Police, Women and FIRs: When Sexual Harassment Is Considered A “Minor Incident”

Posted by Soniya Ahuja in Human Rights, Society, Taboos
March 29, 2017

“It is very discouraging and patronising when you gather courage and visit a police station, only to hear police officers say things like ‘Madam, kya jaldi hai, rukiye (What is the hurry, wait)?, or ‘Aap hi ko pareshani hogi, bhagadori karni padegi. Aapas me hi nipta lijiye (It will be troublesome for you only as you only will need to run around, try to settle between yourselves),” shares Srujana, a student living in Delhi, about her attempts to file an FIR against a fellow student for assault and sexual harassment

She adds that during every second spent in the police station, instead of discussing why she came – to file a complaint – they made her feel like she didn’t belong here (in a police station), or that she even knew what she was doing.

Accessing legal justice has been a long battle for women, and one of the biggest hurdles is the very first step – filing the First Information Report (FIR).

While interviewing women students about their experiences in dealing with the Delhi Police I came across several cases where eve teasing and stalking are not even considered as harassment. The women were discouraged with the suggestion that it was futile to go through the hassle of the procedure for such “minor incidences”.

Legally, these “minor incidences” of harassment come under – hostile environment – a kind of sexual harassment in which a person is made to feel uncomfortable and suffers emotional and/or mental strain due to frequent exposure to offensive sexual talk and jokes, pornographic images and repeated unwelcome sexual advances, although there may not be any direct threat to the victim’s life.

The women were asked questions ranging from “What were you wearing?” to “What time was it?”

Know Your Rights

In this context, there’s a need for women to be aware of their rights when it comes to reporting an incident of harassment. For instance, women have the right to free legal aid, privacy and confidentiality. Two, one of the most important rights that a woman has, is “untimely registration of a complaint” and “Zero FIR”. According to the former, a woman can file a complaint even after the lapse of the critical period, which used to be a week before 2014. The idea is that a woman should be able to register a complaint no matter how much time has lapsed. This law was made while keeping in mind that for many women filing a complaint can be a daunting task and may require some time to evaluate.

The Zero FIR ruling by the Supreme Court makes an exception to the general FIR rule according to which you can only file a complaint in the police station that has the jurisdiction of the area where the crime has taken place. Rape survivors can register a police complaint at any police station. The senior officer will then direct the Station House Officer of the concerned police station to lodge the FIR.

Police Officer Or Man First?

A study in 2015 in India found that one in three women have been sexually harassed and that 71 percent did not report it. There could be only two reasons for this pattern. Either women don’t want to report, or they can’t.

Leaving aside those women who could not lodge a complaint because the culprit was a family member or there was a threat to the survivor’s life or job, both reasons can be traced back to how they were treated when they first tried to file a complaint, or what they have heard about the difficulties of filing FIRs from others or as reported in the media.

One common theme that reverberated through every incident shared by women I interviewed was the patronising attitudes of male officers. The way many young women have been dealt with by male police officers seems to send a message that police stations and courts are not spaces for women. Legal arbitration is a fundamental right to every citizen and if young women are constantly persuaded by police officers not get involved in the process of adjudication (which starts with a FIR!), it reinforces the second-class citizen status of women in this country.

Another student adds,“When a man walks into a police station the police officer is the civil servant who is supposed to solve the problem, file complaint and investigate. But when a woman walks in the police officer suddenly changes his position from being a civil servant to a man, and obliged by his duty and status as a man in the society, he delivers sermons of what I should be doing instead.

The situation gets worst when social stratification of caste and class enter the dynamics of gendered harassment. The lower the status of the women the more is her plight, by the perpetrator and the police.

Beyond Misogyny

Of course, misogyny is not the only reason why police officers are reluctant to file complaints. Filing an FIR means the start of a long, arduous process for the police, who are obliged to follow up. As one police constable explained, “Every lower rank officer has to answer to his senior. Once an FIR is registered, there follows a chain of actions, including a lot of paperwork and that’s why filing FIR for minor harassment case is seen as too much trouble for an insignificant cause.” Perhaps this is also why even women officers are reluctant to file a complaint, though sometimes it can also be because they also view many incidents as “minor” in nature.

These views, however, are not meant to belittle the efforts of police departments (especially in Delhi), to help decrease misogynistic crimes in the city. These efforts range from increased sensitivity towards gender-based violence; appointing more women officers in police stations including patrols at nights, and a 33% women quota in Delhi Police. We also have ‘Parivartan’, a campaign where NGOs, social workers and educational institutes join hands with the police to make Delhi safe, and ‘Himmat’, an app launched by Delhi Police for women’s safety.

However, some efforts by police department raise some important questions. For example, the self-defense training programmes by the Delhi police in various universities. However, the underlying message with such initiatives is that violence against women is unavoidable and women need to prepare themselves and make themselves stronger, like men, by learning how to fight.

While such initiatives are progressive, the simple act of being able to file a FIR and a proper investigation into the matter when the complaint is made should be the first step in creating a safe place for a citizen. If women still find it hard to file FIR then they are still prisoners in this free society.

Soniya Ahuja is an intern with Youth Ki Awaaz for the batch of February-March 2017.

Image source: Priyanka Parashar/Mint via Getty Images