An article on eve-teasing in public places (Open Page, August 29, 2010) and some of the responses that it merited have been the trigger for this piece.
The author of article lamented that she was a victim of harassment on a public road despite having worn salwar kameez (a 'decent' dress). Some responses from readers (both men and women) have been along the lines of exhorting young women to dress decently so that they do not invite unwanted comments, and even calling the article an emotional outburst — indeed, that of an audacious young woman (remember, she was out at 8 p.m.) who did not pause to consider that the perpetrator of the offence could have been drunk (which excused his misbehaviour). Instead of ignoring the unacceptable (and yet, normal) behaviour of the drunk man, the emotional woman (abnormally) chose to think, and write about it!
Other responses focussed attention on the (indecent) dressing sense of young women who imitate actresses, or dress non-conventionally (three-quarters that reveals too much ankles?) in water theme parks (which makes it okay to leer at them). Some responses started with condemning the harasser, but didn't forget to indicate the causality of the women's attire that invited these remarks.
I beg to differ from this very peripheral mode of 'blaming the victim'.
Eve-teasing and other modes of harassment in public places is an experience of most women, and while it does increase with any trace of non-conformity in the attire of the women, even the most conservatively dressed woman is likely to have more than one tale of harassment to narrate. If harassment is invited by attire, one wonders why even school-girls in uniforms are not spared of these forms of violence. It can be immediately be said that if not the dress, it is the demeanour, and if not the demeanour, it is the non-conforming conduct. Obviously, we are then to understand that there is a clear set of unwritten rules of conformity, sanctioned by many of us who are judges of the right and the wrong and the good and the bad, that binds us women from taking safely to the streets and other public spaces. Aren't we?
It is amply clear to gender-sensitive people that it would be an over-simplification to assume a cause-effect relationship between attire and harassment, and that there is a deeper social pathology underlying street harassment. What is it in our society that makes a youngster to ogle at a much senior woman?
Did he learn it from his school? Or from his family? Or from society? Wherever he learnt it from, these forms of violence are techniques that warn women to be wary of boys, men, and other judges who watch women closely, thus reinforcing their 'otherness' in society. These are forms of exclusion that tells them to keep off public spaces by instillling fear and insecurity, and serves to indicate that their rightful place is inside their homes where they are protected, probably by the same men who turn harassers on the streets.
Therefore, a protective zeal where pre-conditions — as codes on attire, demeanour, and conduct — are dictated for their own safety, amounts in many ways, as means to further banish women from public spaces. Much should be said of the courage of the ordinary woman who everyday takes to the roads and work, and runs errands and bolsters the courage of other women to reclaim the public spaces. Much more should be said of the women who brave the censures and sanctions and self-appointed guardians, and do step over the line.
(The writer's email is email@example.com)