I was about 12-13, I think. I would join a friend who lived nearby and we’d walk to the neighboring naval colony to play hopscotch with our school friends. There was a small gang of scruffy looking boys who’d lounge by the roadside and snigger at us as we passed by. And then one day as we walked home, we found huge hearts drawn in chalk on the road, with our names and rude comments inscribed within. We were mortified, and furiously tried to rub the marks away. But they remained, jeering at us for a few days. I was most ashamed that the sweet old auties and uncles who knew us would read those disgusting words ont heir daily walks.
That was my first memory of eve-teasing/harassment – an experience that is perfectly normal, and indeed expected, by an Indian woman.
When I first started traveling in Bombay – using the buses and trains, I was 15 and still naïve. Men would stand too close, or brush up against me, and initially I always wondered if I was being overly sensitive, and that perhaps the crowded situations were to blame for these ‘imagined’ touches. But bitter experience taugh me to trust my gut instincts and never, ever second-guess myself.
There are incidents too many to recount here. There was the time in an over-crowded bus when I felt a stranger’s fingers creep an inch under my loose top and stroke my waist. I whirled around, only to find a dozen male strangers nonchalantly minding their own business. Who could I blame ? Then there was the time when I was sitting in a crowded bus seat on the side, and the man standing next to me kept using the bus’s motion to shove his crotch in my face. The many times when I’d travel in a crowded train compartment and feel the men pushing against me as we struggled to get out of the compartment. Rarely was there a clear perpetrator whom you could identify and jab with your elbow (or even better, your umbrella), and create a hue-and-cry.
And sometimes even that didn’t help matters. The offense so quick and fleeting, the perpetrator so nonchalant and quick, that I would be left in humiliated self-doubt and frustrated indignation.
Another touchy issue is dealing with the stares. Those utterly male stares that mentally strip you and make you feel completely exposed. The leering grins that make your teeth clench. The salivating looks that make your toes curl up. That make you want to shove your knee in their groin and scratch their eyes out.
And it’s worse when they were in groups. All that co-mingling testosterone seems to bring out the predators in them. The less dangerous ones would pass insolent remarks, or sing demeaning Bollywood numbers. The more dangerous ones would stalk you, and follow you around. I was plain enough to not attract such stalkers, but I have friends who suffered.
I have always worn an invisible armour in India. Apart fromt the universal fear of death in dangerous situations, was a fear, unique to women, that cloaked me all the time. An armor that I shed when I came here to the U.S. Oh don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of dangerous places here too. But the danger is of losing my life. And the danger of being an immigrant. But rarely the danger of being a woman. I went back to India this Decemeber, and found myself wearing that lost armor again.
The funny thing about all this is our general attitude to it. It is something that we women expect to experience. We ‘modern’ women may have stopped taking it lying down, and take action when we can. Nevertheless, it’s a sad fact of life that eve-teasing is a normal part of life. We Bombayites even considered ourselves luckier, because at least we weren’t like our sisters in Delhi – who’d travel in busses with their arms crossed at their chest, pointed needles poking out of their fists at either side!
We must recognize eve teasing as a crime, something that may be normal, but nevertheless unacceptable. And the responsibility falls not just on women, but equally on men too. I’ve found that a lot of these boors prey on women, only because they take advantage of the skewed power balance between the sexes. Add a man or two to support the woman’s side and the cowardly perpetrators will quietly slink off. Male or female, our job is to speak up. Us womenfolk have to treat eve-teasing as absolutely unacceptable and speak out against every act of harassment. And you men cannot stay silent – you must speak up, speak out, speak against. Do not stand quietly by as such things happen. Use your voices.
- Action Hero Ash