Women have reached that point where the news of physical violation of our personal spaces has stopped shocking us. Triggering, yes, but it is hardly a shock anymore.
But earlier last week, news broke of a drunk passenger unzipping his pants and urinating on a female co-passenger in the business class of an Air India flight from New York to Delhi on 26 November 2022.
What was even more shocking was the indifference shown to the distressed woman by the airline staff, which prompted her to write a letter to Tata Group Chairman N Chandrasekaran sharing her horrific experience.
Again 6 December 2022, merely 10 days after the aforementioned incident, another drunk man was reported to have urinated on the blanket of a female co-passenger on an Air India flight from Paris to Delhi.
Men Urinating on Road – Toxic, Unabashed Male Privilege
This brings me to the fact that men urinating on roads on a daily basis is a very common sight in India and that it hardly raises any eyebrows. Let alone the lack of civic sense, the audacity to relieve themselves without a second thought then and there speaks volumes on the toxic, unabashed male privilege and reinstates the narrative of a man's world where women merely exist.
Even as children, girls are told that they have to come up with ways to avoid being flashed or groped in public spaces.
They are told to move away from urinating men, but the urinating men are never told not to perform the private act out on the streets.
It's Problematic, Recognise That!
First things first, such acts are not just unruly, but are plain sexual harassment. There's no two ways about it.
Dealing with the trauma of these unwelcome advances is also not an easy task. For example, if a girl/woman complains of being flashed at by a urinating man on the road, more often than not, they would be faced with questions like: "Why did you go there alone?", "Why didn't you react then?" and a multitude others in the same tune that would put a part of the blame on them.
The lack of a support system or dismissal of one's account of trauma in such cases is as cruel as undergoing the assault itself. Most often, women are silenced from even talking about it – like it is a sight we should all almost expect to witness.
In the incident that took place in the Air India New York to Delhi flight, this is evident. The complainant – a 74-year-old woman – was not only denied a seat despite having empty seats in the first class but was also made to engage in a conversation with her alleged assaulter despite her making it very clear that she does not want to talk to him.
More than the pathetically problematic and unprofessional way this was handled by the airlines, the lack of basic empathy for a traumatised woman is what is appalling.
Let Me Digress a Bit...
Often in conversations between women, a man is termed a "good guy" if he does the bare minimum – like not attack another person, behave properly at public spaces, and not make the people around them uncomfortable.
Basically, it has come to a point where a man who does not violate a woman's personal space or would make one uncomfortable is such a rare entity that someone who functions like a civilised human being is instantly put on a pedestal.
This applies to something as simple as not flashing a woman. When I was discussing the 'urine-gate' incident with my 31-year-old friend Manisha, we eventually arrived at how these incidents leave a long-lasting impact on the distressed. She told me:
"My friend and I were walking back home at night and as we were approaching a parked car with two men inside, I involuntarily crossed over to the other side of the street and then crossed back as I passed the car. I was hardly aware of this criss-cross dance I did but my friend looked at me bewildered and asked me why I did that. It was then it dawned on me that ever since a man sitting inside a parked car flashed me on my way back home from school, I have not walked close to parked cars. I have been doing this for over a decade and a half and it has by now become a habit that I involuntarily do it when I see a parked car with people inside."
So, to reiterate once again – such acts are purely sexual harassment. Yes, including urinating on women, irrespective of whether you are inebriated or not.
Urgent Sensitisation on Harassment on Flights Needed
Back to the subject of airlines... Another friend of mine, Aisha Nazia, a sports management consultant, was traveling in a domestic economy airline in India when her male co-passenger was dozing off and falling repeatedly on her chest.
She asked him to be considerate of her personal space multiple times, but with little regard, he kept nodding off on her chest again and again.
On alerting the cabin crew on how uncomfortable she was due to this predicament, she was given a very curt response on how like her, he, too, has paid for his seat on the flight and that they cannot move her to another seat.
Aisha's co-passenger, now wide awake, joined the flight attendant in lamenting how "youngsters these days" are too entitled and is not willing to adjust in the crammed spaces in an aircraft.
This is barely a one-off incident. Almost all women will have tales of being subjected to uncomfortable behavior while they are travelling by air – especially, if they are travelling alone. This can range from uncomfortable stares to being groped.
It is the responsibility of the Air India authorities and every other airlines to ensure the safety of women passengers on their flights. To Air India, I want to ask:
How did the alleged assaulter Shankar Mishra walk free from the airport without any repercussions for his actions?
Why was just a 30-day travel ban imposed on him by Air India? Is that the cost of a woman's life-long trauma?
Why is there no recognition that what Mishra did was beyond unruly behaviour and was, in fact, sexual harassment?
To the all Indian airlines:
What are you doing to sensitise your cabin crew about what is sexual harassment, and how they can act without increasing the trauma faced by women passengers?
Will Air India and other Indian airlines promise to take a stronger stand to prevent such incidents?
In the meantime, as we ring in 2023, women have one more thing to watch out for while traveling be in buses, trains or flights in addition to groping and other violations of their personal spaces – men urinating on them.
(Meenakshi Sajeev is a Bengaluru-based freelance writer. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)