Monday, 16 July 2012

Street harassment

By Lea Goelnitz, Intern in Gender Training Institute - Centre for Social Research
Usually my day starts with reading the news, but ever since I live in India, I always reconsider spoiling my sweet papaya or mango for breakfast, turning it to taste bitter, by reading what is going on in the streets of India. But anyway, as I m into politics and I am interested in current affairs I usually end up picking up the paper and read….

Just this week Guwahati top cop: Police not an ATM machine that arrives instantly a girl in Guwahati was molested by 20 men and no one did anything. The police came after 30 minutes and by now four of the men are arrested. The whole incident was filmed and some more men were identified on the tape, but they could not have been arrested yet. As if this poor law enforcement and the late police response are not already reason enough to be outraged. What makes me even angrier is that regardless of the fact if these guys get arrested or not, thanks to Indian law it is not very likely that justice will be achieved.

The charges against the arrested men are Section 341 (wrongful restraint), Section 143 (unlawful assembly), Section 294 (obscene act), Section 323 (voluntarily causing hurt), Section 354 (assault or criminal force on a woman with the intent to outrage her modesty) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). This seems like a heavy load of violations. But all these are have the option of bailout and the punishments are extremely disproportioned to the damage the violations cause. The punishment for causing voluntary hurt is either one year imprisonment or to pay Rs. 1000 or both. Additionally, everyone knows how overloaded Indian courts are; it takes ages until a case is actually dealt with. This further undermines the power of those seeking justice.

These are severe crimes, resulting in physical and psychological damage and even death. There needs to be new and better laws and actual law enforcement addressing violence against women in public.

Another morning, same situation…. I find an article Baghpat Panchayat issues a Taliban-style diktat to women in which I discover that I am not the only one thinking about women’s safety in public places. Some men in the Uttar Pradesh’s Baghpat area are very concerned about street harassment in their villages and decide to do something against it.


Their “solution” is that all women under 40 years of age (because women over 40 do not get harassed!?) are not allowed to go to the market unescorted and are not allowed to use mobile phones (because one could use it to call a friend or the police for help!?). And there will be “severe punishment for the women who violate this code of conduct”.

Obviously, these rules are unacceptable and not helpful in any way. This reaction to harassment is part of the problem not the solution. This women-blaming approach to harassment in India makes change even more difficult. The euphemism “eve teasing” which is the most common term used for street harassment makes it sound harmless and focuses on the women not the perpetrators.

Unfortunately, stories of street harassment are not out of my life once I trash the newspaper.

By the time I get to the shop nearby to get milk I am done with my share of being ‘checked out’ stared at, approached and talked to.

When I meet my flat mate at home after work, I ask “how was your day?” but it does not mean” how are you and what did you do at work today?” in the first place. No it turned into “how was it to be out in the streets today? Which kinds of public harassment were you exposed to today and how was your reaction to it?”

We debate on the advantages and disadvantages of pepper spray and other “weapons”, we strategize on routes to take to places and on responses we give in which situation to which men, considering what is possible to do and say in regard to the amount of men, the level of aggression and if it is daytime or night time. We applaud each other when we managed to react in a way which did not leave us feel powerless. This does not happen that often.

Even „lighter“ forms of harassment are violence lead to a feeling of insecurity and fear and the need to be on guard all the time. They make women think about what to wear (not that this actually has an impact), to reflect on their attitude and behaviour, strategize the timing, the way, how and with whom they go to work, school or to see friends. Of course, I too, do all of this.

But even with all this logisitcs, strategies and adjustments, women are not rewareded for that by being safe. Neither are these restrains publicly acknowledged.

I feel harassed when I receive unwanted attention in the street (for the record, basically all of it is unwanted), and the only one who decides what is unwanted is me. When I am alone in public, I am usually going somewhere deliberately. I am on my way to get a rickshaw, see a friend, and go to a shop or to work. I do not just hang out by myself (especially not in the dark).

So when strange men talk to me or stare at me, that means it is assumed that whatever I am up to do is less important than what they are doing and it is fine to interrupt me and demand my attention.

Street harassment is a strategy to scare women away from the public space so they do not work or go to school, earn their own money, go into politics, make decisions, claim property and take power.

So the message to me on a personal level is that I am made to feel uncomfortable and out of place because I dared to be in the male dominated public space, where according to them I should not be. I am being punished for participating in everyday life!

I came up with a new hobby. I am counting women. Everywhere I go, I count how many other women also dared to go. There need to be a lot more. The feeling of safety would increase if more women were out in public. In order for more women to be out in public, it needs to be safer.

Another vicious cycle to break…..

It should start with every parent telling their son “Do not harass!” instead of telling their daughter “Be careful!” (because that does not really help).

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