Today is the first post of a series of guest posts on Fear that will be published on this blog through this month. Today’s contributor is Pradita, who I have come to know through the world of blogging. Pradita is a wonderful woman. The best thing about her is that she is very clear in her opinion. Once again, thank you Pradita for writing this piece – I understand how much courage it takes to be able to share something like this in a public forum. Especially, in the light of the recent events in Bangalore, I think this conversation could not be better timed. More power to you!
Contributor: Pradita Kapahi
Street Harassment: Fear of the Road
There are millions of women out there, who’ll agree that its not easy being a woman in this country. We’ve idolized women in religion, we call them Devis, the Holy Mother and what not; we’ve given them the right to vote, the right to earn a living, the right to voice their opinions; the right to lead a dignified life… But does it actually amount to anything in the face of the constant criticism and the comparisons we face in daily life?
How many of you women have been subjected to sexual harassment like child-abuse, rape, marital rape, molestation… or even something as seemingly harmless as eve-teasing or catcalling? I’m sure a lot of you will say you’ve had at least one of those happen to you. And if you haven’t, as a woman, had the misfortune of having experienced any of these, I’d say you are very lucky, and you should cherish yourself for being one of the unscarred women out there who are vastly, a minority. I’m glad you didn’t encounter these experiences. Not all experiences need to be ‘experienced‘ in life.
But today I don’t want to draw your attention to sexual harassment of the more severe kind. I’m here to talk about the grey area of eve-teasing, catcalling or street harassment and the fear it induces in women.
Catcalling? Street Harassment? Eve -teasing What’s that?
It’s when you get wolf-whistles or leery stares, gestures, or comments of a sexual or otherwise derogatory nature from random strangers on the road.
Whistling at someone is harassment?
Yes, it could be, if your intentions were wrong and if the woman in question was offended by it. And I’ll tell you my story and then you can decide why it is a form of sexual harassment.
I used to take a bus to work initially, before the Metro in my city started on that route, and city buses have always been crowded, stuffy and slow at rush hours. You could either avoid taking them and take the more expensive cabs and even more unsafe rickshaws, or just shut-up and hop onto one and suffer the two hour long ride…. and everything that came with it.
On one such occasion, I was sitting on an aisle seat and the bus was stuffed with commuters. So much so that one couldn’t even lift their hand without rubbing into another. Suddenly, I felt a hand brush along my thigh. I ignored it, thinking it must be an accident. Even if it was intentional, these things happened a LOT on buses, Metros and even on crowded roads to complain about. A girl learns to ignore them.
But the brushing happened several times, at various other places on my body. And each time my suspicion grew stronger, till the sixth-seventh time, when the ‘brushing’ reached my chest, I looked up angrily and spotted a leery looking man, who couldn’t have been older than me (I was 23 back then), staring down at me and obviously enjoying himself at my expense. I shouted at him, people around him looked angrily, but no one said a word to him….
10 minutes later he was at it again. Rubbing against my arm, my chest, my back (I’m being modest here) and there were several times when I told him off, but neither did he stop, nor did anyone else force him to. Like I said before, the bus was stuffed, so there was no way people around me could have missed just how many times I had angrily told this guy off.
Around an hour later he got off at a stop mercifully and had the audacity of blowing me a kiss, which everyone around me saw but ignored. It wasn’t just unbelievable, it was downright disgusting the way he took pride in what he did. And the most incredible thing is, he was back on that same bus next day to repeat his misdemeanor, at which point I asked the bus driver to stop so I could get off.
Back home I told my parents about what had happened. They were understandably enraged and aghast and told me to stop taking that route or stop taking that bus altogether, which is what I did. But the point is – “I” had to adjust my route and my way of living for that miscreant, when it should have been the other way around.
This is a prime example of a lewd gesture that is not exactly molestation but is not harmless like lewd looks or whistling. This is what you can label as street harassment.
And this is not the only time something like this happened to me. There were many other times. Like the one time when a middle aged man waved his ‘junk’ at me and my two girl-friends and followed us like that for a couple of blocks on his bike. Or the time when a middle aged man made catcalls and other sexually degrading gestures at me, yet again on a bus. Or that time when a guy grabbed my backside and then ran away when me and my sister chased him down. There are many more of such incidents, including some graver offences that I don’t wish to bring forth here. All of them happened in broad daylight. Because I was taught to never step out late into the night unescorted. Why? Because roads are no place for unescorted women.
But that one incident in the bus stayed with me for weeks on end because the guy was back to repeat it. That had never happened before to me, that someone could be back to just harass the same person again. For the first time in my life I was afraid of going to work, I was afraid of travelling even in crowded places, I was afraid of being a woman. I was afraid of the road…
What angered me most was not just that he did it and took pride in it, but also how helpless I felt about it. If I could only raise an alarm, get him thrown off the bus or report him to the police, this would have stopped. But do you know why women who are in my situation never report such incidents, or for that matter, never even go beyond warning such men –
Of being rebuked…
Of being called a liar…
Of being followed by that man again only to extract much worse revenge…
Of being a child or a woman who needs to keep a dignified face in society…
Of encountering an unresponsive enforcement agency…
These are the reasons why many women across the world don’t report street-harassment. Eve-teasing, catcalling or street harassment is the often ignored part of sexual harassment. That’s because it is not as enraging and not as intrusive as the other forms of sexual abuse. It manifests more in the abstract rather than physical form, and its effect on the victim is also more in the form of mental trauma, but its effects can be very scarring for the victim. The fact is, it is a form of sexual harassment and it should be stopped.
Those incidents that your read about regarding acid attacks on women by road side romeos begin with street-harassment. Recently, a woman in Pune was stalked on the streets for weeks by an irate romeo who later murdered her. The story of her end began on the road. Many instances of sexual abuse begin from street harassment. It becomes even more relevant thus, to put a stop to it, because it could be a precursor for a much worse crime.
Right now, the law in India does not provide much by way of safety from street harassment. Section 509 of the Indian Penal Code gives very basic redressal in the form of imprisonment or fines for eve-teasing. Section 304 provides for assault against women. Frequent acid attacks led to the inclusion of Sections 326 A and 326 B into the Indian Penal Code which make the act of acid throwing or any attempt to do so a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment for several years. But the truth is such matters often go unreported because the law is rendered lame by an ineffective and unresponsive Enforcement Agency and Legal system.
Again I’ll take my own example. Did I go and report that guy or any of those things that happened to me? I didn’t. Why? Because I knew reporting and taking legal action would be a long-drawn affair, which could further instigate the perpetrator to do something worse to me. And I’m a lawyer! If I have no faith in the law, I can’t imagine what a semi-literate woman who faces harassment on the streets would suffer in the face of unresponsive government agencies and an irate roadside-romeo.
The problem does not however lie in only the law or the enforcement agencies. Like I pointed out above, the law is there. What’s missing is the will to enforce it. And the will is missing because to a large extent we let it happen and suffer with it. Women are taught to ignore it. A woman will change her route to school/college/work but will not report it unless things got very serious. Men are taught to ignore it too, like the ones who were there the day I was on that bus. And let me be very honest, I haven’t seen women doing street harassment. I’m sorry if I’m ruffling some feathers here but that’s the truth from my POV.
Women, we have to teach ourselves to let this fear subside and take cudgels against this seemingly harmless crime. If a woman is afraid to take the road because of stalkers or lewd comments then that is a grave problem and a stigma on our society. We have to teach ourselves that it’s not okay to let it go. We must also help those who need our help to bring this change in the society – victims, the enforcement agencies, the media or the legislature. If you see someone being harassed, confront the perpetrator. Approach whoever you can and pester them to do something about it.
Be the change!
No one else will change for you!
Men, and if you are a woman who has done it, stop doing it or letting it happen before your eyes, and start respecting the privacy and lives of others! Your seemingly innocent diversion of singing ‘dhak, dhak karne laga‘ or ‘choli ke peeche kya hai‘ will not earn you brownie points with anyone. 9 out of 10 women will tell you that if a guy approaches them and gives them an honest compliment in a non-lewd manner, they like it. But waving your junk at us, or making sexual comments, gestures or sounds, is not the way to earn someone’s heart.
Your harmless ‘fun‘ could spell ‘fear’ for someone else…