Street Sexual Harassment: I refuse to be a victim; I refuse to take the blame
It happens in broad day light. It happens in full view of the public. It happens on streets, malls, buses, metros, lanes, by lanes. It happens to a minor, a mother, a sister, an elderly. It happens to EVERY woman around the world. It is street sexual harassment, and I refuse to term it as ‘eve-teasing’ or having ‘fun’.
Yesterday, I was returning home with my sister when we decided to take the bus as waiting for a cab seemed unending. Because of the approaching festive season, Kolkata, has become a city of nightmare, with people flooding the street, malls and buses, to do some last minute shopping and buying. Usually the buses are very crowded in the evening but fortunately, we got a place to sit. After adjusting the shopping bags under the seat, I called out at the conductor for the tickets and took out the money to give him. He took one glance at us, and quickly responded, shoving passengers on the way, to reach us to hand our tickets. While taking the money from me, he slyly pressed my fingers with his hand, and quickly vanished in to the crowd, promising to get back with the change quickly. I was infuriated but thought he would not repeat it again. I was wrong. When he came back, he tried to touch my hand again, and this time he smiled. I saw red. I screamed. I warned him that I would report his behavior to the officials and he could lose his job. On hearing this, he retorted angrily saying, “People should not travel in buses, if they cannot handle crowd, especially women.”I fumed but my sister pulled me down and told me to remain quiet. The conductor left, muttering under his breath.
After about 10 minutes or so, he returned, surprisingly to apologize. It seemed my warning had worked. He became polite and repeatedly told us not to complain to the authorities. I relented and warned him not to repeat the same ever. He quickly vanished in to the crowd again. I looked at my sister and smiled. After 20 minutes or so, we reached our stop, and got down. I could not trace the conductor any more. We reached home. Exhausted after all the traveling and shopping.
When I narrated this incident to my husband late night, he was happy to know that I reprimanded the conductor in public and told me to voice my discomfort no matter what the situation demands.
But voicing my opinion and saying ‘no’ has never come easy to me. I remember a similar incident had happened in Mumbai, some 6-7 years back, in sophomore year of my college. I was still new to the city. Little naïve and lacked confidence.
I used to take the bus to college every day, which was a 20 minute ride. Invariably i had to stand for most part of the journey as the buses remain crowded. That particular day, I remember feeling very uneasy.
I usually stood close to the door, near the bus driver’s seat for a quick exit. I noticed the person standing behind me was constantly shoving and pushing. Many a times, his hand touched my waist, but I chose to ignore. When finally the situation got a little out of control, i decided to turn back to face the guy. I was shocked to find a fifty something man, looking straight at me, with a wide grin on his face. My skin crawled but I quickly looked away. I decided to move forward hoping that the man would not get an opportunity to touch. But he followed. He slowly crept up behind me and started leaning towards me. At this time he said something which I could not follow or maybe don’t remember, but what I could remember and feel was his long, heavy breathing, on the back of my neck. I prayed for the ordeal to get over. And it did. I quickly got down from the bus at my stop and hurriedly walked towards my college, without looking back. The uneasiness still lurked inside me.
In the evening when I returned to my hostel, I reflected on the incident and realized that maybe my inaction and inability to say ‘no’ prompted the person to carry on with his sadistically evil behavior. That moment i realized how important it is to say a firm ‘no’ and stand up for our dignity. I vowed to never remain silent. I vowed not to suffer.
It has been almost 7 years since that incident. Nothing much has changed though. The same crime takes place, albeit in a different city, by a different person.
The Maitrayani Samhita (Yajurveda: one of the four canonical texts of Hinduism), repeatedly says that a woman’s body is not her own, so she cannot prevent herself from being molested.
The current ministers (including some of the women leaders) repeatedly blamed women for ‘inviting’ the offenders.
Harassment and its definition:
To put first things first, in IPC, the word ‘eve-teasing’ does not exist. It is a euphemism used in India and sometimes in Nepal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh for public sexual harassment or molestation of women by men. The brushing in public places, catcalls, sexually explicit comments, sexist remarks, groping, leering, stalking, public masturbation and assault, all comes under street sexual harassment. In short any activity that violates a woman’s dignity and her basic right to live is an act of sexual harassment.
Like me, there are innumerable victims, in each city, who are forced to treat this ‘every day affair’ lightly either because their law says so or because of further shame and embarrassment. The fact that harassment does not depend on the marital status, color, caste, height, weight, or mental affliction of a woman, proves that it is a widespread social disease which needs to be wiped out NOW.
Most of the time, the girl is blamed. Most of the time, her’ provocative’ dress or ‘loud’ make- up is the reason behind the crime.
Possible causes of rise in street sexual harassment in my country:
‘Bollywood’ ,our very own Hindi cinema industry, churns out movies year after year for the public. And scores watch them, sing to their tunes, and emulate them, trying to be the next ‘hero’ or the ‘villain’ on the streets. Some depictions in Indian cinema show mild teasing as part of flirtatious beginnings of a courtship. ‘Pinching’ of the stomach or trying to run away with the ‘dupatta’( the long scarf that a woman carries or wear it with a suit), are common ways in which a ‘hero’ accosts the ‘heroine’. The ‘heroine’ is shown to be submissive and coy, giving in to the ‘hero’s advances by the end of the song. Young men tend to emulate the same thinking that they too can get away with same kind of behaviour with similar results.
The Police/ constable’s outlook towards the issue is equally deplorable. If at all a woman, gathers the courage to complain at the police station, the officer makes it a point to make matters worse for her. His smirk and the look on his face is enough to express that he does not believe a word of what you said, or better still, does not care.
Most of the time, the case is difficult to establish because victims run away or never come back to check on the case.
Many a times the victim and her family feels that she has suffered enough and running around police stations or court would only make the matter worse.
The Law, which is not as effective as it should be, fails to convict the offenders. Ignorance of the law and ignorance of the rights as citizens makes the situation difficult and gives the culprit room to run.
Most importantly, we tend to perpetuate the idea of ‘men will be men’. We seem to overlook the crime simply because we think men are born that way.
What the Law says under IPC:
I find it of utmost importance to highlight here what the law says regarding street sexual harassment. As mentioned before the Law does not recognise the term ‘eve teasing’. It is a mindset construed to insult women and their dignity. Section 292 of the IPC clearly spells out that showing pornographic or obscene pictures, books, draws a fine of Rs.2000 with 2 years of rigorous imprisonment for first offenders. In repeated offence, he is slapped with a fine of Rs.5000 and 5 years of imprisonment.
Under section 509 of the IPC, obscene gestures, indecent body language and acidic comments directed at any woman or girl carries a penalty of rigorous imprisonment for 1 year or a fine or both. But it is a bailable offence.
Note-worthy action taken in some cities:
With the increasing incidences of harassment in Kolkata and other cities, and ineffective law, the women constables, have decided to take up the matter in their hands, and they have started functioning as undercover agents by acting as decoys in the areas most afflicted. Their stint has been successful so far with more than 60 offenders held in less than two months.
What more could be done:
Historically and culturally, girls and boys have been brought up differently in my country. They have been taught different things and told to react differently. Girls are encouraged not to speak out against crime or crime doers. Boys are taught to be the protector, but, if and when they feel like having ‘little fun’ at the expense of others they can. Why?
Because the books we read teach so.
Because the law does not care and is not effective enough.
Because as humans we do not care.
The outdated upbringing that demarcates on basis of gender has to go. Only with a radical shift in social attitude, sensitizing police, stringent law, increased awareness, can a nation achieve zero tolerance towards street sexual harassment.
It happens in every country, every city, and every town. No girl is spared. No girl feels safe.
As long as the women of my country do not feel safe, we are not a free nation.
As long as we remain ignorant of our laws and rights, we remain a chained nation. A nation chained to slavery of outdated thoughts, and distorted beliefs.