For one year of my school life, I commuted by bus. My uncle would drop us in the morning, but in the afternoons, my sister and I would have to take the bus back home.
Standing at the bus stop, groups of girls chattering away would nevertheless keep a watchful eye out. You see, we had a boys’ school next to us. Older boys would often hang around at the bus stop mainly to ‘tease’ girls – stare, pass comments, convey a vague sense of menace without necessarily any physical contact. Sometimes, boys would wait until the bus arrived and jostle you while getting in, even if there was no crowd. Sometimes, we would let a bus go by if too many boys were getting on, even if that meant a long wait for the next one.
We knew this then only as ‘eve-teasing’ – and today, what strikes me in hindsight, is how much we took it for granted. It was assumed that boys would ‘tease’, in the same way that cows may graze or apples drop from trees. Without seeing it as positive in any way, it was nonetheless seen as ‘normal’.
What strikes me is that none of the adults at the bus stop or in the bus ever said anything – not the conductor, not other passengers, not even the occasional schoolteacher riding the same bus.
And that is really the crux of my post. Young boys adopt harassment as a means of growing into masculinity – to prove to their peers that they are ‘macho’ – that they are desirable, confident – that they ‘can’ – and the lack of response from people around them only strengths this belief; that it is acceptable to ‘tease’ girls, that girls want to be noticed in this manner, that real men go out and get the girl they want, never mind what she thinks.
As bystanders, it is important to arrest this behaviour at an early stage. I am not saying it is easy – because the roots of such behaviour lie in the deep socialization of men, at homes, in schools, in peer groups – a socialization to accept that men are the ‘doers’ and women the ‘recipients’ of attention.
It is not easy to change this socialization, but there are simple ways in which all of us can at least challenge the behaviour.
1. Show that you are listening. If you notice a girl being bothered in any way, even if you are afraid to intervene directly, you can show that you are listening. Ask loudly if she is all right, if she needs any help. Many harassers will shut up if they see that their behaviour is not invisible. Bullies thrive on people’s silence.
2. Talk to the boys. Boys (and men) who harass rarely expect to be spoken to directly, in my experience. An older adult questioning them directly, saying, “Yes? What’s the problem here?” can discomfit and scare them. Of course, not every group will pipe down quietly, and you may find yourself being spoken back to abusively. But, there is also the chance that when you speak up loudly, you may have a few other people joining in.
3. Teachers, speak up. Too many schools treat the problem of harassment as something to be confronted by asking girls to layer up with more clothes! An extra jacket, a dupatta, covering your legs up…schools reflect the social mentality that girls ‘ask for it’ by not covering up enough. If you are a teacher, you could help students by bringing in more awareness in your school. If you teach in a boys (or co-ed) school, you could create groups where boys learn more positive models of what masculinity is – that being masculine doesn’t depend on being a bully.
4. Help in reporting. When it comes to reporting a crime, I believe that it depends on the girl or woman in question – we have to encourage women to report, but there is no doubt that reporting crime in the Indian context is not easy. So, I would not like to make women feel guilty about not reporting. Instead, if a victim of harassment wants to report, help her in any way you can – accompany her to the police station, help her find a lawyer if she needs one, or simply be there for moral support if that’s what she needs. Do what she needs – not what you think needs to be done.
5. Tell girls it’s not their fault. Explicitly. Even today, girls are raised to believe that they invited harassment in some way. Whether its your daughter, niece, young friend, a girl you see on the bus or any other girl who has faced such an incident, tell her that she deserves her place in public – it is her right, and in no way is she responsible for the bad behaviour of another person. This will not stop harassment, but it will make girls feel more secure about reporting harassment, if they know that people will support them.
I would love to hear more ideas from you on supporting girls at bus stops and in other public places. What would you do if you came across such an incident of harassment? Do share your ideas as well!