When commercials, starring the most sought after stars of the Indian film industry, coax and cajole you to visit this tourist spot in India and that, you're obviously shown a India straight out of Lonely Planet stock photos. It's all colour, warmth and pure joy -- visiting these places seems almost as hassle-free as walking into a spa and rolling in a bouncy lazy-boy chair. A part of that is true -- our country is indeed home to an incredible cultural topography that must be explored. However, if you're a woman and have travelled across India, you'll know tourist spots can be an ordeal thanks to gaggles of men ogling at you, following you around and just standing and staring like their life defended on sizing you up relentlessly without blinking once.
However, if you're a woman and have travelled across India, you'll know tourists spots can be an ordeal thanks to gaggles of men ogling at you.
Ask anyone who has visited any popular tourist destination -- from Red Fort in Delhi to the Badami, Pattadakal ruins in Karnataka, from the crowded north Goa beaches to the Taj Mahal -- women are subjected to men in groups staring at them or trying to sneakily take pictures on their phones everywhere. This discomfort is neither negligible nor something women ever get used to, yet, it has never been a part of national conversations. In a country struggling to deal with frightening forms of sexual violence, perhaps, ogling is something women are expected to not make a huge deal about. However, this may just begin to change, thanks to a new initiative by the Karnataka government's tourism ministry.
Upon receiving various complaints from women about men ogling at them unabashedly at waterfalls across the state, the ministry is mulling taking definitive action against such harassment.
Upon receiving various complaints from women about men ogling at them unabashedly at waterfalls across the state, the ministry is mulling taking definitive action against such harassment. According to a report on The Telegraph, the ministry is considering putting up billboards that would effectively ask men to not ogle. They also intend to train personnel who'd be called 'tourist mitras' (friends of tourists) and empower them to curb lecherous overtures made by men visiting these tourists spots. However, the ministry is still in the process of figuring out what powers will be invested in these 'tourist mitras' and what kind of action they'd be allowed to take if they spot men creating a nuisance or if they receive complaints from women. The ministry hasn't decided on the exact nature and language of the messages that will be put on these billboards that would make potential harassers realise they may not be able to get away with staring at women or stalking them.
Thought the ministry is still working out the specifics -- and an expert speaking to The Telegraph suggested that this may offend men because #NotAllMen etc -- this move is both important and necessary. One of the reasons that ogling and stalking survives, especially in public spaces, is thanks to the sense of entitlement a section of men feel on women and their bodies. Indian women and foreigner women visiting India aren't unfamiliar with men at tourist spots walking ridiculously close them, brushing against them and pointedly staring at breasts, legs etc with impunity. A board clearly sending out an anti-harassment message helps in curbing this sense of entitlement to some extent.
One of the reasons that ogling and stalking survives, especially in public spaces, is thanks to the sense of entitlement a section of men feel on women and their bodies.
Harassers also draw sustenance from the belief that the security at these sites is too inadequate to actually spot them tailing women, snapping pictures or staring at them. Most importantly, a frightening percentage of these men also seem to believe that none of the activities mention above is criminal and that they should be reprimanded for the same. Thanks to films, irresponsible politicians and normalisation of harassment, these activities are perceived as 'fun' or 'harmless' courtship rituals -- one also based on their complete disregard for a woman's consent. Sometimes it takes a billboard to spell out the basics of civilised living for these people to back off.
Most importantly, harassment thrives because women would rather brush it off or if they are in a group, choose to ignore such overtures, to avoid the tedious processes of reporting the same. Also, most women aren't sure if the handful of security people -- a majority of who are men -- posted at these places have been sensitised to deal with incidents of harassment. Given that they are sure that an argument will ensue following a complaint, they are most unconvinced that the security people will be empathetic and be concerned about their safety. After all, they'll have to leave the premises eventually and head to where they are staying. And the worst fear they have -- and several women have told me this -- is that the harassers will be let off with next to no reprimanding, emboldening them further. "Jaane dijiye na madam (Let it go, madam)" is an 'advice' several women have been served on reporting harassment that doesn't involve violent verbal overtures or physical contact. Having people who have been specifically tasked to deal with this 'garden variety' harassment will give women the reassurance to report harassment if they wanted to.
And the worst fear they have -- and several women have told me this -- is that the harassers will be let off with next to no reprimanding, emboldening them further.
Training the staff will be crucial here -- this runs the risk of promoting rowdy vigilantism like that displayed by the Anti-Romeo squads -- and one hopes it is done right.
Initiative like these should not only be taken by other states to make women feel safer in public spaces, but also should be extended to places of religious worship or festivals where harassment is quite an epidemic. Most Indian women would have had at least one story of how they have been harassed at big religious events or at crowded places of worship.
Fingers crossed for the project to reach the implementation stage from the planning stage quickly, and the 'incredible' in 'Incredible India' no more represents the amount of safeguards women have while travelling across the country.