A girl in India simply walks down the streets to catch an auto or a bus, only to be met by blatant stares, catcalls, wolf whistles and, sometimes, even gets touched or groped by groups of boys and men. In 2010, eve-teasing is still a persistent problem in this country. Imagine walking down a road knowing you are being watched, analysed, and talked about. If there is one way of making a woman feel inadequate or self- conscious, it is this.
Being scrutinized by watchful eyes everywhere you go is something most women in India get accustomed to. Unbelievably, we hardly try to fight it anymore. We have all reached the stage where we think that eve-teasing is something that is always going to exist in our society, and we have learnt to live with it.
Instead, woman take a longer route, even if it means being fifteen minutes late, just to avoid being commented on by the group of boys hanging around outside the coffee shop;, we just ignore the constant taunts; or request our male friends or relatives to accompany us while travelling alone.
In short, there is little most woman do to try and fight the situation. Instead we are encouraged to learn self-defense, to always be alert, and not wander around after dark. It is a given that in most Indian families, the sons have later curfews than the daughters. Instead of trying to change this one issue in our society, we have conveniently worked our way around it. Now it is so common we seldom think about it once it is done.
Perhaps one way to combat eve-teasing would be to try and understand the reasons behind it. Our society is designed to constantly separate boys and girls, right from an early age. Parents, teachers, relatives, society as a whole, encourages us to avoid any kind of boy-girl contact by segregating us into two separate groups, who they say shouldn’t even be making eye contact with each other. There are different schools and tuition centres for girls and boys, and even if friendships do occur between the two sexes when they happen to live in the same building or study together, most of them are watched carefully by the suspicious adults around them.
Teachers try to break up boys and girls who sit together and talk. And then, there are the co-ed institutions, with elaborate rules on dress codes, separate staircases for boys and girls (or better yet, the justification for separate stairs: ‘the girls’ duppatas roll on the floor and the guys might trip on them’); and the punishments meted out if boys are seen interacting with girls on campus or on the bus. One of my friends got office duty for waving at his classmate from school at the bus stop! She was not even on the college premises.
At any Indian social gathering, say a family function or a wedding, the men huddle together in one corner making jokes and talking about old times while the women gossip or discuss housework and their children. The pattern is so predictable, not once do people decide to sit together and talk about something everyone can relate to. Upon entering a class for the first time, the first thing I noticed was how the boys sat together at one end, and the girls at the other. It took several weeks before everyone was comfortable enough to sit together..
When boys are given such limited exposure to girls in such a divided society, it is not surprising that when they do get a chance to interact, they don’t know how to treat them with courtesy and respect. If friendships are allowed to blossom between the two sexes, than perhaps young boys will themselves see how they need to treat a girl.
The situation is not helped at all by the media (mainly television serials and cinema), which definitely favour eve-teasing – by showing how, ultimately, the girl falls in love with the boy who torments her. This sends out the wrong message: that the way to get a girl is by stalking her and passing comments about her body. So many typical Tamil and Hindi films follow the same storyline.
If we, as a society, really want to deal with this issue, then the solution is not to teach women and girls how to build their lives around avoiding situations that lead to eve-teasiung, but to teach young boys and men the correct way to treat women and express their liking and respect for them.