Women face sexual harassment on the street every day. What does one do when in trouble, cornered by an abuser in a crowded bus or a market? Akila Kannadasan has some answers
On a moving train: His hand brushed against her as he walked past. She froze. No, the action was not innocent. Something about his body language told her so. She shot up from her seat and yelled at him. He cowered, apologised and walked away, head bent low — he was a man in uniform.
At a marketplace: She was an excited 15-year-old on a school excursion. The evening bazaar with its lights and sounds fascinated her. Her eyes were on a stall that sold colourful earrings when a man touched her inappropriately. She was shocked. And confused. Could it have been a mistake? She turned around to find out who it was, but he had merged with the crowd. That night, when she rode in the bus with her classmates, she realised she had been molested. She vowed never to stop by earring stalls on the roadside again.
On a bus: She was coming back from work. The bus was crowded. A hulk of a man was standing too close to her. She moved away; he inched closer. She got off at the next stop and walked with a sigh of relief — she thought she had shaken him off. But the man jumped down after her and pursued her. She walked faster, gripped by fear. A coffee shop came to her recue. She entered it and sat it out till he was gone.
On the road: She was carrying lunch for her toddler in kindergarten. It was around 11.30 a.m. and she walked the stretch of road she had lived on for years. Suddenly, a car stopped inches from her and two hands thrust out from the window to grab her. She ducked and hastened her pace, her heart in her mouth. No one noticed. The car slipped into the traffic.
It has happened to most of us. In school, at the tuition centre, while crossing the road, while riding a scooter… Ask any woman and she would tell you how she battles sexual harassment everyday. While a lot of women choose to grit their teeth and move on for fear of their safety, there are some who stand up against the perpetrator.
Children’s writer Sowmya Rajendran speaks of how she recently wrote to the college of a student who molested her. “My husband and I were walking on Guindy Race Course Road. We had just gotten off the bus and my husband was walking ahead of me.” A youngster walking by groped her — his face wore an appalling “look of triumph”. Her instant reaction was to slap him to “get into his head that this sort of behaviour is wrong.” She took up the issue with his college authorities. While the college is yet to take action against him, Sowmya says she is happy they acknowledged the student’s behaviour rather than sweep it under the carpet.
Journalist S. Vaishnavi says that she has “always chickened out” from taking a molester to the police. “I am staying alone in the city…Even if I complain I’m scared he will track me down and do something.” It is this fear that keeps a lot of women from reacting sharply to sexual harassment on the road. Sowmya feels that she gathered the guts to stand up against her molester because she was from another city. “I knew I won’t be taking the route on a regular basis,” she adds.
Niveditha Subramaniam, children’s author and editor, Tulika, feels that women are made to “feel a sense of shame” when faced with sexual harassment which discourages them from taking the culprit to book. And besides, on most occasions, women “do not have the time to react,” she adds.
Lakshmi, a 36-year-old fruit-seller at Teynampet market feels the only way to deal with street harassment is by fighting back. “A man groped me while I was buying fruits in Koyambedu. I pulled him by the shirt and slapped him. His employer then came forward to take action against him.” She deals with slimy male customers everyday. “They grope my hand while giving change. I make it a point to raise my voice and ask them to behave.” Lakshmi says that a woman has to make noise when someone misbehaves with her. “Only then will he think twice before doing the same to another woman.”
Perhaps it gives a man a sense of victory when he makes a woman cower. However, he is a coward himself to be unleashing the dirtiest of acts on a woman on the sly. Some of these men jump at the slightest raised voice; flee at the slightest hint of retaliation.
The best course of action, says G.K. Kannan, Inspector of police, Teynampet, is to dial 100 and voice your problem. “All you have to do is tell us where you are. Our patrol vehicle will be there within minutes to take action. Call us and we will see to it that he is punished.”