A Woman’s World.

street-harassment

Written by: Prarthana Banikya | Image: Women’s Web

“There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”

– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

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With the way the world is progressing, one would probably expect that more than two centuries after Jane Austen wrote those words in this iconic novel, women across the world would enjoy the same freedom and empowerment that men do. As a matter of fact, in India, the constitution tells us that’s the exactly the case. Politicians have lengthy speeches based loosely around women’s rights or their understanding of it. The media covers stories on rape, assault, femicide, honour killing, dowry and other atrocities against women. Policemen are delegated to control unruly crowds and patrol streets at night.

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But I ask you this. How can a woman be considered free if she cannot walk outside her home without feeling safe when men can?

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How is she free if she is harassed in public spaces while bystanders watch on and pretend like they are deaf and mute? “Eve teasing”, as they call it in many South Asian countries, is rampant in India. Except, I refuse to call it eve teasing.

If we go by the semantic meaning of the term, eve teasing indicates the temptress nature of Eve, suggesting the woman is a tease. What women go through day in and day out in public spaces is nothing short of sexual harassment and using inappropriate euphemisms is the first mistake we are making in dealing with this problem.

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Every society has good and bad elements – there’s no denying that. But, what if the bad elements become the norm and outweigh the good?

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During one of my summer breaks to the capital city of India, I’d hailed a three-wheeler from the railway station and was heading to a friend’s place. In the thirty-minute ride from the station to her home, I had men gawk, leer and peek into the three wheeler. When it first happened, my first reaction was to see if my clothes were out of place. Were my buttons undone? Was my blouse too tight? These are questions I am used to asking myself sometimes once, sometimes numerous times a day. I’d studied Sociology in the city for three years and I thought I was prepared for this trip. In that moment, I realized that it never gets better.

Back home, it isn’t very different. One of the first things I do after waking up in the morning is decide what to wear.

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For most people, this is usually based on where one is going and what would be socially apt. However, for a lot of women, it isn’t as simple.

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For instance, if it’s a crowded market place, I’d like to wear a shrug or jacket over my tee shirt just in case the shirt makes my curves more distinct. If I am taking the bus, I’d avoid wearing a dress or skirt, and instead, wear a pair of trousers or jeans. At home, if it’s summer and I happen to sleep in shorts and a spaghetti top, I’ll have to be ready to quickly change when the newspaper man, the cook, or the cable guy shows up at my door.

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I’d like to say that these measures help, but more often than not, they don’t. A woman covered in conservative clothing is just as likely to be harassed as a woman in so-called provocative clothing.

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Such incidents of harassment make us question ourselves, our choices, our lifestyle. It makes us forget the one thing that really matters. We are women. To men who harass women, it doesn’t matter how old we are, what we look like, what we wear or where we are from. Regardless, we try in vain to not stand out, to be invisible in crowds.

So what makes some men act the way they do? Is it a sickness, a deprivation, poor upbringing or a combination of these? It’s hard to say.

An incident of harassment I remember vividly happened to me when I was walking to the bakery three houses away from my home. I saw a guy on a scooter approaching from the other end of the street. He had one hand on the scooter’s handlebar and the other touching my breast as he zoomed past.

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This happened on a quiet residential street that I walked every day and one that children played hopscotch on, one that elderly woman took evening walks on.

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I don’t know if I ever let my guard down after that.

For most women I know, incidents of sexual harassment mostly take place outside their homes. In crowded streets, it’s the worst. Here, the art of dodging helps to an extent. Walking at a certain speed is necessary. I learned these the hard way after being touched, stroked and groped as a teenager more times than I can remember. But, the truth is, such incidents can happen just about anywhere.

For example, I remember how a man driving a sedan often used to park in front of the paying guest accommodation that my friends and I were renting. The car used to mysteriously appear on evenings when most women spent time on the terrace.

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We never saw the man in the car until one evening, when he flashed himself to us.

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After that incident, we started placing ourselves on the terrace in such a way that people on the street couldn’t see us.

Without a doubt, street harassment is a global problem, but one can’t help wondering if women in India have the dirtiest end of the stick.

I recently traveled out of the country to visit friends and instantly loved the vibe of the new city. What struck me most is how it was a strange new land for me, even when I so was visibly looked like a tourist, an outsider. But there I was, out late in the night, walking in a crowded street, wearing a summery dress, without having to be on my guard.

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Why do I feel so unsafe in India then, a country I grew up in and call my home? Why has the situation gone from bad to worse?

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For starters, as a nation, we need to stop being dismissive about the link between sexual harassment and rape.

Why do we place so much focus on rape when day in and day out, we quietly walk away when someone touches us inappropriately in a crowded street, or gropes us in a bus, or catcalls us on our way to work?

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The first step in dealing with such incidents is to speak up. We need to create awareness that such behaviour isn’t acceptable. Ever.

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Most cases of sexual harassment go unreported. When this happens, miscreants do the same thing over and over because there are no consequences for their actions. As difficult as it may be, reporting cases of harassment to the nearest police station is something we owe not just to ourselves but to numerous other women and young girls in the country.

Equally important is to stand up for each other when such incidents occur. When I was in high school, my mother and I used to frequently commute by bus. On most days, some man or another used to misbehave with women in the bus. When the women were either too shy or scared to speak up, mum my mother would confront the man and ask him to back off. This would lead to a heated argument but eventually, the man would leave the woman alone.

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Back then, I used to be embarrassed by my mother’s mediation and would argue with her about how she should just let people deal with their problems but now understand how important it was to do what she did.

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This responsibility lies equally on men and women. Whenever something wrong happens in front of us, we need to be willing to help. We were not educated to only earn a living, have a career or travel the world. We were also educated so we could be good people, good citizens and in turn inspire others to be better people. That’s what real education teaches us. And, isn’t that what the world needs too?

About the Author:

A graduate in Sociology from Miranda House, Prarthana is a former climate activist, communications executive, kindergarten teacher, travel adviser and academic author, but mostly, she is a starry-eyed poet and writer.

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  • Brilliantly articulates the nuances of harrassment women experience in India. This gender supression needs to end first for the country and its people to move forward or progress.

  • A well written article. Makes you wonder how deep this malaise lies in the psyche of the Indian male and how it could be cleansed.

  • Exactly what I always have in mind. The speaking up part and doing something about it is very important.We not only try to hide it more so when the predators are people we know, but we also remain mere spectators. The thought that first comes to mind when it happens to others is”thank God it’s not me”.
    But to be honest, nothing will change in our country ever, Never

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts! Things won’t change until we act when such incidents take place. And I believe when the sex offender is a known person, there’s even more reason to act on it.

  • Great job on nailing the problem down Prarthana and thank you for sharing your experience. Sadly, most women go through the same or even worse, everyday.

  • Very relevant article and I totally agree with the context. Sexual harassment is more apt than calling it Eve teasing. Be it the capital city or a small city in India, it is there everywhere and we can definitely stop this by not keeping quiet anymore, we women have to lash it out in the open.

    • Thank you! :) I agree, we should speak up against such issues irrespective of whether they happen to us or someone around us.

  • I guess a part of the blame should also rest with the movie fraternity which shows heroes to be ok to hoot or harass ladies

    • That’s what I’ve observed too, Anand. The media, the film and music industry needs to act more responsibly. Stalking is not okay. Harassing a woman is not okay. When a woman says no, it means no. Film makers need to rethink the consequences of irresponsible movies.

  • Prarthana has poured out her heart in anguish to reach out to all of us having similar experiences…there is perhaps not a single girl/woman who has not gone through this in our country…age doesn’t matter to perverts. Let’s stand up and speak up.. well done Prarthana!

    • Thank you! That was one of the reasons I wrote this piece. So that women are more vocal to talk about such incidents. The shame should not lie with us.

  • Wow this is such a beautifully written article! I’m also equally shocked at some of the horrendous incidents you had to go through. It’s sick how some Indian men just can’t control their urges, spoiling it for the rest of us. They’ve painted a really sad picture of us Indian men being rapists. Futile as it may sound, I wish this changed.

    • Thank you, Dapoon. A lot of women I know have gone through similar incidents, if not worse. I’m glad you liked the essay!

  • Thanks for sharing your experiences and your feelings. You have articulated the menace extremely well. There are no easy answers but your article will make readers pause and ponder.

  • This piece really echoes every women’s thoughts on this sensitive topic. You have managed to beautifully pen down various nuances of sexual harassment faced by women irrespective of age in our society . Well done Prarthana!!

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