by Chryselle D’Silva Dias
I was a schoolgirl when I first experienced harassment on public buses in Mumbai. I still remember the red double-decker #361, the conductor with the pock-marked face and thick black moustache not moving an inch to let me get through, pressing himself against me every time I got on the bus. As a 13-year-old, I was horrified, scared, furious, and alone. Missing that bus was not an option – it would make me late for tuitions*, or worse early, where waiting for class to begin meant dealing with even more unwanted attention. One day, though, I had had enough. When the conductor came too close for comfort, I stamped his foot hard. He cried out in pain and complained. “Why did you do that? Can’t you see where you are going?” he asked. “You know why I did that,” I replied. He shut up then, and never touched me again.
This first memory comes back to haunt me again and again. As a young woman in India, being harassed, groped, and leered at is as routine as shopping for groceries. Every single woman I know has experienced the coyly-termed “eve-teasing.” That is a shocking statistic – and one that is routinely ignored despite horrific incidents all over the country.
I was reminded of the constant harassment when I heard about the recent judgement given by India’s Supreme Court, which lays down guidelines against eve-teasing and sexual harassment in public places. The landmark judgement requires all State and Union Territories in India to deploy plain-clothed female police officers at bus-stands and other public places to “monitor and supervise” incidents of eve-teasing; to create “Women’s Helplines” to be established by state governments within three months of the judgement; and, in the event of harassment reported on a public bus, the crew must take the bus to the nearest police station.
I cannot help but think how guidelines like these, if they had been implemented promptly and sincerely, would have prevented incidents like the recent brutal gang-rape in Delhi, where a 23-year-old medical student was gang-raped, beaten, and brutalised with iron rods and thrown out on the street, naked and bleeding. She died of her injuries two weeks later.
After the “Delhi Rape,” women’s organisations across India have been raising awareness of how unsafe India’s cities are. The Blank Noise Project is one of India’s most prominent street-harassment projects and its “#SafeCityPledge” has captured the imagination of many young people across India. On New Year’s Day, as the sun took a slow dive behind the sands of Miramar beach in Goa, I, along with a smattering of men and women, took pledges to make our cities safer. We pledged to walk alone, to hold our heads high. The men pledged to intervene when they saw a woman being harassed. They pledged not to stare. We stopped tourists and locals and asked them to pledge. Some men agreed, willing to drive around Goa with pledges pinned to their backs. Others said no, bewildered by what was being asked of them.
Events like these, however, only work up to a point. As the nation is up in arms over the gruesome gang-rape in Delhi, other incidents are being reported from all across the country. Children, teenagers, older women - we are all targets.
As the protests wane and other news overtakes the headlines, efforts are being made to ensure that the outrage does not die down. Jasmeen Patheja, founder of Blank Noise Project, has plans to keep the momentum going. “While we are jolted, shocked and outraged, let's channel our anger towards how we can affect change,” she says. The #SafeCityPledge is an affirmation and a commitment towards our role as citizens. The #SafeCityPledge will be integrated with events and actions throughout the year, “because building a safe city is both the responsibility of the state and of the citizen.”
Politicians have jumped onto the safe city bandwagon with a completely contrary stance. In Mumbai, for instance, the right-wing Shiv Sena plans to arm women with knives so that they can “defend themselves.” This ill-devised and bizarre initiative is similar to plans in Goa to distribute pepper spray cans for women to use on public buses.
While activists work towards sensitization, education and awareness, the demands for fast-tracking rape cases in court have escalated. In a country where a case can take years, if not decades, to come to court this is a heartening call for change. As I write, a man has been convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison for abducting and raping his coworker in Delhi. The conviction took just eight days – a minor miracle for India.
On Feb. 14, 2013 Blank Noise, along with many other activists and organizations, will be participating in “One Billion Rising,” a global call to action – a revolution. According to the One Billion Rising website, “today, on the planet, a billion women – one of every three women on the planet – will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. That’s ONE BILLION mothers, daughters, sisters, partners, and friends violated.” Women in India know that this is no far-fetched fiction. The stories we hear every day and the ones that we have witnessed in our growing-up years tell us that this could well be true.
The question, though, is whether even a global revolution is enough. If the growing resentment and public outrage in India at this time is any indication, perhaps, just perhaps, this could be the tipping point.
* Tuitions are private, after-school classes that Indian school children often attend to catch up with lessons when the school system, with its overflowing classrooms, cannot provide individual attention or coaching. – Ed.
About the Author: Chryselle D'Silva Dias is a freelance writer based in Goa, India. Her work has been published in Indian and international publications including Time, the BBC, WSJ Asia, The Guardian Weekly, The National and Marie Claire India, among others. When she's not tweeting (twitter.com/chryselled) or writing, Chryselle plots random street-cleaning exercises, Tree Walks and adventures in guerilla gardening. Visit her website at www.chryselle.net.