The Faceless Hand In The Crowd

Blank Noise Project is organising a blog-a-thon on Street Harassment. I’m adding my voice to this cry.

I live in Mumbai, famed for the crowds, the fast pace of life…and how safe it is for women. I am thankful for it. The city I call home, gives me the safest possible space to live with some degree of freedom. I have stayed in Delhi and in Chennai and I know the horrors of eve-teasing in both these places. Mumbai is too crowded and too busy for these. I can and do travel alone, at most times of the day (and night). I use public transport and don’t require to be dropped home most of the time. In a lot of ways, I wonder if what I have to say is significant considering the much worse experiences that women face in other cities.

What I have to say is this: There is nothing called an absolutely safe place for a woman. I’m not being paranoid or overly feminist. I have grown up in safe Mumbai and I can testify to the harassment that this ‘safe city’ metes out to its female population. I am not going to talk about the recent rapes or the fact that a ladies train compartment that has a cop in it wears an isolated look. I am going to talk about small ways that a woman is made to feel cheap and small, every day…every single, damned day. Harassment happens in Mumbai, just like in every other part of the world. And it has no face. Like everything else, it is swallowed up in the teeming masses of this city.

Mumbai’s train travellers have a code of conduct of their own. There are rules to get in, to positioning your bags (and yourself) and getting down. When the train arrives at the station, the crowds draw close to the track, getting ready for the run. And as the train nears, the tension is palpable. One section of the crowd moves back a good two feet from the train. Those waiting to enter the ladies’ compartment. It just is not safe to stand within arm’s length of the train. Of the crowds hanging out of the train, hands reach out to grab, to slap, to grope…to just touch any woman. And there’s no way of knowing who did it. There is a reason the women are willing to forsake the coveted spot close to the entrance of the train.

When I walk down the road, virtually unconsciously I assume a certain posture. My bag is held in front of me to cushion those blows. There are times I wish I could wear some kind of armour with daggers lined down the front to stab those big, hard bodies that deliberately collide into mine when I’m walking. My elbows point out to keep those shoulders from brushing mine and I know I look menacing and angry. It could be coincidence but there is the fact that my softer, gentler looking friends frequently get prodded and groped up in these same situations.

Auto-rickshaw drivers amuse themselves at signals by staring into passanger seats of the autos next to them, cruising alongside never taking their eyes off and on occasion singing along. I particularly detest auto-rickshaws that have a mirror above the driver’s head and pointed to the passenger. I’ve taken to glaring into that mirror to ensure the driver keeps his eyes to himself (and on the road, hopefully) because it is almost a given that the mirror was put there for a reason. It doesn’t always work.

Incidently the ‘safety’ of this city does not take into consideration the starers, the whistlers and the singers. Harassment happens with hands, elbows AND with the eyes. I can’t begin to explain how it feels to be stripped by a total stranger. Does it matter whether he actually tears my clothes off in public, or does it in his mind and makes it very clear what he’s thinking? The fact is that he does it with utmost DISRESPECT, with no fear of being pulled up. He is willing to demean me mentally and he would, physically too, if he had a chance. Staring is rude, we are all taught as kids. Why? Because it makes people uncomfortable. This is someone who doesn’t give a damn about making me uncomfortable and what’s more….he wants to watch me squirm.

Do I deserve to feel bad?
To be embarassed about my gender?
To downplay my appearance?
To move furtively and quickly when I am alone?

What right does any human being have to make me feel that way?And finally, what right do you have to prolong the feeling? How dare you call yourself my friend, sister, brother, parent….anyone who cares about me….when you let me down at the time that I need you?

I used to get my salwar-kameezes tailored by a popular darzi close to my colony. At one fitting, his young assistant groped me all over, on the pretext of getting my measurements. I had been seeing this guy at the shop for a couple of years and he had measured me before. I didn’t say anything. I tried to forget the episode and hoped it wouldn’t happen again. It did. And I stopped going to him.

I wouldn’t call it street harassment. Because it doesn’t stop at the street. It follows me into train compartments, where the men in the bogey adjoining mine leer through the grill and whistle. There is a reason I don’t stand next to the grill…too many fingers and eyes, too close for comfort. It follows me out onto the roads, where truck drivers speed up their vehicles and brush by me, making me jump, when I try to cross the road. It shadows me in the guise of the bus conductor who hands out tickets to the people behind me, each time ‘inadvertently’ brushing my breasts. It sneaks up to me when the security guard who lets me into the office leans over my shoulder to flash the card at the door and tries to look down my neckline. It is all around me all day with people whose eyes stay fixed to a spot about 3 inches below my chin….they are canteen boys, watchmen, courier boys and yes…even friends and colleagues.

I don’t often tell my family about these things. They would tell me to come back earlier from work, not go out at night, not wear certain clothes, not talk and laugh too loudly, not attract attention…..for all purposes be demure, unobstrusive and as hidden away as possible. I know they worry. Which is why I keep my silence with them and find ways to deal with it myself. Its like trying to fight a school of piranha fish that are hidden underneath the depths. I don’t know where the next blow will come from. I don’t know whether it will be a blow or yet another tiny bit of my dignity being shredded away. I haven’t the energy to slap every hand that gropes, silence every lewd comment and out-stare every humiliating look. I try and avoid getting too close to the source. There is a reason I look angry most of the time.

————————————————————————————————

*A later version of this post is here. A version is also posted to Yahoo! Real Beauty.

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About IdeaSmith

IdeaSmith is the digital doppelganger of Ramya Pandyan (intrepid train-traveller and frequent spouter of post-midnight rhymes and rants). As IdeaSmith she battles obscurity and slays boredom with her stories about men, books, digitalia and Mumbai. She performs live and also blogs, tweets, Instagrams, Facebooks, +G’s, Youtubes and Goodreads all as IdeaSmith. Ramya is a blogger, digital storyteller and spoken word performer. She also runs a forum for aspiring writers called Alphabet Sambar. Tweet-bomb her at @ideasmithy.

Posted on March 5, 2006, in Featured, Hormone hangover, Seriously speaking, Times, they are a-changing, Yahoo! and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 43 Comments.

  1. Good that you never stayed in Delhi. Nothing can be worse about any job other than having to travel to and fro in a DTC bus. A typical conversation could be like:

    Girl: bhaisaahab jaraa Thiik se khaRe hoiye na (to a bhaaisaab who keeps falling over her in spite of repeated reqests to stand properly)

    Bhaisaahab: Madam arre bus mein itni bhiiR hai! (never mind that there is actually no one standing behind him)

    Friend of Bhaisaahab: Arre madam…itni takliif hoti hai to auto kyoon nahin le letiin?

  2. This is so true !! so bloody, damn true !!
    I’ve lived in Delhi, Calcutta , Chennai and now in Bangalore unfortunately never in Mumbai….
    I’ve travelled a lot by public transport in all these cities and let me tell you, I’ve experienced ALL the things that you’ve spoken of here and a lot of unspoken ones too….
    I’ve grown up detesting it, hating it, revolting against it but nothing has changed it….
    It follows me from the buses, and the roads right into my office, where sometimes colleagues and occassionally even those whom I consider friends harass me (and I’m sure most other women too) .
    Hell ! what right do they have to make me feel uncomfortable ?? And hell, why am I not able to do anything about the whole damn thing??? This is so annoying…..

    • @Shivani: And yet there are some people here who believe that 50% of what is said is ‘in our minds’ or caused by ‘inadvertent touches’.

  3. That was so true!! It follows you everywhere you go!! You can’t really let your gaurd down too much.. ’cause before you can wink.. you are harassed without being given the time to react!! And yeah.. seriously.. what right do they have to make us feel uncomfortable?? I used to feel so guilty once upon a time.. not anymore!! It’s such an amazing thing.. i have been reading what so many people have to say.. and the outrage that comes through.. it’s so palpably a living thing!!

    • @Deepti: Guilt is the first thing to be dropped. How dare anybody feel like they can molest me and blame ME for it? Talking about it just might open up a mind or two so thank you for commenting!

  4. All our experiences are soooo similar…to the point of being alike.Its sad……and yet we are told repeatedly, to dress conservatively, to lower our heads, to lower our eyes….why dont the guys get even a whit of the blame?
    I dont care anymore. I used to be ashamed. I used to hate my body for growing so rapidly, I wanted to stop the growing, I hated puberty, I couldnt deal with the constant staring, the lascivious looks, ugh.
    Its some solace to know that we are not alone in this, and somehow in some way, maybe we can take a stand.

  5. wonderful post, have so much to say too.

  6. i am not going to add more to already said.but its strange that i was discussing the same with my friends yesterday 😦 its really hard to understand what pleasure those guys must be getting from behaving in such a way.
    and it seems like in bombay when the crowd shouts against someone, its the wrong guy ..someone who never intentionally leaned over. the real creeps rarely get it 😦

  7. one question –
    I heared that there is something like 1st class/AC compartment in each local train n that too at reasonable price (monthly option) which is less crowded then why dont u try/use that one if u r frequent commuter…?

    BTW I never stayed Mumbai for more than 3 days at strech and never got(took) chance to travel by local..hence may be my quetion will not make sense..but I always felt this question whenever u wrote smthng about difficulties of travelling thr local…

  8. id like to pose a question to amol: does that mean only women with money are entitled to a sexual-harassment-free life? what if you cant afford it? you must mutely resign yourself to being sexually abused and molested?

    trying to shut women up in seperate compartments, or in elitist spheres is not addressing the problem. its just escapism.

    besides, who told you that men dont grope women because they happen to be travelling first class? if a man’s brains are in his pants, theyll stay there no matter which setting he may be in.

  9. well-written and so bloody relatable. in fact this was the precise reason why polioman was started in the first place. there was another twist in that tale but the beginning was so this.

  10. Can totally see where you are coming from. I have only faced this problem in India. Not in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Europe or the US. Only in India.

    Check out my post on the issue at http://muserkim.blogspot.com

  11. first, i’d like to say brilliant post! had me relating to every word. it doesn’t matter whether it’s Delhi’s DTC (or even the Metro for that matter!) or Mumbai’s Local Train, such harassment knows no difference. all our experiences aren’t just alike, they’re pretty much the same.

    second, i’d like to back ‘m’ in everything she has to say to ‘amol’. i mean amol do you really think first class compartments that only a few can afford on a regular basis are the answer? even if we braket the economic factor for a second (much against my will) keping women out of the male gaze seems like a very convenient (to the offenders nonetheless) alternative. if we are going to discuss potential solutions then lets for once discuss some REAL options!

  12. Madam,
    I am a groper myself so I can understand what you are talking about.But I am trying to grow out of my obsession and for the most part am trying to turn over a new leaf.I just meant to say that such behavior as mine arises from a great deal of neuroticism and that it is omnipresent.So while its inexcusable for anyone to lay a hand on you it does happen.Its reality and we have to fight against it.The recidivists as well as the victims.

  13. Leave Mumbai, I left mumbai long back…it is hell…go to small city…forget Delhi too.. Take small city where less people and little less money. Our 100 milion 10 crore mumbai people. One day whole mumbai will vanish…due to blast … forget it…come to small town…drain mumbai.

  14. Good article, which is explained in very detail about the real aspects that faces by the women in society, dear sister, if you islamic way of conduct in dress as well as relation with others, you will certainly get all the complete solution in a very efficient manner.

    • @abdul azeem: I don’t think that’s quite the solution. There are enough of cases of women being molested when they’re in traditional costume as well. But thank you for sharing your thoughts, anyway. I hope you will visit XX Factor again.

  15. Nagendra Kushwaha: 007: The world is not Enough...

    I am so sorry girls… i felt very sad after reading this article. i knew it happens, but i nevr realise that it happens at this extent. so sorry. i know its very wrong thing, and i whenever get chance make the women safe from public. i am a man , and i know the men mentality, so, as much i can do , i do, and for me, i am very against of this kind of abusing, and i hate it very much…
    I think girls should make a strong bond and when they combine, make a FIR, or should write a letter to women welfare society, i know everybody can not do this, but we need to something.

    Because my professor used to say that, when u don’t know where to go, than keep moving on a track… it will lead u somewhere.
    So..Girls join hand, be friends in girls, introduce each other, make compainion, than only togethr, u can down the this menace..
    Again sorry women..

    All the best and good Luck.

  16. so true!!!!!!! you have spoken out what a lot of women are silently suffering, it need not necessarly be in the public transport , in any of the metros, this harresment that women face is just about anywhere and anytime. be it at a office,hospitals,fields, schools and sometimes even at thier homes(the so called safest place).
    Just because they have the XY chromosome it does not give them the right to strip(their glance) women or touch them.

    • @Dr.Sumitha: Right you are there. We have a long way to go before it becomes a common truth that molestation is inacceptable. Thank you for commenting!

  17. You are so damn true. You will always find such things prevailing almost everywhere in India. Its just of the laws and the corrupt policemen’s in our country, First who takes away the guy away from the girl, showing that he is doing his duty but then who in offer of a certain amount of money also leaves the guy making him feel boosted with confidence to try again on a higher level because he knows he atleast have some amount of money to bribe the corrupt.
    I live in south delhi as well and i am aware about the wrong happening with girls out dere in public places. Actually we guys know that the police is corrupt so they don’t scare us anymore whether you are caught fighting or teasing someone it makes no difference. We Guys know how to deal with the policemen. So, what we need is some cash in our pockets.And for those who dont have it may get a small beating….thats it!!!!
    The girls however have to feel shameful at some or the other place throughout the day.
    Their innocence is always challenged. What i would like to tell you girls is that regardless of however safe u try to be u will olways be on threat. What i think is that there should be policemen standing at every bus stop,at every entry & exit…be it whatever. And the non-corrupt ones should set examples that may cause fear in guys so that they may never think of teasing a girl.
    They should be given respect Anyway!!!!!

    • @Himanshu: You raise an interesting point. Corruption certainly makes it easier for a criminal to walk scott-free. The question is, what are educated & otherwise respectable men doing, taking their chances with what they know is wrong simply because they can? Can this even be called a civilization when people will refrain from bad behaviour only if they are punished for it and not because it is, well, bad? I don’t believe that men are mindless drones, driven blindly by their urges. I’d like to believe that every member of (more than) half the world’s population has a brain and a conscience as well. Thank you for commenting.

  18. this is absolutely true… oh my god no words to explain how much i went through this.. the way few people stare at me on road(FYI i wear only salwars) i feel like going right there and give him a slap but i cant do that forever so i used to come back quiet cursing myself for being born..
    i dont know when life is going to change for women especially in INDIA

    • @ramsi: No woman ‘deserves’ to be molested. This is irrespective of her dress, her behaviour, her sexual orientation or her choices. Harassment is not permissible. Period. I don’t know when things will change but I do believe that talking about it could make a little difference. Thank you for commenting.

  19. It was a nice article. I was speechless how uncomfortable am i, while reading this article.

  20. very good post…frank and to the point…it happens and its time to think why does it happen and how can we stop it…yes punishing the perpetrators is a necessary immediate step…but I believe a holistic approach should be taken to plant seeds of respect for women in the minds of growing generation so that atleast next generation of girls will not suffer this much…because once staring/groping becomes a habit I think men find it difficult to abstain…and especiaaly many starers do it without even realizing they are doing it…they might be detesting themselves later for it…especially when they realize that they were staring at a friend or colleague…the men are wired that way…and the solution has to be found in socio-psychology…

  21. I’ve had a lot of such instances too…N am done ignoring such things.. Unless n otherwise gals react and react in a bold way, such situations cannot be handled.. Have lived in Kolkotta, Kerala n Bangalore.. now am in chennai…I would rate Chennai as the safest.. here people would max sing n pass a comment.. Unlike in God’s own country, where a lot sexually frustrated men look at women as only things which can be used for sexual satisfaction ‘only”.. people say, being literate makes u enlightened.. i say proper upbringing makes u wise.. it all starts from the family.. how u r brought up.. the way things are at home.. wat i would like to say to all those beaitiful women there is this.. No point being hurt that u r not being treated properly by a lot of men there.. ..well.. we r not.. lets accept it and face the reality n stop being the victim anymore..

    • @Surabhi Raj: You’re right in that there’s no point in feeling hurt about it anymore. But I’d like to take that a step further and say, we refuse to condone it anymore. Talking about it could open a mind or two. I think that’s the point of events like SlutWalk. The average eve-teaser does realize what he is doing but has his own justifications for it. The way to tackle this is to bring down those justifications, make it impossible for the perperator to feel good about himself when he does such a thing. Thank you for visiting XX Factor and commenting!

  22. Man or woman, you deserve to get smacked in the face if you stand within 2 feet of a moving train, so quit cribbing .

  23. I have one more point to make…I guess its sub conscious conditioning that makes it feel okay to stare, ogle, mentally strip a girl…now I am all for free art and freedom of expression but seriously do u ever see a scene in a movie where the camera is pointed to a man’s crotch for five seconds?…well I guess not…now how many times do u see a woman’s breasts filling up the screen every day?…the camera would capture a cleavege of even the most demurest of heroines in most traditional dress in a family movie…….it needs to change…there should be awareness about respecting a woman’s body…and not portray it as objet d’ desire…

  24. this is true.
    But aren’t we women being really Hypocritical. Many a times i and my friends have intentionally squeezed decent looking type men’s crotch while boarding and getting down from trains. Almost daily i stare/peek upon road side pissing men’s pen*s, it is so fulfilling to see. Good looking men’s bodies in your residential colonies (roaming in their undies inside their home) are more easily available to visually ogle from windows. Its not like always we have done this, but significantly many a times this desire has happened in me and my friends and my sisters, with whom i have discussed on this subject.

    • Dear ‘rashmi’ (if that’s REALLY your name),

      Who are you kidding? I’m letting this comment go through simply because it contains no abusive language and as an example of the bilge that sometimes passes through this space. Don’t bother trying again unless you have something a little more intelligent to say.

      ~I~

    • @rashmi : oh.. thats quite a info which almost no women or even men knew(i swear..)!! by the way Congratulations “so called rashmi” what a family u have… i have never heard about such a ‘decent ‘ family like yours.

  25. Hello,

    It’s a well-written post though I have to say that I belong to a small city and have not faced harassment on such high levels, but have heard lots of stories of my friends having gone through such situations and hence can totally relate, nonetheless I have felt violated as well.

    Also I would like to say this to ‘Rashmi’ (if that’s HER(maybe HIS …posing to be HER in order to add insult to injury))’ s name…. God bless your family…although I wonder how you all turned out to be so ‘decent’ ? Seriously…? You find it fulfilling to eye a guy’s private parts when he is taking a slash..? You got to be kidding me..! I can’t really decide whether I should feel sick about everything that you said or should be laughing at all of this..!

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