Published in SouthAsia Magazine (December 2007)
Incidents of eve teasing are on the rise in the Subcontinent, even in modern and big cities like Karachi. Despite an increase in literacy rates and general awareness, our society is still indifferent to the lack of respect accorded to women, writes Ayesha Hoda
Travelling by a public bus, clad in a western outfit and carrying drama costumes from Sunday Bazaar to Bilawal Chowrangi, was a hard decision to make. When I recounted the tale of my adventurous journey at home, I met with the angry response, “You should be more careful!”
Agreed. But the question is why? Most of the time it is not even about doing something outrageous and being the odd one out. Street sexual harassment is growing in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. The word ‘eve teasing’, which originated in India, is often used euphemistically. It is a major problem in the city of Karachi although it is rarely regarded as such.
Perhaps this is so because despite being a daily problem, there seems to be no major effort or movement, law, security measure, protest etc. to counter it. Women have accepted it as a part of their lives. They have decided that the best thing is to ignore it to avoid a ‘tamasha’ (confrontation), which will bring them in the limelight and might damage their reputation.
Young girls often gather to share their tales of humiliation, of lewd and sexually suggestive comments and singing, amongst themselves. It has been happening since the time they were eight or ten years old, that is, as soon as people realised that they were ‘girls’. It is a very normal occurrence when you go out for shopping, to the beach or to any other public place and even in educational institutes. You have to dress according to the area or place you are visiting. However, dressing up in a conservative fashion does not seem to help all that much. It is a blatant fact that can be validated by simply looking around that most of the women on the streets of Karachi are modestly dressed.
Despite this, no stone is left unturned to make a woman feel that she has committed an unforgivable sin by transgressing the boundaries of her home especially if she is on her own. She has no freedom or space in the world outside. Not only do a majority of men make it a point to stare, they also make it a point to make a female realise that they are ‘checking her out’.
Offensive touching occurs when you are moving in a crowded store, down a busy street or are a spectator at one of those late night concerts. During a rally in 2006, which was taken out in favour of Women’s Protection Bill (how ironic!), a man misbehaved with a female participant but this went unnoticed in the crowd. It was, however, captured on video and later passed around in mass emails, so that an interested audience could watch, be sexually titillated and joke about it.
When travelling by public transport at night, many females carry hair or body sprays or some other device for self-defence, in anticipation of misconduct by the driver or fellow commuters (in case of a bus). Segregation of the sexes is actually a better option in this scenario. If a female is driving, most male drivers that pass, make it a habit to turn and look back to see what she looks like.
Female students avoid going to cyber cafes at night especially if the street is isolated, even when they need to complete some university assignment urgently.
There is simply no security for women or even semblance of providing it. On a show on one of the local FM channels, a girl once called, finding no better alternative to voice her problem. She was twenty, orphaned, living alone and running a retail store business on her own. She complained of being constantly teased by a certain person in her neighbourhood. The show host advised her to report to the police and ask for protection, to which she helplessly replied that it was a policeman who was bothering her.
This is probably just one example from many, of women who have to fend for themselves and live on their own. Only when things get out of hand, are cases of eve teasing noticed. For instance, in an incident of eve teasing at Jinnah’s mausoleum on Pakistan’s Independence Day in 2006, a few girls raised their voices when troubled by some unruly youth and were helped by the people around. The ground turned into a battleground and the situation got so out of control that the mausoleum was closed for the next two days. However, such a scenario is rare and perhaps not too effective for combating the issue itself.
It leads to many questions. Why are these men so desperate? They are living in a modern, cosmopolitan city where there is not too much segregation of the sexes. They often study, work or even socialise with women. A great majority of men who indulge in such activities are married. Then why do they treat women as if they have just landed from another planet?
It is very hard to connect with Bollywood and Lollywood movies when they show a girl falling in love with the hero, who continuously eve teases her. Some people are of the opinion that such continuous depictions have encouraged the youth to emulate:
“A conservative society where most parents still don’t discuss sex with children is leapfrogging from orthodoxy to in-your-face sex on television, films and the internet,” wrote Hindi film actress Preity Zinta, in her much-appreciated column, ‘Odds stacked against Indian women’, for BBC’s online edition.
This is equally true for Pakistan and Bangladesh. A general conclusion is also that eve teasing has nothing to do with love, attraction or even sex. It has more to do with a patriarchal mindset, proving time and again that it is a man’s world and the sheer joy of exerting power or influence over another being from the ‘weaker sex’.
Unfortunately, a large number of people (including some females), even from amongst the educated and so-called ‘modern’ class, are of the opinion that women are the ‘eves’ who provoke, tempt or bewitch men. Asking a male classmate on what he thought of a male teacher notorious for brazenly staring at his female students, I got the response, “Look at the kind of clothes they wear!” This comes from a person who is not only ‘educated’ but also feels pride in being ‘open-minded’ as he is able to converse and joke with his female friends about sex and what not!
In his article “Hassled, but helpless”, published in The Hindu (Metro Plus Chennai, September 10, 2002), Prince Frederick observes about the phenomenon of eve teasing:
“It is time we painted this menace in the dark colours that it deserves. To start with, we could coin a new name for it. Far too often, we find the victim on the wrong side of the stick. If we were to go into the aetiology of eve teasing, as propounded by so-called analysts of the phenomenon, it would seem ludicrous, if not nauseating – “With the way she dressed she had it coming,” “She would have encouraged the boys” and “Boys will be boys, girls have to be discreet”.
It is no small and easy task to change such a mindset. Probably protests and strikes won’t do the trick. We already have too many of those happening these days for them to be really effective. Something has to be done consciously and continuously and as with everything else, it has to start at home. You have to teach your kids to respect women along with the mass media’s support for this trend, in both direct and subtle ways, to eventually kill this societal demon.