How safe are public spaces?
“I was waiting for the bus dressed in a kurta and jeans, when one among a group of men loudly said, “So sad, her dad must be so poor that she can’t even afford a dupatta”, and they all burst out laughing. Everyone beside me heard this, and not one person spoke up. When I got into the bus, I took off my slipper and showed it to them. Sounds filmy, but that was the only thing I could think off at that moment”.
– Veronica, Tamil Poet
What is harassment?
The word ‘harassment’ immediately invokes a graphic image of assault or violence. But as those who have faced harassment on the street assert, it is multi-layered, and, in reality, could take several shapes. Street harassment refers to the harassment of a person not just on the street but also in all public spaces outside of one’s home and workplace. Increasingly, harassment is defined from the point of view of the individual who is at the receiving end; the intentions of the perpetrator are less relevant (Prajnya 2010, Gender Violence in India). Vikram Sundarrman, a non-binary, trans person says, “Any type of stigma, discrimination, and violence targeted at a person for their basic identity is harassment. It is an intrusion of privacy in public spaces, questioning a person’s right to be present at that place, especially targeting those to who are deviants or non-conforming of socio-cultural stereotypes.” To Lavanya, a writer, harassment is intentionally causing discomfort to a person or group of people in a physical, emotional, verbal, or sexual manner. “Any intrusion of my space by a stranger is harassment. When a random man passes comments at you on the street, when a woman stares at you constantly on the metro, probably for the way you look, when you get hollered at, it’s all forms of harassment,” says Michelle, a volunteer with Hollaback!
Women are more likely to experience street harassment, but non-conformity can be the basis of it as well. “As a gender fluid person, I am different in how I dress and how I live. Some people are curious and ask politely and I’m happy to explain to them. But it is harassment when I am interrogated, and made fun off,” notes Vikram. Transgendered persons are being more accepted today but the mentality is old- fashioned in many and lots of people look at trans persons as objects of mockery. “People point, stare and look, giggle and comment when we pass by. It is police harassment that is worse for trans sex workers on the streets. Lower rung officials go out of their way to bully us. If they can’t have their way with us, policemen turn on our solicitors, often taking money from them,” narrates Inba, a trans person and founder of Snegithan and Snegithi Trust.
Women as perpetuators
Malini, a worker at an appalam-making unit is harassed for wanting to wear the clothing of her choice. “I get cat-called ‘Mokka Piece’ and ‘Kumki’ because I’m fat. It happens in buses, at the market, all the time. Unlike most of my co-workers, I like modern clothes. Sometimes I wear tops and leggings, but I feel like society doesn’t allow me to express myself, especially when women target me. Don’t I have the freedom to wear I want?” she asks. Michelle is plus-sized and is constantly fat-shamed.
Narrating her experiences, she says, “Women usually stare long enough to make me uncomfortable. I was recently at a mall eating by myself and three women next to my table were commenting and laughing at me. I stared back to see what was so funny about me. I don’t understand why but women are doing this a lot more these days, and I categorize that as harassment”. Ashley Tellis, a Kovalam-based academic and LGBT activist says he is harassed in public mainly by women for being an effeminate man or wearing colourful clothes or jewellery. “they egg their boyfriends on to harass me,: he says and he feels betrayed as a feminist allied gay man.
Forms of harassment
As much as gender-based harassment is statistically high, people can also be harassed because of factors like class, caste, religion, HIV status, body size, disability, nationality, and race. Some people are harassed for multiple reasons within a single harassment incident.
Culturally, marital status can be the basis of harassment too. Manjula, 52, a fire-accident survivor and a widow tells her story: “I come from a small town down south and was harassed several times at the temple for both these reasons. I stopped venturing out after a point. I moved to the city with my daughter a few years ago, but have never been able to let go of those experiences. So I hardly leave the house.” Rama, who works as a beautician, has a different narrative altogether. “After my marriage, I have noticed one thing – I don’t get harassed when I wear the kunkumam on my forehead, or when my thaali or my metti are showing. On days when I’m wearing a t-shirt and shoes, i.e. hiding the indicators my marital status, the catcalls come flying, even when I’m sitting behind my husband on the bike. Does this mean I won’t be harassed if I belong to someone?” she demands.
Responding to harassment
Says Aishwarya: “There have been times I have been able to respond but most times I am stunned into silence. I have carried a pepper spray for many years now and have never used it even though in many cases, it would have been justified. Given that I anyway am a rape survivor, any of these incidents immediately make me feel light-headed and I only want to lock myself in a bathroom and cry. I tend to take a lot of baths after such incidents.”
Kameshwari, a government school teacher from Doomingkuppam has trained herself to respond by slapping the harasser or at least shaming them publicly. Lavanya was gaped at and felt up at an open-air TASMAC, even with her partner right next to her but could do nothing apart from expressing her anger online and to friends. She says, “I haven’t actually reported anything or stood up in person. As an employee of a high profile organisation, I’m bound by the contract not to get arrested, which is a possibility considering the sexist nature of the police force in this country. If I do, my contract could be terminated.”
Vikram believes it is important to evaluate one’s response in the face of harassment. In an unfamiliar neighbourhood, there could be risks involved. “Sometimes there is no benefit in engaging. If it was ongoing harassment, or if I had friends with me, I would choose to do it differently”, he asserts. They were recently harassed for wearing an African dress, and insists therefore that harassment has much to do with conservative cultural norms. They add: “Several people are harassed for not wearing enough clothing, but it happens because we believe that people have to present themselves in a particular ‘moral’ way”.
Harassment – a right’s issue
Harassment can happen anywhere – at malls, pools, markets, temples, streets, parks, beaches, theatres, hospitals, bars, on buses and on trains. Irrespective of where it happens, perpetuated by whom, and who the victim is, harassment is neither a cultural thing nor harmless fun. Unopposed harassment could very well go on to cause violence in the victim’s life. Harassment is always about power and control, and is rooted in various kinds of societal discrimination. “Teasing always starts small, but can end badly. Puberty is a turbulent period and in my community, adolescents are highly influenced by cinema,” says Kameshwari. She believes things will change only when we begin to have honest conversations with children at home and school. She confesses, “Till I learnt from my partner, I believed that kids came about because rings were exchanged between two people and prayers were chanted”.
Harassment is a rights’ issue because it restricts the mobility of the victim and denies them the ability to feel safe and be treated equally in public spaces. There’s hope every time an experience of harassment is shared and reported. There is power when narratives and people get together to challenge harassment in all its forms. And with both in our pockets, we are ready to win this fight.
Know the Law
- There is no specific law related to either sexual harassment or street sexual harassment
- Section 509 of the Indian Penal Code criminalises any word, sound or gesture that is intended “to insult the modesty of a woman” or intrude upon her privacy. The punishment is simple imprisonment up to one year, a fine, or both.
- Section 354 further extends the provisions of 509 to include assault or the use of ‘criminal force’, with the intention of ‘outraging a woman’s modesty’. It also addresses stalking, with imprisonment up to three years for a first conviction, and up to five years for repeat offences, in addition to paying a fine. However, a case will be dismissed if the accused can prove that ‘in the particular circumstances such conduct was reasonable and justified’, thereby providing a potential loophole for perpetrators.
- Section 294 prohibits obscene acts as well as the singing or reciting of obscene songs or words in any public places. The punishment is imprisonment up to three months, a fine or both.
- Tamil Nadu is the only State with legislation targeting street harassment explicitly. The Prohibition of Harassment of Women Act was passed in 1998 in response to the death of college student Sarika Shah, who died of injuries from street sexual harassment. The amended Act in 2002 provides for up to three years’ jail and a fine of not less than `10,000. The onus of proving innocence lies on those accused. It also provides for compensation for victims of street harassment.
Archanaa Seker is a Chennai-based rights activist, writer, idealist and dreamer, who is passionate about the creative arts, and concerned about the world in general.
Edited by Manisha