“He wants your autograph,” Sumitra told me as we rode the bus into the heart of Hyderabad for the first time. I shook my head and turned away from the man, confused as to why he would want some random girl’s signature.
Being a woman in India is very different from being a woman in America. On top of that, being a white woman draws much more unwanted attention to me. Everywhere I go, people stare at me; my friends and I have been followed around the city by crowds of men. At first, the staring bothered me, but after four months in India, I don’t even notice it anymore. I do, however, notice the unwanted attention, euphemistically known as eve-teasing, that affects all women, no matter what their race.
In my Sociology of Gender class one day, my teacher asked us to share our experiences of sexual harassment in India, and I was surprised to hear some of the things that my friends had gone through. Many of them had been felt up by strange men on the bus or in a crowded public place. Later on, while walking around in the Old City with some of my friends, a man grabbed my butt, but it all happened so quickly that I didn’t realize it soon enough to do anything about it. I was outraged.
In rapidly modernizing India, eve-teasing has emerged as a popular form of social control of women. The Eve-teasing Bill, which the Indian government passed in 1984, defines it as “consisting of the following actions: when a man by words either spoken or by signs and or by visible representation or by gesture does an act in a public place, or sings, recites or utters any indecent words or song or ballad in any public place to the annoyance of any woman, he may be arrested.” In a country where patriarchy had dominated social life for most of its history, modernization threatens to favor women. While not all Indian males engage in sexual harassment, the fact of the matter is that many of these misinformed men truly believe that women actually are asking for it.
Society still does not condemn the antics of these young men, who are influenced by the movies they grew up on, where the heroes taunt and tease girls with sexual innuendoes in order to teach them to occupy a subordinate place in society, as well as to comport themselves with modesty and humility. Sexual harassment in contemporary India can be read as an attempt to maintain the traditional gender hierarchy.
Despite passing the Eve-teasing Bill, the Indian government does not do enough to affect the status quo or to implement the law in everyday life. And in many cases where girls report incidents of eve-teasing, the police tend to blame the girls, saying they brought it upon themselves.
Some time after my first incident of sexual harassment, I went back to the Old City to go shopping, and it happened again. But that time I was ready for it; I punched a guy who sexually harassed me. That’s not the worst of it: a group of my girl friends went into the Old City on the night of Eid to see the celebrations and the breaking of the fast at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. It turned out to be a night of horrors for many of them, because they were surrounded by a group of men who were grabbing at their breasts and butts as if they weren’t even human beings but rather objects for their own enjoyment.
Some may say that it was a bad idea for girls to get themselves into that situation, or that they shouldn’t have gone out into the Old City at night like that, yet that just seems to be society’s justification for a larger issue of misogyny. It shouldn’t have to be that way. I should feel safe in public around the city, even if I am a woman. If anything frustrates me about India, it’s that even after years of feminism and people fighting for equal rights for women, there’s still such a strong divide between the public and private spheres, and between rights for the sexes.
Although America is not necessarily a beacon of great gender relations, and sexual harassment does occur in America, I must admit that I look forward to going home, being able to go where I want to on my own, and not having to worry about what I wear so as not to draw the wrong attention from men. After living in India for several months, I have come to appreciate more what it means to be a woman with so much freedom.