LIFESTYLE

Why Are We Still Calling Sexual Harassment 'Eve-Teasing' In India?

There's a lot in a name.

04/07/2017 6:26 PM IST | Updated 05/07/2017 9:52 AM IST
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I learnt the word 'harassment' excruciatingly long after I learnt what harassment felt like. For years, extending to high school and then some initial months at college, there was a blanket term for all kinds of inconveniences, abuse and atrocities girls faced in public spaces and it was 'eve-teasing'. I remember how as adolescents just starting to learn the perils of growing breasts, the word 'eve-teasing' seemed deeply inadequate for articulating the experience of harassment. The first 'beti bachao' advice that most of us were given is to not pay attention to 'teasing'. It was deeply confusing as a teenager. Just how is 'teasing' -- a word used to describe how I pull my brother's leg over his math score, or how my best friend jokes about boys I'd want to date -- a legitimate way to describe men on the road hurling sexually abusive invectives at me?

I was reminded of the dilemma with the appearance of a news piece that said the Telangana government is mulling an 'anti eve-teasing' law. "We are planning to put in place a law through anti- Eve-Teasing Act. A proposal has already been forwarded by the Telangana government to the Centre. It is pending with the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and we will be pursuing it," India Today quotes Additional Commissioner of Police (Crimes and SIT) Swati Lakra as saying. Most other publications that carried the piece chose to call harassment 'eve-teasing'.

I was reminded of the dilemma with the appearance of a news piece that said the Telangana government is mulling an 'anti eve-teasing' law.

Back in the day, it wasn't just a confusion that I had. It was all over the city I grew up in. Who was 'teasing'? Apparently, boys from the tuition classes giggling while we walked past drunken boors inside crowded buses muttering sexually coloured suggestions in your ears. Or people anxious parents imagined will be thronging Durga Puja pandals to catcall at girls. There was literally no metric to evaluate the extent of psychological violence a girl or a woman has been subjected to. However, if there was one common thread binding these disparate incidents, it would be the consensus on the only way a woman or a girl is required to respond to these incidents: by ignoring them. Basically, 'eve-teasing' as it was understood by and large in the society was a form of sexual aggression that women have to preferably put up with and ignore since no physical harm was involved. The 'eve-teasing' survival guide handed down to us was: don't look, walk fast, walk straight. Basically, run for your life to make sure it doesn't advance to physical aggression.

The 'eve-teasing' survival guide handed down to us was: don't look, walk fast, walk straight. Basically, run for your life to make sure it doesn't advance to physical aggression.

The word 'teasing', like people understand it in India, doesn't immediately imply violence and there in lies the problem with the word. By attaching an 'Eve' to it and making it somewhat of a 'woman problem' doesn't change the fact that it is a misleading, tame word to describe serious criminal offence. Demanding that 'the term eve-teasing must die' , Ranjani Iyer Mohanty explains how the word not only dilutes the seriousness of the crime it refers to, but also squarely places the blame on women themselves. "In the Indian term "eve-teasing," the word "eve" alludes to the biblical story of Eve tempting Adam to stray from the path of righteousness. An Oxford English Dictionary definition for "teasing" is "to tempt someone sexually with no intention of satisfying the desire aroused." Both parts of the term put the blame on the woman; she is the temptress who isn't providing something she has promised," Mohanty writes for Wall Street Journal.

The usage of the word is restricted to South Asia and is most popular in India, Nepal, Pakistan among other countries.

The usage of the word is restricted to South Asia and is most popular in India, Nepal, Pakistan among other countries. A study published on the portal of Sage Journals perfectly captures why we should actively refrain from calling sexual harassment 'eve-teasing'. "Use of the term is discouraged by women's advocates because it perpetuates what Baxi describes as "a culturally sanctioned practice that normalises and escalates violence against women in public spaces" and is "a means to legitimise harassment by positioning the very presence of women in public as provocative"," the study titled "What Is Eve Teasing? A Mixed Methods Study of Sexual Harassment of Young Women in the Rural Indian Context" explains.

Thankfully, the Indian Penal Code doesn't use the word 'eve-teasing' to describe sexual harassment. Though there is no legislation with 'eve-teasing' in its name, the word has been used in the past in government documents as well. For example, this Tamil Nadu government ordinance published in 1998, calls acts of stalking, sexual harassment 'eve-teasing'. That year, a student of Ethiraj College in Chennai was chased by a group of goons in an auto. They tried to grab her and the 19-year-old student, Sarika Shah, fell while trying to free herself from the clutches of the assaulters. She sustained serious head injuries and went into coma. Shah died a few days later. This case led to the drafting of the the Tamil Nadu Prohibition Of Harassment Of Women Act, 1998. It took the death of a young girl for people to wake up and see the ugly face of activities Indians have been brushing aside as 'eve-teasing'. Even then, like this document shows, initially the act was called Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Eve-Teasing Act 1998. The name was eventually changed.

It took the death of a young girl for people to wake up and see the ugly face of activities Indians have been brushing aside as 'eve-teasing'.

The first sentence of the draft, ironically, said: "Eve-teasing in public places has been a perennial problem." The draft proceeds to talk about Sarika Shah's death but still calls it 'eve-teasing' without probably realising that a part of the problem also lies in calling the act some sort of 'teasing'. Like the various news reports published yesterday and many other days relentlessly did as well.

Discussing the merit of the term on Quora, one user comments, "The term would be as vacuous and meaningless to me, even if it was phrased in a more indigenous fashion, such as maybe, "Sita-teasing" (reference: Sita) or cow-teasing (since cow is touted as the national mother these days, and the rank of a mother is the only way a woman can gain nirvana and supreme respect in the Indian society)."

After explaining how the word 'eve-teasing' doesn't even begin to cover the horrors of sexual harassment, she says that changing the term wouldn't change the reality. The thing is, we don't need to 'change' anything. We just need to unfailingly start calling sexual harassment as it is -- and not invest in euphemisms that veil its reality. The reason is evident in the same Quora thread: by calling assault and harassment 'teasing', in a country like ours, we make it seem like something some women 'enjoy'. As in, harassment is a way to earn a woman's attention and affection as long as it is practiced within some sort of a 'permissible' level. This 'level' is mostly defined by what is shown in popular Indian films.

No wonder then, another woman commenting on the same Quora thread says: "As per my knowledge girls usef enjoy eve teasing a little bit at some point. When I used to go to college, boys just stared at us, sometimes smiled and very rarely said anything like hi, how are you like that or trying to make friends and once in very long while there would be couple of naughty boys who like to touch. But that's all. Boys looking at girls and just smiling at them, I think is still likeable, but not more than that. Throwing silly comments, trying to touch and make girls feel embarassing is not right. That is extreme eveteasing."

There is no separate 'extreme' variety of harassment. Harassment itself is an act of extreme disregard for human dignity.

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