Eve teasing in India: Assault or harassment by another name

Campaigner at SlutWalk Delhi 2011

It's an unfortunate truth that women are sexually harassed, and sometimes assaulted, the world over. But in the Indian state of Maharashtra, there is an increasing determination to stamp out "Eve teasing", as it is called here, for good.

It was afternoon and we had just finished filming. My colleague and I were piling into a rickshaw, heading back to the bureau. And that's when it happened. We were suddenly surrounded by a group of boys, barely teenagers.

At first the whole thing seemed harmless, if a little predictable - the cheery interest of a group of bright eyed, smiling boys.

Their approach was not unusual, foreigners and cameras make for an unmissable attraction in India.

But it was only a matter of minutes, possibly seconds, before the smiles turned into a blur of pawing, grabbing hands. Their indecent behaviour was punctuated by cheers, laughter and explicit comments in Hindi.

Undercover police officers patrol the country's beaches

And that was it. I had been Eve-teased. Or as we describe it in the West, sexually harassed. In broad daylight, on a street in a busy business district of Mumbai.

We managed to get away. Our rickshaw raced down the street in fits and bursts.

But those moments stayed with us - something unpleasant, unacceptable and from our perspective, unforgivable had just happened.

But we also felt the irony of what had just happened.

This kind of harassment, often described in India as innocent play, is commonplace. Yet this is a country in which the predominant Hindu religion worships female deities and claims to respect women.

Stabbed

I remembered that incident a few weeks ago, when I attended a candlelit vigil for two 20-something young men.

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They had been fatally stabbed while defending their female friends against a gang of Eve-teasers. This crime took place in the evening on a crowded street full of restaurants and bars.

At the vigil, hundreds of people gathered in a park not far from where the incident took place, to show support for the families of Keenan Santos and Reuben Fernandes.

A slideshow of photographs documenting their young lives played on a big screen. And woven through the chords of the accompanying music were the sobs of a frail, old lady. Keenan's grandmother was crying hysterically into her hands.

But there's more than grief to all of this. The way the investigation and legal proceedings have unfolded has generated a lot of disquiet and shed a bright light on the failings of India's legal system.

Vigilance

One man who wants things to change is Valerian Santos, Keenan's father. In an emotional speech at the vigil he urged the ordinary Mumbaikar to be more active in the pursuit of social justice. To stop when they see someone being harassed, to stand up for women's rights and name and shame those who sexually harass them.

A misleading term

"Eve teasing" is used in India to refer to a wide variety of behaviour including molestation, "flashing" or any verbal/physical sexual street harassment that falls short of rape.

It's an archaic term. The "Eve" part comes from the Old Testament and describing harassment as "teasing" makes it sound almost like a mild romantic overture that should be tolerated - which of course it should not.

Many people have protested that it is time to change this terminology. The Network of Women in Media, India - a group of Indian women media professionals - has often voiced this demand. But unfortunately, though some news rooms have tried to drop it, it is still used, both in the media and in society more generally.

Sameera Khan, co-author of Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets

But Mr Santos also said change must be backed up by a legal system that works with victims and their families and not against them.

Valerian and a growing group of campaigners across the city are calling on the state government to overhaul the way in which it deals with crimes of a sexual nature. They say that it should not be possible, as it currently is, for the accused to come face to face with witnesses.

And neither should suspects be allowed to shave off facial hair or change their hairstyles while in custody - also allowed. Campaigners say this makes successful identification hard and weights justice in favour of the accused.

This shocking, violent case has made headlines across India. But it has also generated a new, welcome conversation about the treatment of women across the country.

The government here in Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, says it will work to make laws tougher and ensure that public areas are policed more vigilantly.

But as I've witnessed - and unfortunately experienced - it may be some time before things really change.

I was once told by a complete stranger: You can wear a trench coat and be covered from head to toe in the depths of an Indian summer but a man with indecent intentions will still try his best to ruin your day.

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A selection of your comments:

As an Indian, I'm deeply sorry for your experiences here and embarrassed about the stories you've come across while in the country. I feel we have a long way to go as a society in terms of learning basic public manners and how to show equal respect regardless of gender, wealth, ethnicity, caste, or skin colour. However, the first step here is getting over denial.

AV, Mumbai, India

If you were "eve teased" in Mumbai that's rather the exception than the rule in a city where a multitude of my female friends and relatives work late, and routinely, safely return home at 3am, unmolested. There isn't a reporting bias - these educated women from liberal backgrounds, fully aware of their rights, would throw a public fit if anything unseemly happened.

Jareen, Hong Kong

Being from India myself, I can say with certainty that terms such as "eve teasing" are generally coined by the Indian media and other organisations without a proper understanding of the "foreign" English language. Quite unintentionally, eve teasing does sound like a "mild romantic overture". A true Hindu does respect women and does not "claim to respect women", but in a country that tries to mimic the West, religion suddenly seems "uncool" and people do what they like.

Sri, London

During the times I have spent in India, I have had the misfortune to experience "eve-teasing", from a simple wiggle of the eyebrows, to comments from a moving vehicle, down to actual sexual assault that I was lucky to escape from . And yes, I was very modestly dressed. The issue needs to be tackled from several angles - the attitudes leading up to the behaviour, the action (or non-action) of bystanders and the law.

Anjali, Luton

This happens a lot in cities like Karachi, Pakistan as well. I once was walking down a not so well-travelled street. A teenaged school girl was walking in front of me. We passed a group of 18-something boys, who started harassing the girl. I couldn't stand the harassment so I asked them to stop. Bad idea! I got attacked by them. I got lucky to walk away with only a black eye and some bruises. Good thing for the girl that the group got distracted.

Imran Pirwani, Cupertino, USA

One winter in Delhi my mother and I walked to an auto stand in rush hour as traffic wasn't moving and I was repeatedly groped by several men in the crush of the crowd in which situation identification is impossible. There is little one can do except stab viciously with elbows and fight down panic. My mothers' shouts and attempts to assist me had little effect in the sea of people.

Lisa, Leicester, UK

It seems as if Westerners are seen as an easy target. After having my breast grabbed while on an indian rickshaw, I don't think the young perpetrator was expecting me to hop off the rickshaw slap him across his face and hop back on before he could take in what had happened. Hopefully the embarrassment it caused in front of his friends made him think twice before doing it again.

Emma, London, UK

My wife was "eve-teased" on more than one occasion during our first visit to New Delhi, even when I was walking down the street with her. We did get revenge though, one Indian gentleman was so preoccupied with "staring" at my wife he walked into a lamp post, much to our delight.

Rob, UK

My girlfriend was mercilessly "Eve Teased" despite always dressing modestly on a recent first trip to Kerela in Southern India. I was with her on all the occasions it happened, which unfortunately is no deterrent to the local male perpetrators.

Duncan, London, UK

I spent 8 months in India, and traveled from Kanya Kumari to the Himalaya in 2005/2006 and this happened to me and the other women in the university on a daily basis, everywhere. I am not exaggerating - everywhere, every day. And how you're dressed is not only irrelevant, it doesn't change anything - it still happens, because it's not about sex, it's about violence.

Yoana, Sofia, Bulgaria

Why would you introduce the term "eve teasing" while acknowledging the inappropriateness of this term in the same article? Call it what it is, harrasment.

Joseph, London, UK

Day in and day out young minds are bombarded with lecherous scenes and songs from high budget films in which teasing girls is shown as a romantic act and therefore acceptable. Decency and values are scoffed at as something that stands in the way of progress.

Zubair, Islamabad, Pakistan

We traveled around India on motorbikes for six months - two female riders on two bikes. We wore rings and had to talk, very occasionally, about our "husbands" farther up the road on their own motorbikes. We never had any problems of this type in the 10,000 miles we did all over India.

Kelley, Edinburgh, Scotland

I think this is part of a much wider discriminatory stance towards women in India. The practice of female infanticide, prevalent in large parts of rural India, belies the claim that disrespecting women is a new, urban, "secular" phenomenon.

Wikus, Cape Town, South Africa

I have been raised in India and lived there till I was 27 years old. I lived in one of the most liberal city and experienced the sexual harrassment everytime I used the public transport (Bus, Train and shared taxi or auto) since the age of 10. Mind that I am from an educated and upper middle class section of India not even thinking about the people who are far more vulnerable.

SG, Columbus OH, USA

I am really sorry to hear that this happened to you in my country and I apologise for the incident. Our society has a way to go in terms of such attitudes but you also did write about those guys in Mumbai who were killed for trying to stop eve teasing. Please do not portray all Indian men as the types you are writing against here. I really wish such things would not happen in my country.

Udai, New Delhi

As an Indian woman living in UK for the last couple of years, the only reason that makes me not want to return to India is this sexual harassment. Indian men are a terrible lot. I have been harassed on multiple occasions and not just by the "poor , un-educated" lot but even by the educated ones. I love the anonymity of London where I don't have to deal with 10 males leering at me,where I can ride the tubes without being groped.

Nisha, London

Because Western women are known to view dating and sex more casually, we are seen by many in a hyper sexualized way even when dressed modestly and acting appropriately. Because of the stigma of dating before marriage, many young Indian men are inexperienced in dating and are sexually frustrated. This, combined with the normalization of sexual harrasment, leads to many women becoming victims of assault.

Emily, Vancouver, Canada

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