Is it shocking to you that the ‘Geri Route’ of Chandigarh has a Wikipedia page on its name? The Chandigarh route, is a set of streets, which are apparently (in)famous for rampant ‘eve-teasing,’ traffic violations, speeding and other such things. The route is one which is taken by the men in Chandigarh who take ’rounds’ in their cars and Bullets to demonstrate their ‘boys will be boys’ machismo. Part of the culture also includes ‘playfully’ molesting women, what is regarded as ‘eve-teasing,’ ‘catcalling,’ and ‘wolf-whistling’. My article explores the (lack of) need for such euphemisms to articulate experiences of street harassment which are always indicators of patriarchal signification.
In India, phrases such as ‘eve-teasing,’ have unproblematically become normalised. Despite its non-legal claims, ‘eve-teasing’ became the phrase used to describe harassment in public spaces. But what it ends up doing is normalising street harassment in the same way that Bollywood movies do.
We have all watched movies where ‘chhed-chhaad’ is not only regarded as common practice, but is also deemed as an effective way to woo women. Follow her, stalk her, be conceited, show-off your ‘tashan,’ be insistent and persistent till she submits and ‘falls’ for your narcissist-love. When done in the ‘right’ proportion, Bollywood makes us believe that women may actually ‘give-in’ to such ‘playfulness/coolness’ of their harasser. I’m not denying the possibility of that happening in real life, but even as it happens, it remains a manifestation of gendered power relations and internalised misogyny which trains us to believe, that “men will be men” is a good enough excuse to pardon toxic masculinity and even embrace it.
Male Dominated Spaces And Their Cultural Acceptance
We all know those ‘areas’ that a woman must not visit: those that are ‘addas’ of men. Where men themselves warn us against, in order to ‘other’ the ‘bad’ men and women from the ‘good’. We know how this game is played:
-Occupy the streets to harass women, normalise harassment.
-Popularise the street to be ‘unsafe’ for women.
-Justify harassment of women, by questioning why they were out in ‘that’ street, at ‘that’ time of the day, in the first place.
The phrase ‘eve-teasing’ normalises street harassment in the same way that Bollywood movies do.
Such a logic feeds into the separation of the ‘good’ women from the ‘bad’ ones, which further perpetuates all the caste, class, religious divides which define these phrases. If the ‘good’ woman must stay indoors, then should this exclusionary premise negate the possibility of the ‘bad’ ones from getting teased- sex-workers or trans-persons or men- or should it justify the ‘teasing’ as something they ‘deserved?’ It’s therefore internal to the idea of being ‘eve-teased’ that ‘Eve’ and only Eve will be teased.
If she is out, seen occupying public spaces, despite knowing the ‘dangers’ of being seen, then is she voluntarily endangering herself? When the common minimum understanding is set at the premise that every woman, is bound to get harassed in greater or lesser proportions, differently in different spaces- it only validates violations without endorsing it.
By invoking a Biblical reference to Eve- the ‘First Woman’, the upper-class, upper-caste temptress who provokes men into a state of sexual titillation should somehow be taught to see these ‘casual’ violations as the ‘lesser harm,’and not something that is as dangerous as rape or even murder. It is almost commonsensical to people that if a woman is walking down a road, ‘heads will roll.’
The exoticised body of a woman marks itself distinctly and therefore, the burden to be discreet rests on the woman. You must remain invisible to remain ‘safe.’ A self-effacing pill of safety is fed to women to ensure they don’t put themselves in precarious positions. ’Eve-teasing’ then helps in some degrees to even further propagate internalised misogyny, by positioning the very presence of women in public spaces as ‘provocative’. While women are anyway are made to think that they ‘deserved it.’
Also Read: Can We Stop Calling It ‘Eve-Teasing’?
Being whistled at, blown kisses to, being sung songs to, getting groped- are after all, not ‘extraordinary’ events in the life of a woman! And that may even be true but only because of the patriarchal power structures. Should we then, in popular discourse, acknowledge this as the ‘normal’ just because it is ‘rampant?’
Eve teasing then acts as control on most women by censoring their general mobility in and accessibility to public spaces, thereby furthering the dependence on men for their own security. Too often women internalise this abuse as routine practice, which engenders the relationship between ‘public’ spaces and women.
One can see how parallel to making the ‘public’ space dangerous, such a discourse also encourages this false divide between public and private spaces, wherein women are made to feel like it is the ‘outside’ which is ‘unsafe’ and not the ‘inside.’ Thereby, simultaneously reinforcing the idea that domestic violence is not ‘abuse’ but a ‘regular’ mode of ‘disciplining’ a woman’s behaviour while also fuelling the idea that ‘eve teasing’ is not assault and causes lesser ‘hurt’ than molestation.
When ‘Culture’ Meets Police
In popular understanding, verbal harassment tends to be classified as eve teasing and physical harassment or sexually explicit behaviour as sexual harassment. There is a non-legal cultural distinction that is made between the two, by trying to quantify the degree of harm caused by each. And in this way, we mysteriously end up concluding ‘eve-teasing’ as largely harmless and sexual harassment as harmful.
The police has the power to interpret and articulate a woman’s experience of violence when filing a complaint.
Although Indian law doesn’t use the term ‘eve-teasing’ as a legal category, as a substitute for street harassment. Yet, victims of harassment on the street, earlier used to seek recourse through Section 294 of the Indian Penal Code, which is meant for punishing those who “(a) does any obscene act in any public place, or (b) sings, recites or utters any obscene song, ballad or words, in or near any public place, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three months, or with fine, or with both.” The invocation of such a section to capture harassment as ‘obscenity’ is wrong on two levels: one, it fails to differentiate between the experience of solicited and consensual expressions of love, loosely called ‘PDA’. Two, that incidents of flashing, groping, masturbating, are nothing short of sexual assault, and they should be called as such.
Although ‘eve-teasing’ has not been a juridical category, but too often the police interprets the law via social categories and records it as such. The translation of the social category of ‘eve-teasing’ into a quasi-legal category then reflects the way in which the police intervene, recognise and interpret sexual harassment of women.
This remains relevant despite the amendment (2013) because even as we have Internal Complaint Committees at work, there will always remain a level of intervention involved in the narration and articulation of women’s experiences of harassment. Given the preexisting legal provisions, the police will box your experience into one section. The police has the power to interpret and articulate a woman’s experience of violence when filing a complaint, which lays emphasis on the need for sensitisation.
Therefore it can be said that at the time of documenting crimes against women, the police’s linguistic register moves between legal and cultural categories. As Pratixa Baxi writes, “When women approach to register their complaints, if at all they feel inspired to do so, there is a particular role that the police assumes in the process. Police then acts as interpretators who architect meaning whilst reading what women define as crimes into legal definitions of crime.”
The socio-cultural acceptance and internalising of the term, ‘eve-teasing’ also reflects how the police’s translations in interpreting crimes move, because it is they who take down complaints when they are filed, if at all they are reported. However, too often the police is not free of it’s class, caste biases as well and that manifests itself in ways where the police acts out of prejudice by assuming which woman from which class/community is devoid of ‘character’ when she complains of harassment based on her ‘chaal-chalan‘ (movements). If she is someone who is constantly ‘seen’ out and about, it is assumed that she lacks the ‘moral virtues’ to be complaining of harassment.
It is therefore not shocking to learn about Chandigarh’s Geri route, which are culturally sponsored sexual harassment streets. They get backed by institutions and society, which fights so hard to normalise that which is wrong, it ends up not feeling ‘wrong’ or ‘extraordinary’ to people. In fact any attempt to call it harassment, seems like an escalated expression of something so casual. It is assumed that women who speak out are either ‘exaggerating’ the problem or worse still, ‘seeking attention.’ After all, they aren’t ‘special’ to be at the receiving end of street harassment, why ‘flatter’ themselves so much?
Featured Image Credit: The Quint