sexual harassment

How to Fight Sexual Harassment By Being an 'Active Bystander'

Because public transportation should be safe for everyone.
December 22, 2017, 9:12am
Illustration by Dini Lestari

Virginia Raap couldn't believe her eyes. She was riding on the Jakarta commuter train when a man with a deep scar across his hand pulled his penis out and started to hump a woman's back in the middle of the crowded train car. Virginia, shocked at the scene, stared as everyone else stood there in silence. Determined to not let the man get away with it, she pulled out her phone and started to record the scene. The man noticed what she was doing and turned his attention to her.

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“He grabbed my hand really tight and scratched it," she wrote on her Instagram story of the event. "I fought back, trying to make him let go of my hand."

Screenshots of Virginia's story recently went viral in Indonesia as an unnerving reminder of how dangerous the country's public transportation can be for women. Sexual harassment is shockingly common in cities like Jakarta, and all too often, bystanders do little to intervene.

When Virginia started to record the sexual predator who was exposing himself on the train, everyone else was busy trying to ignore it. And when he turned his anger on her, the rest of the commuters continued to keep their distance. She was only able to get away by running from the train at the next stop. But by the time she found a police officer, the man was gone.

The viral story touched a nerve in Indonesia, inspiring women to share their own stories of sexual harassment and assault on public transportation. Many applauded Virginia for having the courage to actually do something instead of just sitting there and pretending it wasn't happening.

“What made me brave, in the end, was because the perpetrator’s made physical contact with me," Virginia told VICE. "So I had to fight even though I was scared. But I’m still traumatized. I'm even scared. I’m still scared to get on public transportation and be at crowded places.”

It difficult to truly measure how big of a problem sexual harassment is in Indonesia. According to data from the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan), only 268 instances of sexual harassment were reported to the police, NGOs, or Komnas Perempuan nationwide last year. But that's only the tip of the iceberg. On the site Hollaback, a global grassroots campaign combating street harassment, hundreds of women have shared their stories from Jakarta alone.

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That's why we need more active bystanders like Virginia. The concept is relatively new in Indonesia, but it's slowly gaining traction thanks to the efforts of feminist and anti-harassment groups. The idea here is that we all refuse to stay quiet and let harassment play out in front of us. We stop averting our eyes or tsking under our breath. Instead, we speak up and shame the person harassing someone to drive home the point that it's not OK.

It's a marked departure from the typical views on harassment. All too often people blame the victim, saying the only reason she was harassed was because of how she was dressed, or how she looked. It's rarely the men, the harassers, who get the blame. So while society shames the victim, the perpetrator gets to walk free with zero consequences.

“When we speak up, people think we’re lying," Dea Safira Basori told VICE. "So, a lot of people were scared to help others, because they don’t want to get blamed themselves, and don’t want the victim to get blamed either. In Indonesia we still need to promote the culture of speaking up.”

Dea, the founder of the feminist social media platform Indonesia Feminis, knows what it's like to be blamed for her own sexual harassment. She was 14 years old when a man harassed her on an angkot—a public minivan—and no one bothered to intervene. Instead they accused her of soliciting the attention because she was in a school uniform. She still feels the horror of that day when she thinks about it today.

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But there are ways to get over the initial fear of speaking up and learn to stand up for others in this kind of situation, explained Anindya Restuviani, one of the founders of Hollaback! Jakarta. Anindya, or Vivi to her friends, said that a lifetime of harassment and Indonesia's pervasive rape culture have left many desensitized to sexual harassment. Others are too worried that they too will become a victim if they attempt to intervene.

"There are many factors to why people become inactive bystanders,” Vivi told VICE. “There’s a point where someone simply doesn’t know what to do, and there are several types of harassment that have become normalized. It could also be because they’re scared and prioritizing their safety first."

Vivi advocates the use of Hollaback's "5D" approach to stopping sexual harassment. The formula is as follows:

  • Direct - Confront the harasser and call them out on their behavior in front of everyone
  • Distract - Interrupt the harasser or the victim to separate the two and ensure the victim's safety
  • Delegate - Report the incident to the closest authority figure
  • Delay - Approach the victim and ask if they are OK. Offer your help.
  • Document - Record the incident, but only after helping the victim. And make sure you ask the victim before you post anything online.

Authority figures and public transit companies attempt to minimize harassment by creating "safe spaces," for female riders—areas like women-only train cars or special seats near the front of the bus. But this alone isn't enough, Vivi explained. Sexual harassment and violence will continue to be a problem until enough people learn that it's not acceptable behavior. And the only way to do that is by speaking up and making your voice heard.

“The way I see it, we still need a safe space from sexual violence against women," Vivi said. "But we can’t rely on that alone, because it’s not on the women. In an ideal world, we wouldn't need a safe space for women because public places should be safe for everyone.”