Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Eve Teasing

That's what groping and pinching and verbally harassing women is called in India. Such an odd term, that "teasing". It negates the aggressive and I've-got-power-over-you aspect of the practice and suggests that it's all just harmless teasing, and if you don't go along with it you have no sense of humor or something.

You may notice from the humorless paragraph above that I have indeed been "Eve teased" myself in the past. It's unpleasant, a little bit frightening and just like an extra cost to going to places. Where's my bag, books, tickets, money? Oh, and where's my armor and the second pair of eyes I need in the back of my head? Check. Ready to go then, sigh.

This type of sexual harassment is one of those life experiences which is completely different for those of us who have memories of being a frequent target of it and for those who never practice it and never get exposed to it. Note that when you get repeatedly groped, pinched or commented on you start thinking of going out under certain circumstances as a run through the gantlet.

You start suspecting all men, for example, because that's the way you stay safe. In the subway you find a carriage with no men who look like they might cross your boundaries and exhibit their power to rank you, try to stand against the wall, not so that your butt is accessible, or try to sit next to another woman. And always, always, avoid groups of young men, because they are the very worst.

I should probably draw a distinction between the kind of sexual harassment I'm describing and men paying compliments with their eyes at a woman or otherwise politely showing distant interest, because if I don't someone will assume that I'm talking about the latter kind of behavior. Nope. I'm talking about an invisible hand pinching your butt or boob so hard that you get tears in your eyes, about someone telling aloud what they would do to you in bed if they could, about the angry reaction of construction workers when you walk past NOT reacting to their comments. You see, you don't have the right to be silent and scared. You should have smiled!

It's ultimately all about who has the power to cross whose boundaries, and who has the right to interpret the event. Was it all just a nice compliment or what? And if other women find all that a compliment, what's the matter with you? (I already hear the little screechy voices telling me to write about something important and to get that sense-of-humor changed at the store as it obviously doesn't work.)

In any case, female commuters in some parts of India are now offered all-women trains to get around the common practice of Eve-teasing:

As the morning commuter train rattled down the track, Chinu Sharma, an office worker, enjoyed the absence of men. Some of them pinch and grope women on trains, or shout insults and catcalls, she said. Her friend Vandana Rohile agreed and widened her eyes in mock imitation.

"Sometimes they just stare at you," said Ms. Rohile, 27.

Up and down the jostling train, women repeated the same theme: As millions of women have poured into the Indian work force over the last decade, they have met with different obstacles in a tradition-bound, patriarchal culture, but few are more annoying than the basic task of getting to work.

The problems of taunting and harassment, known as eve teasing, are so persistent that in recent months the government has decided to simply remove men altogether. In a pilot program, eight new commuter trains exclusively for female passengers have been introduced in India's four largest cities: New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Calcutta.

So you get "separate-but-equal" as the solution. That one never ultimately works, because of what I spoke about before: People who don't have any experience of Eve-teasing, including men who don't engage in it, see themselves as unfairly treated. Suddenly there are these trains with space and clean seats, and only women get to go in! So unfair:

"Even on this train," Ms. Gahlot continued, "men sometimes board and try to harass the women. Sometimes they openly say, 'Please close the Ladies Special.'

"Maybe they think the government is helping out women and not men," she added.