Fighting harassment on India's streets

Despite resistance, women's groups are challenging the country's catcalling culture.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

For artist Jasmeen Patheja, moving to the high-tech hub of Bangalore for college was an introduction to India's chic new cosmopolitanism. But the move also brought on something more regressive: the nightly catcalls of mirchi (chili) and tamatar (tomatoes) – food items being the common sexual taunts for women pedestrians.

"I found myself feeling more and more vulnerable," Ms. Patheja recalls. "And in addition to feeling angry and helpless, I wondered why I didn't get the support I needed when I was with friends."

Rather than ignore the taunts, Patheja channeled her frustration into founding the Blank Noise Project, one of several new Indian advocacy groups devoted to raising awareness about sexual harassment.

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Last year, volunteers stenciled testimonies from harassment victims all over Connaught Place, New Delhi's central roundabout, and the group's blog posts candid photos of "eve-teasers" – the Indian euphemism for sexual harassers. Now, Patheja is collecting clothes that women were wearing when they were harassed, preparing to display the outfits en masse in major cities in hopes of confronting the notion that intimidated women "ask for it" by wearing provocative outfits.

The efforts of academics, women's groups, and artists like Patheja are raising major questions about gender issues and the need for safe public space in a country that's often preferred to ignore them. Amid India's booming economy and changing social atmosphere, most women still face taunts and groping on a near-daily basis.

Walks around town, even in the country's gleaming new offices and malls, are often fraught with unwelcome comments or advances. A permissive attitude toward "eve-teasing" has made change difficult, with offenders frequently dismissed as harmless or even justified, and run-down and often maze-like urban infrastructure can mean that many public spaces remain threatening for women.

For her part, Patheja's highly visible demonstrations have turned Blank Noise Project into one of India's most well-known – and perhaps most controversial – community-art projects. But other groups have taken a more systematic approach to advancing women's safety.

New Delhi-based Jagori has conducted comprehensive safety audits of the city's neighborhoods, and its new "SafeDelhi" campaign has set up kiosks and support lines to help women define and report sexual harassment. This year, the group distributed over 5,000 antiharassment stickers to rickshaw drivers, whose green-and-yellow three-wheelers are often intimidating vehicles for solo women.

When sociologist Shilpa Phadke helped start the academic Gender and Space Project in Mumbai (Bombay), she had not counted on a public advocacy role. But when an interview with a rail official led to his request for help in making stations less threatening for women, the Project's graduate students sprang into action, counting every broken light in 35 city stations.

In cities like Mumbai, Chennai, and Bangalore, women's self-defense classes have grown increasingly popular, with upper and middle-class women wait-listed for courses in karate and the Israeli martial art krav maga.

But for all the efforts being made to safeguard women against harassment, even the major statutes against sexual harassment in India have proven troublesome. Activists have been quick to point out that the laws against attacking the "modesty" of women do more to regulate women's behavior than safeguard their rights.

Pratiksha Baxi, an assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and one of India's foremost experts on sexual harassment, remains skeptical of the ordinances. "The provisions aim at regulating women's sexuality rather than protecting their autonomy or their right to be in public spaces without being harassed or raped," Ms. Baxi says.

For those who speak out against sexual harassment on India's streets, there is the knowledge that the consequences of protest have occasionally been deadly. Last year, the wife of a prominent Lucknow politician was shot when she tried to stop a group of men from harassing her daughter-in-law. In 2003, a Kolkata (Calcutta) police officer was beaten to death when he tried to stop five colleagues from harassing a woman who was riding a motorcycle.

And in spite of the increasing efforts to combat "eve-teasing," the onus is still largely on Indian women to restrict their own movement to avoid harassment. "I don't step out of the house alone after 9:30 [p.m.], if I can help it," says Suparna Kudesia, a 20-year-old education student from New Delhi, citing countless incidents of being flashed or groped.

"Even when there's no harassment, women are prepared for it," she says. "Having to be constantly on alert takes its toll."

Efforts of groups like the Blank Noise Project and Jagori are highlighting "eve-teasing's" pervasiveness. If public spaces are slowly growing less intimidating 60 years after independence, harassment remains a frustrating fact of life for Indian women.

"Things have gotten better and worse at the same time," says Ritambhara Mehta, a gregarious 20-year-old political science student from New Delhi. Since her early teens, even a short ride has meant dealing with unwanted advances or comments.

"Sometimes it's easier to say something," she says, recalling the times when she's protested, "but sometimes, words don't come out." Despite some bad experiences, however, Ms. Mehta has resolved not to let herself be intimidated.

"For me," she adds, "not going out can't be the solution – if we all get scared and sit at home, nothing will change."

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