MUMBAI, India (WOMENSENEWS)--"Hi darling," says the leering man brushing past me, his outstretched hand inches from my chest. Before I can respond, he disappears into the crowds. Walking through a crowded market, I ignore catcalls and avoid eye contact. When I stop for a roadside snack, the vendor begins humming a lewd Hindi film song.
This is "eve-teasing," as it is called in India.
It is a deceptively inoffensive name for the offensive sexual harassment that most Indian women have to brave daily. In July, I moved to Mumbai after 10 years overseas. I am lucky. Mumbai, a cosmopolitan and liberal city, is probably the safest metropolis in India. Still, overnight, my body language has changed. I walk differently now. I don't make eye contact. I give groups of men a wide berth.
Being back in India brings back memories. I suddenly recall an overnight bus journey when I was 18. I spent the entire night shrinking in my seat to avoid the furtive groping of a man behind me. I remember the elderly man who sat next to me on another bus trip, moving his thigh ever nearer. Like most other victims, I have never complained. I ignore the comments, move out of range or change my seat. Why? Because I was--and am--afraid.
Most harassers back down when confronted, but there's always the exception. This past February, a 52-year-old woman in the northern Indian town of Lucknow was shot dead for protesting against the harassment of her daughter-in-law. Every so often there are reports of harassers throwing acid at their victims. At the very least, I worry about the harasser stalking me or returning with a group of his friends.
But there are braver women out there. For the past three years, Indian women (and a few men) in Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi and Chennai have been tackling sexual harassment head on. They are part of Blank Noise, a still tiny but gradually growing nationwide movement. They do this in several ways: through "interventions" in which they stand on the street in groups (as harassers often do), by posting photos of harassers on the Internet, and through performance art.
Blank Noise believes--as do similar U.S. groups Hollaback NYC and Hollaback Boston--that photographing molesters and talking about harassment helps women take control. Says artist and founder Jasmeen Pathija, "I remember feeling horrified when people said, 'Yes, it happens, but it's no big deal.' It was something women took as a given."
On the group's blog, women talk about being harassed, some when they were as young as 9. They also mention the brazen responses from harassers when they were confronted. "I think you are beautiful. I have two eyes. I will stare at you." "What law can stop a man from talking to a woman?" Or the unhelpful responses from police and bystanders: "Stop walking on the road then" or "Men will be men."
The Indian Penal Code bans words, gestures or actions intended to "insult the modesty" of a woman, as well as assault or using criminal force with the intent to "outrage her modesty." Offenders can be imprisoned for up to a year.
Modesty Is Still a Weapon
But the antiquated phrasing of the law is significant. Modesty is still a weapon used to bludgeon victims of sexual harassment and rape. In April 2005, a 17-year-old college girl was raped on Marine Drive--a popular Mumbai promenade--by a policeman. The Shiv Sena, a powerful local political party that controls large sections of Mumbai, condemned the rape, but also added that women should not wear revealing clothes and mingle with men.
This attitude allows harassers to escape blame. The victim's clothes, her companions, her occupation and her habits are all used to put her on trial.
In February this year, Farah Khanum, a student of the prestigious Aligarh Muslim University, was warned against wearing Western clothes and told to wear a dupatta, a long scarf used to cover the head and shoulders. When she continued to wear Western clothes, she was accosted by two men. The student union warned her of "dire consequences" if she continued her campaign against sexual harassment and the university accused her of being a troublemaker.
Considering this widespread tacit approval of harassment, very few women actually fight back. Hemangini Gupta, a journalist and participant in Blank Noise, is one of them. On an overnight train journey in June 2005, she was molested by a man who repeatedly touched her breasts and legs when she was asleep.
Police Complaint Drags On
She filed a police complaint, despite the ticket collector and police pleading with her not to "ruin the man's life." She says she got no support from the other passengers and the police refused to believe her at first. After Gupta filed "paperwork in triplicate" the investigation has dragged on for a year and a half; the outcome remains uncertain.
Why do Indian men harass women? Everyone has a theory, but I suspect that the root of the problem is that women's lives are changing. Women are increasingly venturing out of the home, taking jobs, wearing Western clothes, going to college. Many Indian men feel threatened by this, and sexual harassment is the easiest way to put a woman in her place, or as Gupta puts it, "to assert their traditionally unquestioned male rights."
"Women have to be asexual beings," agrees Pathija from Blank Noise, "because if they are sexual then they're asking for it."
Or maybe, just maybe, Indian men harass women because they can.
I am still a long way from photographing harassers, or even confronting them. But these days I try to walk with my head up. I no longer make way for men; I stand my ground. I look people in the eye, and glare at them if I have to. After all, these are my streets too.
Kavitha Rao is a freelance writer who covers current affairs, culture, health, education and lifestyle. Her work has appeared in the United Kingdom's Daily Telegraph, the South China Morning Post, the Far Eastern Economic Review and Asiaweek, among others.
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