Who says eve-teasing is not harassment

A serious crime against women is dismissed lightly by giving it a softer name, says Shoma A. Chatterji 

Eve-teasing and sexual harassment both victimise women more than men, as is evident in South Asian societies like India. The power hierarchy between the victimiser, mostly a man, and the victim, mostly a girl or a woman, is almost the same with the former using his power over the latter within patriarchy. Is it a gender-specific crime as is generally understood? Is there a difference in the power hierarchy implied that sustains between the victimiser and the victim in degree or in kind between the two? Should punishments in either case differ?

Twentynine-year-old Reuben Fernandez and 24-year-old Keenan Santos were brutally stabbed by four drunken men in Mumbai because they protested against their women friends being insulted by those goons

Eve-teasing violates a woman’s basic right to live with dignity. Will women forever remain targets and victims of eve-teasing? Will their rescuers continue to be unwilling martyrs to a dead cause? One needs to explore and analyse why, irrespective of their dress, their age, their looks, their education or profession, women are being subjected to harassment from obscene telephone calls, stalking, and last but not the least — eve-teasing. These questions are significant against the backdrop of the killing of two young men in Mumbai last month, who were killed because they protested against their women friends being insulted by four drunken men.

Shameful incidents

Twentynine-year-old Reuben Fernandez and 24-year-old Keenan Santos were brutally stabbed by these men. These murders have raised the hackles of citizens on a national scale.

In July this year, two persons of a family were allegedly killed and two others injured in a clash for opposing eve-teasing at Harphali village in Palwal district, Haryana. Layak Ram and his nephew Naveen were killed while Shashi and Gambeer were critically injured in a clash, which erupted when Ram accused a neighbourhood boy of eve-teasing his daughter.

Women are often criticised for ‘inviting’ molesters by wearing ‘seductive’ dresses. This theory, however, collapses since poor village women, who do not dress seductively, are also harassed

In April, 1998, Elvis Mukherjee of Kolkata, studying for his higher secondary exams, was murdered because he had protested against a bunch of eve-teasers. His killers are still at large. On July 6, 2002, in Sodepur, near Kolkata, eve-teasers chopped off three fingers of a 55-year-old tea vendor when he protested against some boys, who always teased girls getting off the train at Sodepur railway station to go to college.

"Eve-teasing is just a euphemism for sexual harassment or molestation, where the woman is bullied by unwelcome remarks, comments, gestures or other acts that are sexual in nature. It is only when people are unclear in their minds or scared of the perceived consequences that they would keep quiet and let the perpetrator continue with and become a victim of it. Women should stand up in such situations than subject themselves to physical or psychological pain," says Dr Sanjay Chugh, practicing psychiatrist, New Delhi.

Faulty mindset

Women are often criticised for ‘inviting’ molesters by way of their ‘seductive’ way of dressing up and make-up. But this theory collapses in the face of eve-teasing of rustic, illiterate and poor village women who do not dress seductively. What does ‘seductive’ dressing mean? Who decides what is ‘seductive’ dressing and what is not? Women’s rights activist Maitreyee Chatterjee says that even a burqa cannot guarantee safety. "Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code, which mentions the arrest of a culprit for attempt to outrage the modesty of a woman, does not have any condition about the victim’s dress. Any sexual advance that offends the dignity of women should be considered rape."

Activists are waking up to the seriousness of the problem and are trying to sensitise society
Activists are waking up to the seriousness of the problem and are trying to sensitise society Photo: Manas Ranjan Bhui

Filmmaker Anindita Sarbadhikari says that eve-teasing and molestation are acts of perversion. "It is foolish to think that molesters get turned on by the victim’s dress. Then why are there so many rapes in Islamic countries?"

Like rape, molestation and sexual harassment, eve-teasing is generally understood in feminist theory to be an expression not of unbridled lust and desire, but of power.

Women in Bangalore constantly face leers from passers-by, taxi and rickshaw drivers. In buses, groping is common. Once, when a woman yelled at the person touching her, she was thrown off the bus! This fear does not exist only for women, who use public transport or walk. You can get teased even in your self-driven car, if you have to stop to change a flat tyre.

Not funny

Anugyan Nag, filmmaker and Junior Research Fellow at the College of Art and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, says, "I believe there is a very thin line between sexual harassment and eve-teasing because no matter what men say about eve-teasing being a ‘little fun’; it is as heinous as sexual harassment, for it causes mental agony, social humiliation and forces one to ostracise oneself out of fear.

Bandana Dutta, consultant psychologist, Winthrob Hospital, Guwahati, insists that eve-teasing and sexual harassment lie along the same continuum as both victimise girls and women by ridiculing and humiliation. "Eve-teasing is generally resorted to by a group of people, who might not know the woman they are victimising. It may be verbal or non-verbal. But in some cases, feeling and touching could also happen. Sexual harassment began at the workplace and later extended beyond the work environment. It is gender-specific to women in India but not in the western world. Sexual harassment is more specific and direct. It may be in the form of words, sending dirty text messages, obscene pictures, innuendo, suggestive remarks and sometimes, direct sexual attack. When eve-teasing transcends the verbal and becomes physical, it goes beyond eve-teasing and becomes sexual harassment," she says.

The remedy

A remedy suggested by some senior police officers of Bangalore seems to be quite rational and effective at the same time. "Whipping them black and blue," they suggest, adding, "Besides offering the victim instant justice, it would also help the legal system from getting clogged with cases where most often than not, the culprit is let off."

In Delhi, policewomen pose as women commuters and pull up men when they attempt to molest or tease them. But problems may arise if this action of pretence by the policewomen is seen as entrapment. Women constables in Kolkata’s Salt Lake area are also functioning as undercover agents from the Bidhan Nagar (north) police station by acting as decoys. Three young woman constables were able to round up a total of 60 offenders within the first month in April 2007 of their operation. All the offenders, say the policewomen, were between 18 and 28.

An officer posted at Bidhan Nagar P.S., Kolkata, thinks that laws against eve-teasing are not stringent. "There is no law that can bring them to task," he says. "They are penalised with a meagre fine ranging from Rs 10 to Rs 100 or three days’ imprisonment in lieu of the fine. Until proper and more stringent punishment is meted out, one cannot stop this," he adds.

When women protest against violence to their person by men, other women, social groups or the machineries of the government, they are again victimised.

The eyes of the man who accosts a woman with evil intentions will be extracted, wrote Chanakya in the Arthashastra, while defending the rule of Chandragupta Maurya. Two hundred years later, the woman is not spared the evil intentions of men. Their eyes are hardly the only offending organs of their body used to insult a woman.

What a victim should do

n The victim/complainant should go to the nearest police station and file an FIR within the mandatory rules

n She should take note that the FIR is written down in the register and take the registration number or ask for a receipt of the same

n It is then the duty of the police to investigate into the incident vide the constitutional powers it has at its disposal

n It is advisable to consult a lawyer before registering the FIR

The law on eve-teasing

n In the Indian Penal Code, the word ‘eve-teasing’ does not exist. Eve-teasing is an attitude, a behaviour pattern that is construed as an insult and an act of humiliation of the female sex. However, recourse to certain sections of the IPC can be taken by victims of eve-teasing.

n Section 298 (A) and (B) of the Indian Penal Code sentences a man found guilty of making a girl or woman the target of obscene gestures, remarks, songs or recitation for a maximum tenure of three months. Section 292 of the IPC clearly spells out that showing pornographic or obscene pictures, books or slips to a woman or girl draws a fine of Rs 2,000 with two years of rigorous imprisonment for first-time offender. In case of repeated offence, when and if proved, the offender will be slapped with a fine of Rs 5, 000 with five years’ imprisonment.

n Under Section 509 of the IPC, obscene gestures, indecent body language and acidic comments directed at any woman or girl carries a penalty of rigorous imprisonment of one-year or a fine or both.