Saturday, August 04, 2007

Life on the Streets

Today, I came across a Blank Noise Project which asked women to share their experiences of street sexual harassment or eve teasing. I read with horror about how so many women faced so many instances of being groped, slid against, fondled, had to put up with lascivious stares and rude comments.

As someone who was born and brought up in a small city, I never had to face much of this. My parents gave me quite a bit of freedom, and from a very young age I was used to walking to school and back home alone or with a friend, after my parents made sure I was given a proper ‘security briefing’ – don’t talk to strangers, don’t accept anything from strangers, don’t walk close to parked cars (this after a child in the neighbourhood was snatched into a waiting car) and such stuff which all children must be aware of.

But beyond that, Vizag was relatively a very safe place, and not just for women and there was a wonderful sense of security which I now realize a lot of teenage girls might missed out on. The first instance of eve teasing I remember was when I was 12. My uncle and I were waiting at the lobby of a cinema theatre for my Dad to join us. As my uncle vaguely looked around, a guy winked and leered at me. I was very startled, for this was the first time I had faced such behaviour. For a moment, I contemplated winking back at him just to give him a shock but decided against it and pretended to ignore it.

I started using a Kinetic when I was 15, as did most of my friends. Many of us were frequently followed, especially if we were coming back from the beach. It didn’t worry us much as the guys would mostly follow us only up to a common point and then take off in the direction of their destination. And we knew that there were dozens of people whose houses we could stop at and complain if the boys got troublesome. So most of us found it either amusing or annoying but never made us feel unsafe.

In fact, I remember 2 guys would follow 2 of my friends on their bike. When they started doing this on a daily basis, one of the girls told her dad. The next day, her dad went to his friend’s place, which was on the route which the girls took. He and his friend waited on the road till the girls came along, followed by the 2 guys. The boys were stopped, help up against the wall, and threatened that their parents and the police would be called up. The boys were made to apologise, give their phone numbers (verified with their ID cards) and sent off with a warning. The poor boys were only 16, just a year older to us, and were completely terrified – but I hope this lesson remains with them and they think a hundred times before they decide to trouble any other girl ever again.

Hyderabad was a different ball game altogether. I went to college in an auto in the morning and when returning, I’d either go by auto and take a bus and then walk home for a kilometer. Also, in the 1st year, none of my friends had their own vehicles so we did end up using public transport a lot. Surprisingly, I’ve never had any unpleasant experiences in buses, though it could be because I usually used the metro liners and absolutely refused to step into a bus unless it was not crowded and I was assured of a seat (otherwise I would be falling all over the place and creating chaos) – I simply ABHOR being in a crowd and hate strangers, even women, touching me.

So while the auto rides and buses were almost never a problem, walking on the road was a problem. I’m perfectly fine with people staring at me – a passing glance or a short stare is fine – but people were staring to the point of making me feel very uncomfortable. I felt uncomfortable just walking on the road because df these stares. And the lewd comments – most of them were mumbled in a way where you know they are talking about you but you don’t know what they are saying. And at that time, I was hopeless at catching innuendo anyway!

So I got stared at, got commented upon, had random men complimenting various parts of my anatomy, and sometimes men following or approaching me. The guys who actually followed and approached were always young and well dressed and they would stop to ask directions or some such vague thing and then move on to asking me my phone number, asking if we could be friends, wasn’t I so-and-so’s sister/friend, haven’t we met somewhere and the like.

Initially, I was very strongly affected by all this. Each incident left me totally shaken. Sadly, I got used to it and learnt to ignore the lewd stares and comments. The guys who followed were politely but firmly (or so I like to think) rebuffed and I would walk away or catch an auto to prevent their following me while I was walking.

One day, after some shopping, a friend and I were walking towards a bus stop. I was wearing cargoes and a longish shirt which covered most of my butt (now that I think of it, it was quite a sartorial mishap but at the time, it didn’t seem so bad – I guess we all have our crosses to bear!). A guy who was passing by stopped near me and said ‘Aise kapde nakko pehno. Achcha nahin lagta’ and walked away. While I do appreciate his sense of fashion, I’m fairly sure it wasn’t his aesthetic sense that was offended. I was too amazed to do anything but splutter – even after all these years, every time I think of the incident, my reaction doesn’t get much better.

So over the 1st 2 years of college, I got used to it, learnt to ignore it and live with it. It stopped bothering me and I took it for granted. That’s just how things were! In our final year, N and I walked to CAT class every alternate evening and back. And almost every time, we had somebody passing lewd comments as we passed by, reaching a hand out from a speeding bike to grope at us (though by then we had learnt to neatly sidestep such hands), stopping the bike till we came close by, following us etc.

But that year, something had changed. I was fed up with 2 years of pretending to be selectively deaf and blind. I had had enough. And I simply could not pretend to ignore anymore. And so, if someone stared, I glared back at them before walking away – I never could stare them down, such men are so creepy. If someone on a passing bike made a comment or tried to get too close, I would yell after them and fling the few pitiful verbal abuses I knew then. Of course, most of the times, the guys on the bikes just sped away but it was a beginning, and it was better than being silent.

N wasn’t much support – she would pull my hand and whisper in my ear not to say anything and pretend to ignore. As a consequence, I was careful – I mostly did my yelling on well lit streets filled with people and a few times even tried yanking hands which tried reaching out to grope at us. In fact, once a bike cut too close to us and then went ahead – if they had hit us, I would have been hurt – I was furious and yelled at the top of my voice at them. The guys stopped and turned back towards us, and that got me a little worried for we couldn’t even run away – but they just came to us and said sorry and left!!!

When we were walking back from class the road wasn’t well lit and mostly deserted so I would fall into ignore mode on that road. But one day, 2 guys on a bike passed a comment at us while we were walking on that road and I yelled back some abuse at them. The guys stopped slightly ahead and waited for us to approach. N was quite scared by then, and very angry at me, and was hissing at me under her breath. It was quite an anti-climax, however, for our conversation went like this:

They: What was it you just said? Why did you say that?
Me: Well, didn’t you say something to us earlier? Why did you say that? I just responded to that.
They: Hey, we didn’t say that to you
Me: Then I wasn’t saying it to you either.

We stared at each other in for a few seconds in frosty silence, then they shrugged and left. N and I were relieved, though I felt fairly foolish at how juvenile our exchange was while I was thinking of myself as quite the heroine!

In my 2 years in Bangalore, I haven’t had a single such experience. I didn’t even get stared at. After being so used to Hyderabad, my first few weeks in Bangalore I actually wondered why I wasn’t getting stared at. I mean, the only criterion you need to fulfill for a bunch of pathetic lewd fuckers to stare at you is that you need to be female. Of course, those 2 years of no eve teasing on the streets in Bangalore is mostly because I lived on campus and went out only occasionally, when I did go out it was almost always with a bunch of others, and we went out mostly to malls, cinemas, clubs and restaurants, in up-market areas where such incidents are less likely to occur than on the road.

But apart from these reasons, Bangalore definitely feels much safer than Hyderabad in this respect. I guess the stares and lewd comments are inevitable in either city. However, I’ve never had such an experience in Bangalore and though I expect I will come across some once I move to the city and start living there, I’m betting my bottom dollar that it wont be as all pervasive as in Hyderabad.

Today, after reading that blog, I realized how immune I have become to such behaviour in this city. While waiting for the auto, I got stared at by almost every guy who passed by me, a few of them passing comments at me, and the same damn thing happened when I got off the auto and was about to enter Eat Street. I realized that I noticed it today only because I was reading the blog – it happens every single day – and it’s not like I ignore or pretend not to notice, I just don’t notice it any more because I’ve become so immune to it.

The worst case of street sexual harassment I ever faced was when one day, at a little before 9pm, I was walking towards the main road from my flat. 3 youngsters on a bike who were on the alley to my flat started following me. I wasn’t too worried really – I kept to the side of the road, kept an eye on them and talked on the phone while walking. They would go ahead and come back, and stare and pass comments and I was annoyed but since it wasn’t a well lit or crowded street (there were very few people on the street), I decided to ignore and continue walking.

And then, just a few metres from the main road, they disappeared. I was relieved, hung up the phone and continued walking. Suddenly, they came up behind me and 2 pairs of hands groped at me – one from behind and one in front. For a split second I was too stunned to react. And then I started hitting out my with both my hands – face, hands, I couldn’t see and didn’t care – I just hit out wildly. I even kicked out my legs but in all that confusion, I didn’t think to raise them and kick them so I ineffectively kicked at their bike.

And I screamed, like a woman possessed. I think they took off the moment the scream reached some volume and the whole thing couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds, though it seemed like forever to me. I was completely shaken and was close to trembling and crying. I somehow controlled myself and went on my way.

Some weeks later, at about 6.30am, S and I were walking along this road when these same guys started following us around again. This time, I knew what to expect so we stopped by the side and picked up a hand full of stones and stood. Meanwhile, S made a note of their vehicle number while I took out my phone ready to make a call. At that, they disappeared and I have never seen them on these roads in the many months since. I debated over whether to inform the police and lodge a complaint, now that I had the vehicle number but decided I would do it if they appeared on these streets again. They didn’t and the matter rested at that.

Today, when I walk on the road, I’m always wary if I feel a vehicle is coming too close and step even more to the side. I keep glancing over my shoulder all the time. I hate those guys for making me feel so insecure about walking on the road, even the road to my own house. I wonder if I should have reported those guys, but the decision has been made.

And my experiences have been few and far between, and fairly minor, when compared to what many many women I know had to go through, and I’m talking only of street harassment or eve teasing, not even anything beyond. And yet, I feel so violated, so insecure and unsafe.

The Blank Noise blog has some wonderful stories from the women about how they fought back street sexual harassment, in ways small and big. From glaring down lechers, to using a safety pin in public transport to keep groping hands away, to women coming together and beating up and offender, to putting him in jail. There are so many ways in which these brave women have taken steps so that these men think many times before they do such a thing again. In a way, they are war stories.

The stories were also a timely reminder not to take eve-teasing for granted. I don’t need to live with it – I can fight it and make a difference, even if it is only a drop in the ocean. I WILL NOT fear walking down my own street just because I have breasts. For every time I let one of these assholes get away with a dirty stare, a lewd remark or a hasty grope, there will be many more who will suffer the same thing. All it takes is a little bit of courage, the right amount of fury and some foolhardiness.

To those of you reading this blog (leave me to my wishful thinking, I say), the next time you are being eve-teased, don’t ignore it and walk away. React in any way you can, however small it may be. Glare at the lewd starer till he looks away, make an obvious show of jotting down the number of the vehicle that stops waiting for you to approach it (that should be enough to make sure he speeds away), carry a pin with you in a bus to jab at groping hands, create a scene if you can. It will make a difference – maybe the guy will hesitate a little before he reaches out his hand again in the bus as he remembers the safety pin jab, maybe he will think twice before he brushes against some other girl as he remembers the embarrassing scene you created – in some way, it makes a difference.

P.S:- And if you are going to respond saying 'Men face adam-teasing/ street sexual harassment too', I will summarily delete that comment. Yes, I AM autocratic - after all, this is my blog. And I'm so sick and tired of that arguement. I mean, if I talk about the problem of AIDS in Africa, are you going to come up to me and say 'Yes, but people in the US also suffer from AIDS. Why don't you talk about that?'. Dude, it's not an arguement at all, get it?


Mihir said...

Its sad .... pretty pretty sad ..... No wonder Indian guys have such a brilliant reputation. I remember seeing a program on some channel once which showed a foreign female journo in India with a hidden camera showing how ppl try to brush/touch/grope etc Was seriously sick. Looking once is ok (atleast i think), but staring continuosly, groping, comments ..... they r seriously bad.

Chan said...

'Men face adam-teasing/ street sexual harassment too.' Really? Where? In Hyd? Damn... wrong city.. I could've done with a grope or two :) Just the kind of sensitive comment u'd appreciate no? Sorry.. empathies and more strength to you

Anonymous said...

I appriciate ur courage. Thr r arts like kung fu n karate :) to defend urself. :P

Aur ha Bangy is definitely more cosmopolitain than Hyd .... when every gal on road dresses well, guys dont hav much choice to trap on few particular gals/women and hence guys dont take seriously as its a common sight for them. But in Hyd ppl dress conservatively and unlucky few who hav courage dress up and fall prey to these lewd comments.

I think u battered out all the anger u have against this eve teasing... and the mistake is also with gals due to inappropriate dressing ... being in a conservative city/culture u cant expect ppl to take ur dressing as a "latest fashion trend". And u don’t hav any right to harm other ppl. Just that if u feel uncomfortable being stared or commented then its ur problem. If they pass comments, u too pass the same abt them….. u hav courage to write a blog … but u don’t hav courage to act in the hour of need … sad re..


Anonymous said...

I guess one needs to be extra pretty to get stared at in bangalore. when even the average jane here looks pretty and when there are so many of them, i dont think one has the time to make those stares long..leave alone the comments or the reaching hand. Whereas in hyd, pretty is pretty much non-existent. So even the average jane gets a lot of attention. It may not sound too appropriate here but its like "in the land of the blind..." thing.

Anonymous said...

Hey ...Brave Girl ,

A Happy and Good Friendship Day

Have Fun

No Comments on ur blog though :) Be Good

Da Enigma

Ramya said...

@Mihir: I know, its very sad, quite sickening...and what's worse is that I dont think this situation is going to change for a long long time to come. Even I thinking looking once, a short stare, an appreciating/appraising glance is okay really...there's a way of appreciating how someone looks without making them uncomfortable....but it usually gets so out of hand and people have to face such experiences...and I'm someone who hasnt had too many such you can only imagine how it is for most other women...sigh...

@Chan: Hehe.....actually I was pre-empting that commenting from certain champions of male rights (a.k.a another commentor who said pretty much the same thing on an earlier post about rape).

@Anon: Well,I'm not so sure. Maybe you do need to be pretty to get stared at. But to get groped at, fondled, to get lewd comments, you just need to be female. I have heard enough and more of such experiences faced by elderly women, plain janes and so on.

But if what you are saying is true, then its rather sad. I was hoping Bangalore was better simply because it was slightly more safe for women, and had a little more respect for womens rights, not because it had generally pretty looking women!

And do leave your name the next time.

@Da Enigma : (Controlling the urge to rant on the Friendship Day concept)....a very happy friendship day to you too....:-). I guess its just one more reason to cherish one's friends and that can never be bad na!

Ramya said...

Vijay: Firstly, what the hell (and I'm trying my damndest to be polite here) do you mean by 'inappropriate dressing'? Lets say you, a guy, are in a conservative village where most people wear only traditional Indian wear and you are one of the few to start wearing jeans in that village. Now you can expect a few curious/appraising stares. Do you expect to be groped at, fondled, talked dirtily to, that too EVERY SINGLE TIME you venture out on to the streets? I'm sure you dont. This is a similar case.

See, I would advocate dressing according to the place. What I wear at home/on campus/to a party I wouldnt dare even dream of wearing it on the road. In fact, what I wear if I'm going out depends on whether I'm going in a friends car or on a friends bike or if I have to walk the streets and catch an auto. What I resent is that I have to take all this into consideration before going out. I'm pissed that I cant just wear whatever I please without having to worry about all this.

And do visit the Blank Noise Project blog to find out how many women wearing loose chudidhars/salwar kameez have faced similar experiences. Almost every girl using public transport in Hyderabad wiwll be able to tell you of many such incidents she must have faced over years using public transport in the city. And you very well know that most girls in Hyderabad are most usually found wearing salwar kameez. Now maybe someone 'dressed inappropriately' may get extra attention, but that isnt stopping girls who dress conservatively from getting harassed.

I dont have the right to harm anyone. If someone stares at me or passes lewd comments, I try to give it back to them in the same manner, though safety acts as a major constraint. However, if someone tries to harm me by groping at me or fondling me, I have every damn right to harm them back. And finally, this kind of street sexual harassment causes a lot of emotional trauma. To some women, it becomes a fear of venturing out onto the streets alone. Arent those assholes harming us then?

It is NOT MY PROBLEM if someone says or does things to me which make me uncomfortable. Your freedom ends where your neighbour's nose begins. What if I told you 'If you are uncomfortable because someone verbally abuses you/your mother/father/sister/family/loved ones, its your problem.'I dont mean to get personaly, I'm only trying to get you to understand how it feels when you are facing the harassment.

And finally, it doesnt take courage to write a blog. But it does take courage to respond politely and sensibly to inane comments (pats herself on the back, I AM a brave girl). And yes, it does take courage to respond when faced with street sexual harassment. I like to think that I do fight back in a little way. And the Blank Noise blog made me realise that it is not enough, and that I need to do more. I can only hope that I have the courage to do so.

Ramya said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Hey, frankly I have never seen or come across the kind of street harassment like u mentioned. I have just read about such things in media and saw in films. When I said u didn’t had the courage in the hour of need, I meant u should have taught those guys a lesson then itself. I do understand the emotional trauma u gals might be feeling when harassed.

PS: I have never been in the company of gals nor ever hanged out with them to know how u ppl feel, also the only women who have been close with me r my mom and my 2 cousins who r 8 yrs older to me. And I didn’t had any idea of this kind of things happening ard. I agree that I am under informed in this regard. Cos I cant hear what ppl converse and no one ever bothered to tell me like u said. And I want to thank you for telling me how u ppl feel. I really feel bad about my insane comments.

~~ Vijay

Anonymous said...

different anonymous here. It is good that women are teaching some of the lechers a lesson. People only do such things when they can get away with it.

Anonymous said...

again from "different anonymous".
I don't know about all the wonderful things you are doing, to stop lechers, but make sure your son/hubby/bf etc... don't do it.

Sanjeev Garuda said...

yikes.....thats pretty scary/shitty ra...yeppudu avvindi idi? and u shud have reported that vehicle number straight away instead. sad to say, but ur strategy of not escalating a fight in a deserted alley or bylane is the correct thing to do...unfortunate really :(

Ramya said...

@Vijay: I'm really glad that this post helped you understand how we feel and what we face.:-)

@Different Anon: Sure, within my sphere of influence, I'm obviously going to make sure nobody does it!

@GV: Happened sometime last late last year, Novemeber types. I should have reported it - I still think I should have. Bloody, till I moved out of Hyderabad, everytime I walked on the road, I'd keep checking over my shoulder! But yes, one needs to think of the circumstances before blindly reacting when such things happen!

Ramya said...

@Vijay: I'm really glad that this post helped you understand how we feel and what we face.:-)

@Different Anon: Sure, within my sphere of influence, I'm obviously going to make sure nobody does it!

@GV: Happened sometime last late last year, Novemeber types. I should have reported it - I still think I should have. Bloody, till I moved out of Hyderabad, everytime I walked on the road, I'd keep checking over my shoulder! But yes, one needs to think of the circumstances before blindly reacting when such things happen!

Anonymous said...

The problem is - that you women don't retaliate back. I think, all women should be given karate training to hit back at the "right" spots on men! Thats the way forward!

The more you tolerate, the more worse it gets! The whole problem is with the f*cking Indian mindset - where everybody expects you to be docile and not retaliate back to any such advances. As some idiots have been advicing you on the blog!

- A feminist in the body of a man!

Anonymous said...

And almost the same kind of experiences have been had by almost all Indian women :\ In the beginning there is fear and a feeling that somehow one has been made dirty, and also that we are responsible for what happened, and then later one learns to ignore and what one can't ignore one learns to 'handle' each woman in her own way. I found blowing my nose messily or picking my nose (YES, very gross, it was meant to disgust) without looking at the starer, discouraged staring. Talking very loudly also helped, it let them see we could get very noisy and uncooperative.
I think all woman should blog about their experiences, so that they and all the men who read also, understand how common it is and how women feel.

Ramya said...

IHM, I love the nose picking idea! I'd rather be gross and left alone.And yes, I agree that women should write more about such experiences - it helps other women feel they aren't the only ones facing this; and it helps the men understand how we feel.

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