The piece is a part of a collaboration between Breakthrough India and Youth Ki Awaaz for the #StandWithMe campaign. Join us as we seek to get conversations going around how we can create gender inclusive safer spaces. #StandWithMe, Be my safe space.
The first time I experienced harassment in a public space, was when I took a DTC (Delhi Transportation Corporation) bus home from school. I was just 17-years old. A middle-aged man decided to start pushing himself on me. I kept moving ahead trying to avoid him, but to no avail. After a while, he tried to put his hand on the small of my back. Luckily, a kind lady helped me out and pushed the man away. The thought of registering a formal complaint never crossed my mind. He walked away, a free man, and most probably went on to harass many more.
In a near ideal world, this encounter should have been something out of the norm. However, all these years since I have passed out of school, I have experienced and seen such incidents innumerable times. It speaks volumes that the lady also did not advise me to lodge a complaint, perhaps, because it happens so frequently, and is now considered to be one of those things that ‘just happens’.
For those who believe this only happens in buses, let me assure you, the metro isn’t any better. You have those who ogle, lean over you trying to sneak a peek down the neckline of your clothes and those who try to press themselves against you saying, “Main kya karun? Bohot bheed hai!” (What do I do? It’s so crowded). Just to avoid this unpleasantness, auto rickshaws became one of the main modes of transportation, for me. But as it turns out, there’s no guarantee of a stress-free ride, there, too.
An incident involving a friend of mine shocked me. After sitting in an auto rickshaw, the driver said this to her as they were pulling out,“Madam aapne kabhi sex kiya hai?” (Have you ever had sex?). She asked him to stop that very second, got off, and took the next auto. As they were about to leave, the previous driver pulled up next to her auto and said, “Karlo Madam, shareer khul jaata hai” (Do it, you’ll feel relaxed).
According to a study by Manish Madan and Mahesh K Nalla on sexual harassment in public spaces released in 2016, 40% of the women who took the survey had been sexually harassed in public spaces. Another survey conducted by Action Aid in 2016 said that 79% of women living in Indian cities had been subjected to sexual harassment and violence. Sexual harassment is a worldwide phenomenon, of course. A poll involving sexual harassment in public transportation across 16 cities – the largest international study – by YouGov, revealed that on top of the list were Mexico City, Bogota, Lima, Jakarta, and our own national capital, Delhi.
Sadly, what we barely think about, is how sexual harassment in public spaces hampers women’s mobility. While a certain patriarchal mindset facilitates such incidents, their regular occurrence actively genders spaces and gives out the message that the public sphere is not for women. If you don’t believe me, observe how many times, when a woman comes out with her story regarding harassment, the rhetoric of “What were you doing out so late?” or “What was she doing there in the first place?”, etc comes into play. While there are more processes in place that deal with the sexual harassment of women than there are for men, such as the Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Bill of 2013, there remains apathy towards the survivors of such harassments.
These incidents are an everyday affair, so much so that most of them go largely unreported. There are so many unnecessary burdens for being a woman who has dared to enter the male dominated ‘public sphere’ that the society has become desensitised to the issue. We cannot, however, just let things be. It strengthens the harasser to know that most of the times, their victim will not speak up, or report them. Our relief in knowing that we managed to escape such a situation cannot overshadow the reality that our harasser will go on to violate someone else, just because we chose not to speak up.