve-teasing is sexual harassment that is considered ‘normal’, but together, we can transform the normal in our society. The #MeToo movement around the world is addressing and fighting against it, and if we embrace the movement, it will have a ripple effect in Bhutan.
Contributed by Wangchuk Dema