Contrary to what male chauvinists think and say, no woman goes out of her way to embarrass herself without cause. It is difficult to believe that Dangal actress Zaira Wasim sat on that Vistara flight from Delhi to Mumbai and plotted to indict 39-year-old Vikas Sachdeva for physically harassing her.
At first, one is a little doubtful of the accusation, because an aircraft is not exactly a place where you can be easily intimidated. These days, you cannot even recline your backrest by those two awesome inches without someone in the back complaining that you are annoying them. And to be honest, if a woman in today’s environment stands up and calls out inappropriate behaviour, half the aircraft would go to her aid. Sitting on a plane does not have the same risk factor as getting into a bus or an auto. One press of the call button and the crew would have appeared. Else, one can just get up and walk to the galley and complain to the stewardess. Passengers do it all the time for much lesser reason. Bad breath, leery men, body odour, irritating habits, even a medical condition.So, why did she suffer this man’s nonsense in silence and still have the presence of mind to try and tape him. I’ll tell you why. At first, you do not believe this is happening. Two weeks ago it happened to Mark Zuckerberg’s sister Randi on an Alaska Airlines flight in first class. The man next to her began to make sexually explicit comments. She wrote on a Facebook page: “Feeling furious, disgusted and degraded after an Alaska Airlines flight during which the passenger next to me made repeated lewd, inappropriate, and offensive sexual remarks to me .”
Such obnoxious sexual conduct is not unusual and happens far more often than we would like to think. The victim (and the person is a victim) is unable to assimilate the first nudges as being sexual in nature. You would think that you are in an air-conditioned slick modern aircraft with 200 people, and this cannot be happening.
There is also this ridiculous belief that only educated, decent, and polite people travel by air. That brainwash becomes a deterrent to act. The hand or, in this case, the foot, goes away and returns and since the seats are so cramped, the lady being pestered tries to rationalise and put it to inadvertent movements. She just cannot believe this is happening.
Then a pattern emerges and the victim knows this is for real; this is not random, and she is being targeted. There is immediate revulsion and horror and it is well documented that the disgust freezes the mind and the person does not know what to do. The option to create a scene is not one is grabbed automatically. Victims may think of what happens if no one believes them. Indeed, in Wasim’s case, there are people commenting that she did this as a publicity stunt. For heaven’s sake, stop.
Ask Dana T whose ‘celebrated’ case on a United flight last year form Newark to Cologne shocked her when the man next to her began pinching her blouse and telling her to lie in his lap. A total stranger.
And that brought to the fore the issue in the USA which we in India also grapple with. The crew are not trained to handle sexual harassment, the women in uniform are often hassled. There is no database of sexual harassment cases on flights. Airlines duck the subject so totally that when something gross happens, they try to wish it away.
Sexual harassment is also very difficult to prove. Dana said to the crew; he pinched my nipple when I was sleeping. How do you prove that?
Keeping this context in mind, it is possible that Zaira was seething with rage, but was unable to react. She decided to use a mobile phone to record the man’s misconduct.
When she deplaned, Zaira appeared shattered by her experience in the video. Did this actually happen on a plane? However, Zaira had the courage to speak up about her ordeal in public.
Because aviation has not yet come to grips with this ugly reality, many people get away with their physical intimidation. There is this misplaced male concept that single women on a flight are fair game.
Airlines must wake up to sexual harassment in the sky and keep a track of incidents like they keep track of their aircraft equipment malfunctions. The crew must be trained to respond to such incidents. Until this happens, there will be a hundred Zairas a day sitting in front of or next to some boorish lout.