Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Blank Noise is better than Loud Silence

The Blank Noise project has done a worthy service in its own way to increase awareness about eve-teasing, a phenomenon that curiously seems to be especially prevalent in our country. Many excellent thoughts have already been penned, and many thought provoking as well as disturbing incidents have been recited. I can hardly add to this list, but I would simply like to pen down a few random thoughts in the form of observations, opinions and reiterations. These are my personal opinions of course.

One thing is sure; eve-teasing is a crime that has become so normal in India that it is hardly looked upon as a crime. Only the girls and women who go through it can recount the humiliation they face. One point that came across frequently from many posts is that eve-teasing seems to be a hallmark particularly of our country. I think that's true. On the other hand, I also think that eve-teasing is only a physical manifestation of thoughts that lurk in the mind of men everywhere, irrespective of country or creed. That is not to say that most men think of leering at or getting close to a girl the moment they lay their eyes on her. I just believe that the proportion of potential eve-teasers is much more than than the proportion of actual eve-teasers. I think that there are several reasons why eve-teasing is much less common in the western world, or to focus on a limited but important example, say in the United States. For one thing, the law and order situation in the US is much better than in most other countries, and a would be eve-teaser can expect his 'victim' to possibly rain down on him like a ton of bricks, armed with the tried and tested American tradition of sueing. That for sure could be an effective deterrent for him to mind his own business. Office and corporate harrassment suits abound in the US, and nobody would be foolish enough to get embroiled in one of them. I remember a time when, in the bus to campus which I catch daily, a man accidentally brushed against an Indian friend of mine. The act was definitely accidental, but even then, the man half-jokingly asked my friend, "I hope you are not going to sue me for that".
The wicked American lawyer may have at least one good deed under his belt in his lifetime- that of having unknowingly deterred eve-teasers.

A more important reason may have to do with gender equality. There are two ways in which the social status of women has been relegated to low levels in our country. One is through downright mistreatment, and the other is through patronization, which is equally worse if anything. Incidentally, this is also a quality which we share with other cultures, except that it seems to have endured to a greater extent in our country. Eve-teasing usually is a symbol of the power status and sheer condescension with which men regard women. But it can also be an assertion of the patronization that has been deep-rooted in our history as a veiled form of condescension. Because there is so much more gender equality in the US (or at least much more perceived gender equality), what we call eve-teasing may be not so much a sign of the more decent nature of men, but a sign of the fact that it's not regarded to be a big deal; they don't look at women either as objects of disparagement or as objects of patronization (so there's a benefit of doubt for the men here!) In India, eve-teasing commands special attention for the perpetrator precisely because he views the girl in front of him as a puny being who will walk away from his lascivious gaze with a sense of resignation; it's the feeling of being powerfully different that goads the eve-teaser on. In the US, it's simply not a big deal for a man because his perception of the women in front of him is very different. What has brought about this perception? Things like the sexual revolution of the 60s, educational opportunities, the relative separation of church and state,a basic embodiment of equality in the constitution, and many other large-scale cultural factors. This makes me think that eve-teasing may be a phenomenon that is a result of a whole set of cultural factors, definitely including historical ones. This may prevent the eve-teasing urge inherent in the minds of men in western societies to get translated into action.

Does that mean that eve-teasing, being a product of so many unique cultural biases, will always be a part of our Indian cultural makeup? After all, even in the US, with such a glorious tradition of equality in principle, it took hundreds of years for women to stand shoulder to shoulder to men in every sphere of professional life. In our case, this observation seems to indicate that we may never get rid of eve-teasing. And this is where I think, we can expect the unexpected, the break from the social logic that the above set of factors seems to necessarily imply. The most encouraging fact that emerged from the posts to support this, was the number of instances where someone took a stand, either the girl herself, or some passerby, and condemned the action, threatened the wrong-doer, or called the police. The point is that every eve-teaser, no matter how shameless, knows that what he is doing is not acceptable to society. Unfortunately, with our complacence, we have created the illusion that it is. Once our objection manifests itself in such an incident, it becomes clear to the miscreant that people around him are taking note and disparaging him. I believe that the culture of eve-teasing will definitely ebb and hopefully disappear if everyone who is involved in an eve-teasing incident raises their voice. It may just take a little bit of charity and courage for us to do this.

Lastly, it is a foregone conclusion that pseudopuritanical organizations like the Shiv Sena simply must be neglected. Anyone who puts the blame for a rape or a molestation on a girl with the argument that she was 'dressed inappropriately' deserves condescension to the point of neglect. Note that here, there is a difference between condemning the girl's dressing sense and putting the blame on her. It is a different question, and could even be a valid matter, to berate a girl who walks into a college wearing the skimpiest of clothes (free-will notwithstanding). It's quite a different and downright wrong thing to say that this justifies eve-teasing. Also, the statistics reject this argument, because after all, the proportion of actual eve-teasers is still low on a relative scale. How many times have skimpily dressed girls walked in front of me and my friends? (Not too many times actually, at least in India!) But not once have I even stared in a noticeable way at such a girl, and with few exceptions, neither have my friends. The ones who did stare were quite surely looked down upon. And nobody has ever passed loud comments or whistled. I believe that there is always some implicit sense of social decency that keeps us respectable. And I am not saying the above to justify my own decency, but in fact to put forward my belief that many men are that way, at least ones I know. Also, the 'middle-class-educated-family' argument is not the convincing one. Our parents never explicitly told us not to eve-tease girls. Not once. Respect for women was ingrained in our minds in a tacit but firm manner. Although the number of potential eve-teasers are large, I also believe that the number who curb these throughts out of respect and decency if they start to take root in their minds, is also quite large. And that actually increases our responsibility of speaking out if we witness such an incident.

On a practical note, the immediate and very effective thing which girls can do to curb eve-teasing, is carry around a mace spray. It's cheap, effective, and it really hurts; the perpetrator will certainly not forget the incident in his lifetime. Most importantly, any girl can exercise this right immediately, without waiting for condemnation or action from any passerby. On a different note though, why are mace sprays not already common in girls' purses in Mumbai and Delhi? Or packets of chilli powder ala 'Mirch Masala'?. If the plucky women of colonial India can set a precedent, why can't their modern counterparts uphold it? This observation may again compellingly point to the fact that most people simply don't see eve-teasing as a crime or at least a gross misdemeanour, which should be acted on in a tough and effective manner. Most people still take eve-teasing for granted, as a necessary nuisance which one should simply live with and not take too seriously. Maybe the girls who do feel like dumping chilli powder into eve-teasers' eyes, because of society's discouraging attitude towards the problem, simply feel too guilty or scared about engaging in the act. That's got to change. Eve-teasers, and especially the more malicious among them, deserve all the capsaicin they can get.

The bottom line; eve-teasing is definitely a crime, and it is also definitely considered normal in our society. It has persisted only because we, although we do have the sense of decency by and large, have not explicitly spoken out against it. I believe that active dissent and action will definitely curb this thorn in our society's side. Kudos to the girls in the posts who spoke out and acted. I hope I will act, in one way or the other, when I witness such an incident in the future. I hope we all will.


Blogger Kapilmuni said...

Ashutosh, do you really thing the galli ka dada cares a rat's arse if he is sued for eve teasing or not?

The American penchant for suing is a deterrent because the American judicial system works. Indian courts are swamped by numbers. Immense backlogs of cases pile up and plaintiffs as well as lawyers will age and die before the cases they are fighting for are decided upon.

Incidently, your pseudo-puritanical Shiv Sena gained a lot of popularity in the 1960s and 1970s by bashing up chronic eve teasers.

DO you really think a mace spray will be effective? It is often a group of men who indulge in eve teasing at lonely street corners. Do you think they will be deterred by some spray?

3:14 AM  
Blogger Sumedha said...

I like the title of your post :)

To digress slightly:
I praised American men in my post, but the fact remains that this country still hasn't elected a female president. A friend once assured us that Hillary Clinton could never be president: the Democrat-Woman combination would be seen as too 'soft'. This in spite of the fact that some of the toughest leaders ever were women: Maggie Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir...
So this is a point to ponder:
"After all, even in the US, with such a glorious tradition of equality in principle, it took hundreds of years for women to stand shoulder to shoulder to men in every sphere of professional life."

7:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That point's a very valid one....women don't recognize eve teasing(dont happen to like that word too much..."eve teasing"...a lot of times its just a soft word for harrassment and doesnt convey its serious nature) as a crime but something inevitable that they need to endure.It is usually difficult to say or do something right then simply because it is
a group of guys who are eve teasing and mostly it happens at a place where people like these guys you dont really want to get involved since you dont have a sort of backup but they do.. This scenario would change if the people around would help the woman instead of ignoring her (or sometimes enjoying the scene.)And saying or doing something merely increases the time you spend there trying to argue with them...they are not the kind of people who you would want to reason with.I believe the only way they would understand would be thru force, not physical but the pressure that a mass of people can put on them. But again,this wouldnt work if the place is lonely etc. There the wisest thing would be to ignore them,facing them there is a bad idea...

And in most cases the dress has nothing to do with eve teasing..even a "decently" dressed woman DOES have to go thru this..The reason as you rightly said is either to attest their superiority or simply to get attention(irrespective of the means to get this attention).I guess the feeling of superiority comes from the fact that he can make the woman feel scared (at times angry) and additionally she walks by without saying anything; which means that she is weak,incapable of doing anything.The reason why it doesnt happen among people like us is because the guys know that there's nothing as 'superior' and they get enough attention from the opposite sex! The problem is the mindset;things like eve teasing will not go away unless men view women not as objects/lower beings but as persons equal to themselves.

About the mace spray/mirch masala, yes thats a good option but i fear to think abt the time when these guys would also equip themselves with it and use it on innocent women(we have already seen some acid throwing incidents,dont really need mace spray incidents too).
YKW (Sorry its become too long :P)

11:55 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Sumedha: I think that a competent American woman could possibly be elected President in another ten-twenty years. Personally I don't find Hillary Clinton as competent and hard hitting as Gandhi, Meir etc. So I wouldn't really have her in mind.

Anonymous: Very incisive and apt comments! Could I have the pleasure of knowing who you are?! Unfortunately, I tried hard, but could not identify you from your initials YKW!

5:36 PM  

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