He was a shop-owner in New Market. She was 12 years old. He chose a bright red shirt off the shelf, raised it to her chest looking for a sale. See how beautiful it is, he smiled. His hand moved down stealthily, fondling. The Class VII student could not move; could not say a word. Fifteen years later, those moments are still branded in her memory. It was the first time she was touched.
Eighty-two per cent of Calcutta’s women are angry. Angry about being harassed, anytime, anyplace. Almost half (46 per cent) feel unsafe when they leave their homes in the chief minister’s “oasis of peace”.
Consumer Connect conducted an opinion poll for Metro on Sunday last week on how safe women feel – and are – in Calcutta. With 88 per cent of the 200 women surveyed, between the ages of 15 and 40, admitting to having been harassed, the numbers are a forceful affirmation of what the victims have known — and suffered — all along.
Her space, her security, her privacy, her right to walk down a street without fear are constantly under siege. In most cases, her right to these freedoms is not even acknowledged.
With up to 39 per cent of respondents admitting that physical molestation is one of the main kinds of harassment they face, this “eve-teasing” is hardly harmless. Women feel most vulnerable in public spaces (52 per cent) like streets, cinemas, bars, restaurants, nightclubs, markets; followed by public transport (48 per cent). Negotiating even the most mundane daily activities is fraught with insecurity.
I can’t leave my house alone. I have been stalked and harassed for years. The “safe” south has not been able to protect this mid-30s resident of the Gariahat area. She breaks down just talking about her shackled existence.
This may be an extreme case, but fear has physically restricted Calcutta’s women. She does not feel safe late at night (68 per cent), buses are her worst enemy (77 per cent feel this is the most risky mode of transport), and she finds small groups of men the most threatening (51 per cent).
“Each person’s space should be his or her sovereignty,” stresses Jashodhara Bagchi, chairperson of the West Bengal State Women’s Commission. While “protectionist constructions of women dominate people’s minds” — she is to be guarded, cloistered — her right to “go about fearlessly” is never guaranteed, adds Bagchi.
The result is a vicious cycle, explains St Xavier’s College counsellor Snigdha Gohain. “From childhood, the girl is told that she is weak and helpless. Then she goes into the world and encounters real danger. This could lead to the formation of deep underlying fears with long-term consequences,” says Gohain.
Stigma and the scare
If girls just had a little more character and didn’t dress in so obscene a manner, may be men would leave them alone. This 22-year-old is just one of many – 60 per cent of all respondents — who believes that women dressing “indecently” leads to incidents of eve-teasing.
“This is part of the stereotypical gender socialisation. It must be the woman that is to blame,” feels Bagchi.
Commissioner of police Sujoy Chakraborty reinforces this: “That is the kind of behaviour only an animal is capable of.” Psycho-therapist Jolly Laha, however, feels that with sexually repressed men, clothing can prove provocative.
But is eve-teasing only about sex' “Sexual complexities do come into play, but it is also always about power,” Bagchi adds. With older men, above the age of 36, being identified as the worst offenders by 78 per cent of the respondents, fear of losing power (sexual and otherwise) are also potent forces, offers Laha.
Stand up, shout out
When the barrier of comfort is breached, women have to start playing a role in claiming the power and freedom that is rightfully theirs. “We are telling women to complain about such cases,” says the police commissioner. “Usually they do not because they fear social stigma.”
The opinion poll figures back this up. If 68 per cent of all women harassed have protested, only five per cent have taken it up with police or any other authority.
Parents and girls themselves often choose self-protection, even if it means limiting movement. “Avoid avoidable things,” recommends Chakraborty.
British Council director Sujata Sen agrees with this strategy, but also cautions against over-protectiveness. “I try to ensure I know who my daughter is moving around with, and I always know where she is,” explains the mother of a teenager.
To keep communication open, to create awareness and to provide a feeling of support are the best ways of sorting through issues when they do arise.
All, perhaps, is not lost. Strangers have come to the aid of 44 per cent of the harassed women polled. “Calcutta still has a moral fibre,” points out Chakraborty.
Fifty-seven per cent of women agree that Calcutta is, in fact, safer than other cities. But with personal embarrassment still the leading cause of victims keeping mum (73 per cent) about harassment, women continue to suffer — in the open and deep inside.
What we call it:
Eve-teasing. Noun. Usage: Asia
There is no mainline dictionary that defines the phrase “eve-teasing”. An online encyclopaedia describes it as “a euphemism used in India for sexual harassment or molestation of women by men. Considered a growing problem throughout the subcontinent, eve-teasing ranges in severity from sexually coloured remarks to outright groping”.
What it really is:
Molestation might be closer to the reality stalking city life. To molest is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as to 1. Annoy or pester (a person) in a hostile or injurious way. 2. Attack or interfere with (a person), esp. sexually. To harass someone is to “trouble or annoy continually or repeatedly”.
What a woman can do:
A woman who has faced any kind of offensive behaviour can lodge a complaint at the police station.
If it is under the Calcutta Police jurisdiction, a call can be made to the Lalbazar control room (2214-3230).
If the perpetrator can be identified and is still at the spot, he could be arrested immediately.
What police are supposed to do:
Sujoy Chakraborty, commissioner of police, advises women to come forward with their complaints about harassment.
There are two main sections of the Indian Penal Code that “eve-teasers” can be punished under.
Section 354: Assault or criminal force to woman with the intent to outrage her modesty… shall be punished with imprisonment… for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.
Section 509: Word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman….shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.
What women want:
Law-and-order system should be better, more strict… 40 per cent
Exemplary punishment… 31 per cent
Women should be bold and protest… 29 per cent