I’ve only had this blog for about seven months and one of my most powerful entries was about when I was harassed on the street by a man.
I have been trying to wrap my head around the global reach of eve-teasing, or street harassment, for as long as I can remember being aware of it. I grew up in the United States but have been traveling back to see my family in West Bengal every few years or so since I was born. When I was young, my parents allowed me to wear shorts and t-shirts in India as I squirmed under the intense heat. Then, as I morphed into a young adult, I joined the rest of the women who made sure we were suitably dressed when we left the house – breasts submerged under the careful folds of our dupattas or fitted under the layers of sari. My brother continued to wear shorts and tank-tops, much to my irritation. But even as a pre-teen, I saw it. The stares on the street, the way women kept their heads down or their eyes averted. I wasn’t used to it. When I was younger, I thought of it as a game. How many men will I look in the eye and shock today? How many men will I smile at from this passing car? At that point I felt empowered in my ignorance, and perhaps innocence. I felt as though these women were putting their heads down and avoiding these stares because they were conservative. I felt that this was just the root of my own mother’s anxious cautioning about boys that ruined my burgeoning social life back in the States.
I remember once when I was out shopping with my mother and aunt at New Market, or some place that was an early incarnation of the new fancy malls they have in Kolkata now. It must have been summer and I remember dawdling a few feet behind my mother, since I was always worn out by the heat and didn’t have the stamina for shopping that I do now. I remember that the market was dim, barely lit by the fluorescent lights in the ceiling. The floor was dusty and my feet were dragging. Suddenly, as is want to happen, the market went pitch black because of load shedding. It was probably just 30 seconds or so before the generators came on but when I could see again, my mother was right by my side looking panicked. She grabbed my arm harshly and started yelling at me. “Why are you lagging? You have to stay next to me!” I was so surprised by her anger. I remember pulling my arm away and being bratty because I didn’t understand. As she pulled me along, she said that I had to be careful because men in India would do bad things to you. The moment sticks out to me because I saw so much fear in her eyes at that moment. It wasn’t until much later that I understood that my mother, like most women in India, had experienced eve-teasing and was just trying to protect me.
When I was in India last year, I wrote this article about the connections I saw between technology and sexuality. I got a lot of responses from young men in India who commented on what they thought was a contradiction: How I thought of myself as sexually liberated and then complained about men staring on the street. I felt like this idea – that women are asking for it – is the biggest problem that prevents eve-teasing and street harassment from ending. I’ve actually learned a lot about the issue in India by just perusing the Blank Noise site this past few days leading up to the Blog-a-thon. There are some really interesting articles on the legality behind sexual harassment laws in India.
I always find that sexual harassment and safety issues come up with my girlfriends when we are traveling. Last year when I was in India, I kept trying to separate the fear that my family instilled in my head with reality. Were cab drivers really going to abduct me and sell me into slavery? If I walked alone on the street after dusk was I really going to be harassed to the point of danger? This also happened when I was traveling in South and Central America. Every time I found myself buying into the rhetoric that men in India and Mexico were much more egregious street harrassers, I would think about my daily existence in the United States where I am constantly dealing with men making comments to me. Regardless of where I am in the world, I refuse to bow my head to this disempowerment. I am thinking of getting a camera phone just so I can participate in the Holla Back project.
Action Hero Neela Banerjee