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Women refuse to accept harassment as ‘routine’

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Up in arms: A file photo of women participating in a demonstration in Bangalore.
Up in arms: A file photo of women participating in a demonstration in Bangalore.

Bageshree S.

With a series of attacks on women reported in the city, organisations have taken up cudgels against harassment

Only 170 cases were reported in Bangalore under Section 354 of IPC in 2008

Many places of work lack safe transport for women

Bangalore: When activists, under the banner of Fearless Karnataka, met City Police Commissioner Shankar Bidari on Monday to express concern over a series of reported attacks on women over the last 10 days, he assured them that “every Bangalorean is very cultured” and “men in Bangalore respect women.”

Culture and respect are intangible ideas. But any woman who has walked the crowded streets of Bangalore or used public transport knows from tangible experience that it is nothing short of a miracle if she can cover a short stretch or get to the end of a bus journey without getting pinched, hit, brushed against, leered at, or forced to listen to lewd comments. This is so “normal” that women not only do not formally lodge complaints about them, but accept it almost as if it was a humiliating but inevitable rite of passage into womanhood. This is as true of a woman walking on Mahatma Gandhi Road as it is of a garment worker waiting at Nayandanahalli bus stand after work.

Registered cases

Police department figures say that a mere 170 cases were reported in Bangalore under Section 354 of IPC (outraging the modesty of women) in 2008 and 181 in 2007. Most incidents are ignored as “eve teasing”, a term that trivialises the issue by referring to women as “eves” and harassment as “teasing”. Many cases are booked under Section 92 of Karnataka Police Act where the offender is let off with a warning or fine.

While the five reported attacks in the span of the last 10 days in Bangalore are part of a continuum, they also stand out for two reasons. First, women are speaking out against harassment. Secondly, the attacks in Bangalore have occurred against the larger backdrop of the “moral policing” debate triggered by the attack of women in a pub in Mangalore and Valentine’s Day celebrations later.

References were made by attackers to the victims’ “western clothes” in three of the five cases, indicating that they were emboldened by the overall environment of intolerance that has grown in Karnataka. In their statements after the pub attack, the Chief Minister and Home Minister may not have endorsed the physical attacks, but they defended the notion of “culture” as defined by the perpetrators of crime.

“There are different contexts in which harassment is explained away. In Mangalore, the debate revolved around pub culture. In Bangalore, we are talking about whether women should wear jeans or go out late at nights. These are convenient ways used to undermine the issue,” says Sanjana, a journalist who was attacked near Mount Carmel College on the night of February 28.

‘Stay safe’

When women start speaking about issues of safety, they are either told to “stay in safe places” or wear “decent” clothes. A campaign titled “Did you ask for it?” by Blank Noise Project started by Jasmeen Patheja, sought to defy the assumption that women “ask for” trouble by wearing “provocative” clothes. They collected clothes wore by women when they were harassed on streets and found that they included salwar suits, school uniforms and saris.

An example of the stay-home-if-you-don’t-feel-secure-on-the-streets attitude is reflected in the ban imposed on women doing night shifts in May 2007 by the Karnataka Government. Though the order was withdrawn following protests, the issue of safety of women has never been adequately addressed.

A study by the Women and Child Welfare Department on working conditions of women in garment industries, distilleries and breweries, presented to the Karnataka Assembly during the just-concluded session, pointed out that many places of work lack safe transport, which leaves them vulnerable to harassment while travelling to and from work. Garment workers, who travel to factories in Peenya and Mysore Road, sometimes from Ramanagara and Channapatna, brave harassment as part of “routine”.

When a woman chooses not to accept harassment as “routine” — like the women who complained in the recent cases of harassment in Bangalore — she is looked upon with suspicion, even by people in places of high authority. Mr. Bidari has been quoted in a section of the press as saying that he is “not sure about the genuineness of the statements” of the Bangalore women. Does this hold a mirror to the all-pervading societal indifference to the harassment of women? And in the context of Karnataka, does this suggest that lumpen elements enjoy greater trust than ordinary women who “dare” assume that the city is theirs to live without fear?

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