Sunday, December 17, 2017

Mile-high manspreading & other annoying habits

Earlier this week, a 17-year-old Bollywood actor shared an Instagram video about being molested during an Air Vistara flight. Two weeks before that, American businesswoman Randi, sister of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, tweeted about being sexually harassed by a fellow passenger on an Alaska Airlines flight. She went on to reveal that when she told the flight attendants, they were dismissive.

Coming after the 'Me Too' campaign, Zuckerberg's revelations kicked off a debate in the US on sexual harassment in the skies. In India, reactions to the Vistara incident varied from sympathy to disbelief and trolling.
Actor Tannishtha Chatterjee was among those who spoke up in support of the young actor, while sharing her own experience on a plane a few years ago. "There was a man constantly staring at me, whether I was eating or watching a film and even when I turned off the light," Chatterjee told TOI. "In business class, the seats aren't that close, so you have to go out of the way to harass someone. It was clearly not a mistake. I even asked him what his problem was." Chatterjee finally requested the crew to change her seat. "I was scared he might touch me if I went to sleep."
Rebutting the teenager's critics, Chatterjee says, "Rape and molestation have nothing to do with your economic background. It is a mistake to think that it happens in a particular strata and not in another. (Harvey) Weinstein is one of the richest people in the US."
Other women have come out with similar stories on social media. Many highlighted how their personal space was encroached. In a widely shared tweet, author Kiran Manral wrote about how travelling alone as a woman was a nightmare. "There's the leg spreader, the elbow into your breast, the hand that slinks from the back around the side," she tweeted. Manral told TOI that she was reminded of incidents when she was in her 20s and 30s. "I didn't have social media back then. I never confronted anyone. I would just give them a dirty look. I am 46 now, so I am left alone."
Yet, Viji Venkatesh points out that her age has not stopped male passengers from elbowing her breasts. "I am 65 and one would think that I would not encounter such behaviour," says Venkatesh, who is the South Asia head of the Max Foundation and a frequent flier.
As a result, women often tend to yield space to men. "We squeeze into our seats if we have men on either side. It's a subconscious reflex developed after years of knowing that the arm taking up the elbow room on the hand rest is easy prey to suggestive touches. Or the thighs will be brushed up against now and then," says Nazia Erum, founder of The Luxury Label. "Don't we pay equal airfare for equal leg or elbow room? But we often concede space in order to avoid the 'accidental' brush."
To defend this encroachment, Indian men often trot out the I-can't-help it-I-am-so-big defence. A frequent flyer demolishes this argument, recounting how his heart sank when a well-built, 6-ft-tall Scandinavian took the seat next to him in economy a few years ago. "But not once during the two-hour flight did the man even rest his elbows on the arm-rest, keeping both arms well within his seat even though he was wedged in the middle." Most Indian fliers, on the other hand, would think nothing of claiming the entire armrest.
And it's not just a question of bad etiquette. Elsa Marie D'Silva, who worked as a Jet Airways flight attendant between 1994 and 1998, says she has witnessed multiple incidents of male passengers harassing female cabin crew and fellow passengers. Though the sexual harassment Act covers both female crew and passengers, awareness and enforcement remain poor. Sexual harassment is also a level 2 offence under the government's no-fly list, and can result in passengers being banned from flying for up to six months. "There is ignorance about the laws and one's rights, and fear of the lengthy process for justice. We need to make reporting simpler," says D'Silva, who has founded Safecity, an online platform that crowdsources and maps cases of sexual harassment.
17/12/17 Sonam Joshi/Times of India