My Tehelka blogpost for this week

Let’s start by calling it Street Sexual Harassment

Illustration: Samia Singh

If you are a woman reading this, raise your hand if you’ve never been groped, molested, whistled at, had lewd comments passed at you or stalked on the streets in India.

I think there would be a limited show of hands. Not a single woman I know, and have asked this question of, has reported not having experienced this. From the time they were young girls going to school they know that when they walk on the streets, they need to be alert, to avoid hands reaching out to grope them, elbows angled to hit their breasts, unnecessary pressure while standing in a queue, a wolf whistle, a comment. We accept it as commonplace. As part and parcel of being out and about in the streets of our cities and towns, in order to go about our daily routine of school, college, work.

Eve teasing they call it. The term has emerged as a euphemism for the varying degrees of street sexual harassment that is commonplace in our part of the world, so commonplace in fact that it gets ignored, goes unreported and uncommented upon, and we women learn soon to take it in our stride as inevitable.

The Oxford dictionary defines eve teasing as “noun [mass noun] Indian. the making of unwanted sexual remarks or advances by a man to a woman in a public place.” Kindly note the inclusion of Indian in the definition. According to Wikipedia, which is a much more comprehensive explanation of the term “Eve teasing is a euphemism used in India and sometimes Bangladesh for public sexual harassment or molestation of women by men, with use of the word “Eve” being a reference to the biblical Eve, the first woman. It implies that the woman is in some way responsible for the behaviour of the perpetrators of this act. Considered a problem related to delinquency in youth, it is a form of sexual aggression that ranges in severity from sexually suggestive remarks, brushing in public places and catcalls to outright groping.

Sometimes it is referred to with a coy suggestion of innocent fun, making it appear innocuous with no resulting liability on the part of the perpetrator. Some voluntary organisations have suggested that the expression be replaced by a more appropriate term. According to them, considering the semantic roots of the term in Indian English, Eve teasing refers to the temptress nature of Eve, placing responsibility on the woman as a tease.”

The points to be noted in this definition are “with no resulting liability on the part of the perpetrator,” which is what results in the outright impunity with most perpetrators considering it their god given birthright to harass women on the streets, and more importantly, and the reason why I object to the term eve teasing, “placing responsibility on the woman as a tease.”

Eve as the temptress from Biblical times, resulting in the man being unable to control his impulses to ‘tease’ her, is etymologically, the cause of her own harassment according to this term. Could we start by stopping the use of the term eve teasing? We don’t invite it, we don’t want it, and we know that it starts with the sense of being able to get away with these incidents which then leads to a sense of entitlement, and an escalation of the degree of sexual harassment. By calling it ‘teasing’ we are trivializing it, making it seem less of an offence than it is.

We’ve seen ‘eve teasing’ in our popular cinema, where the very concept of wooing a girl starts with making a public pestilence of themselves right through to borderline stalking until the girl coyly caves in and falls in love with the male protagonist. With limited interactions with members of the opposite sex due to socio-cultural factors, generations of men grow up believing that this is the only route to woo a woman. That a woman’s consent to a romantic relationship can be got only through consistently harassing her. The garden variety roadside romeos who populate every street corner though might have less lofty things than love and romance in their minds, to them street sexual harassment is a display of their machismo, a sorry way to boost their self esteem.

On the streets of our cities, sexual harassment comes as part of the territory. In their book Why Loiter: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets, authors Shilpa Phadke and Sameera Khan argue that a woman’s presence in public spaces in the city must be defined by acceptable reasons, and a woman has to constant censure herself when out in public, as to what time she is out, what she is wearing, who she is with, and so on.

A majority of the street sexual harassment cases go unreported because of various factors, including fear of retribution, hesitancy on the part of the woman to go to a police station, lack of time for the long drawn out process of filing a complaint, amongst others and the very real possibility of her complaint not being taken seriously. Nonetheless, every day we have reports in the newspapers about such cases.

In 2011, Keenan Santos and Reuben Fernandes were butchered to death in Mumbai because they objected to a drunken lout passing lewd comments and falling on a girl they were with. The lout returned with autos full of men with weapons and, scarily, not a single passerby came to the rescue of the two boys. In 2012, Santosh Vichivora stood up to a group of boys who passed an objectionable comment at a girl he was walking with and was stabbed to death on the spot. ‘Eve teasing’ is not as innocuous as the term would suggest, it is done with impunity, considered a birth right and it would seem anyone objecting to it can be killed for doing so.

Interestingly, a reporter from Aaj Tak was groped while reporting on the Delhi Gang Rape protests, a fact that only goes to show the impunity with which most street harassers consider that what they do is not punishable and something they can get away with, even though cameras were present at the moment. Because more often than not, they do.

The good news is that street sexual harassment is now being taken seriously.

In a bid to curb street sexual harassment, the Supreme Court has directed all States and Union Territories to compulsorily post plain clothes women officers at public places to weed out offenders, install CCTVs at public places, amongst other measures. To quote the Bench of Justices KS Radhakrishnan and Dipak Misra from newspaper reports: “Eve-teasing today has become a pernicious, horrid and disgusting practice. More and more girls and women go to educational institutions, workplaces, etc, and their protection is of extreme importance to a civilised and cultured society. The experiences of women and girl children in overcrowded buses, metros, trains, etc, are horrendous, and a painful ordeal.” (Read about their directives here).

The first thing we need to do is to stop trivialising it by calling it ‘eve teasing’. Let’s call it what it is. “Street Sexual Harassment.” This is harassment that is punishable by law and something that no woman should have to accept as an inevitable aspect to being out of her home. By accepting these daily instances of harassment as inevitable, we are only setting the stage for worse crimes against women as a matter of degree of inevitability.

Read the original here: http://blog.tehelka.com/lets-start-by-calling-it-street-sexual-harassment/

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About Kiran Manral

Author of The Face At The Window, ( 2016), Karmic Kids, All Aboard (2015) , Once Upon A Crush (2014) and The Reluctant Detective (2011).
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One Response to My Tehelka blogpost for this week

  1. Alka says:

    Can we please call it ‘domestic sexual terrorism’. Even ‘sexual harassment’ seems too mild a word. Any harassment that has in it the inherent capability to cause mental, physical trauma and could result in death (as your examples have shown) is ‘terrorism’.
    If we do not use strong and apt words, we will not be able to take strong and apt action.

    Like

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