Posted by Rosheena Zehra
“Madam ji, Gedi toh acchi cheez. Aap puchlo kisi bhi ladhke-ladhki se, sab yahi kahenge, ke chalo, gedi maarte hai.”
(Madam, Gedi is a fun thing. Ask any boy or girl, they would say the same, that let’s go on gedi.)
‘Gedi’ is simply the culture of going out with friends and having a good time. In Punjabi, the term means taking a leisure stroll (often on a circular route). Thus, the ‘culture’ this particular gentleman refers to, in literal terms, is a harmless recreational exercise. It’s such an intrinsic part of Chandigarh, the capital city of Punjab, that it has an entire road dedicated to it by the name of ‘Gedi route’. The road stretches for about four kilometres and has some of the top academic institutions, mostly girls’, of the city as well as the state. Those who have lived in Chandigarh in the late twentieth century describe the route as being a meeting point for young girls and boys, students at nearby colleges, who did not get a chance to meet elsewhere otherwise.
The street continues to be a busy one still, marked by the hustle-bustle of a young population.
However, over the years, the route somehow has also become a space of women’s harassment, dominated primarily by men, who are free to move about in it as women constantly look over their shoulder for approaching cars or loose remarks.
It’s a part of the country where upper class, educated and affluent men and boys openly harass women, and the whole exercise is accepted as being the normative. It’s the men in cars calling out to women on the road. While the former clearly belong to the financially secure of the city or the adjoining areas (as is marked by their automobiles), the latter are mostly middle class college students.
Indian Women And Public Spaces
Public spaces hardly ever offer the same accessibility to women as they do to men, especially in India. A woman has to forever be on her guard regarding her relationship with her surroundings. Women are nurtured in a way to believe that their bodies do not particularly deserve spaces free from catcalling, ogling and comments on their shape or size. It’s a male prerogative to make unseemly observations about a woman as she bears it all with little or no resistance. Women don’t belong in the public space, they’re an anomaly there. Consequently, street sexual harassment (or what is called ‘eve-teasing’) is a universally shared experience by women in the country.
It’s a part of the country where upper class, educated and affluent men and boys openly harass women, and the whole exercise is accepted as being the normative.
“Sirf dekha hi toh hai, kuch kiya thodhi hai” (He has only looked at you, not done anything else), observes an undergraduate student of Punjab University, an institution located along the Gedi route. The comment is a direct reflection of the fact that particularly this form of harassment is dismissed because it’s unquantifiable.
This Is How We Normalise Street Sexual Harassment
The moment a woman is catcalled, she is pushed into the mould of a sexual being freely available for the amusement and entertainment of the male gaze. The normative gender identities are reinforced with the man being the oppressor and the woman being the oppressed. It further becomes harder to break out of this binary when the oppressed themselves accept it as part of their existence. Not only is there immense internalisation and normalisation of Gedi culture in Chandigarh, but there is also glorification. A native of the city would unpack the ethos of the culture with disturbingly ill-placed pride, as was seen in the aforementioned quote of a bystander.
“Tainu ki lagda ae, enna tyaar-tyur hoke ae gurudwaare chali hai…Gedi Route te kudiyaan chhidan hi aundiyaan ne.”
(You think women are going to visit the gurudwara when they dress up so fancy and come to Gedi Route? Of course not, they come to get teased.)
A twenty-five-year-old law student of Punjab University shared this with the author in February 2018 on the topic of how women might not want all the attention they get on this road.
While women have raised an alarm in the last decade over the deplorable reality of the road in particular, and the idea of a culture which promotes this kind of gender dynamics in general, there still is a glaring lack of data, numbers, research, and most importantly, dialogue on the topic. One of the reasons why this has not been addressed is perhaps because of the inability to define this particular kind of harassment within fixed boundaries of bodily harm. The assault is often not even verbal; non-verbal cues and gestures are easily manipulated to mean either of two things – either it’s all in her head, maybe the harassment didn’t even happen to begin with, or she was ‘asking for it’. What patriarchy often does, along with its inherent oppression, is to blame its crimes on the one it oppresses.
The visceral act of reducing a woman’s body to crude objectification that exists only to please is justified in several ways in India.
A tool it employs for achieving this is the creation of the binary of the good woman and the bad. If a woman is harassed on the street, it’s her fault. This is an argument invoked not only by men, but their female counterparts as well.
Also read: The Right to Walk: Women in Public Spaces
“Rumal jiddi skirt pa ke niklegi taan logkaan ne taan comment karna hi hai.” (If she uses a napkin for a skirt, what do you expect, but catcalling?), says a 35-year-old woman, who has lived in Punjab her entire life, about street sexual harassment in Chandigarh. Comments like these are not unusual in the city.
Women’s Harassment? Well, Hello, Bollywood
A deeper look at violence against women on streets reveals the role media and art has to play in it.
Bollywood, arguably one of the largest film industries in the world, especially in terms of the number of movies it churns out annually, is infamous for glorifying stalking and street sexual harassment as acts of heroism. It further reinforces gender binaries where the male protagonist has to adhere to a notion of machismo often involving acts of harassment that are romanticised year after year for millions of moviegoers. The plot of a persistent lover and a visibly disturbed woman who eventually finds herself falling in love with him has been used multiple times in Bollywood over decades. The extent of this notoriety was acknowledged in 2015 when the film industry was used as defence in a legal battle by an Indian accused of stalking two women in Australia. The 32-year-old man managed to avoid conviction after his cultural background was used as defence.
This was said to a woman in Jalandhar, Punjab. She pretended not to hear it and weeks later shared her story with the author by means of an Instagram inbox message as part of a social media campaign against street sexual harassment.
When a man asks such a question from a woman on a street, he knows he is protected on several levels from retaliation. He is further backed by popular and folk art which reinstates a gendered reality where men stalk and harass women, and women pretend to dislike it, but actually enjoy it.
The visceral act of reducing a woman’s body to crude objectification that exists only to please is justified in several ways in India. It’s the country where men of power have claimed in the recent past that eating chowmein or not addressing her rapist as a brother leads to a woman’s assault. While the ideological battle between patriarchy and a woman’s desire for freedom over her body and spaces wages on, is it too utopic to strive for a world of gender equality for the benefit of everyone?
The Hindi and Punjabi quotes were collected by the author as part of research on Gedi Route. They were collected in Chandigarh between December 2017 and February 2018. The age group of the women spoken to was 18-35. The quote on Gedi Route was by a man in his mid-30s. The participants were informed that the questioning is part of research for this video. Please remember to switch on the English subtitles.
The final quote was collected as part of responses for He Won’t Tease.
Rosheena Zehra is an author, journalist and creator of He Won’t Tease, a social media campaign that attempts to raise awareness around street sexual harassment by including men in the dialogue (which you can follow on Instagram). She tweets @rosheenazehra.