Bold and brutally honest, Payal knows her mind and calls spade a spade. She tells us about the sordid world of eve teasers. The flashers, the touchers, the perverts, the lewd commenters, the scary stalkers, who would follow girls from the bus stop to home, keeping a broody silence, were all clubbed under the umbrella of ‘eve teasers’. We are introducing the weekly column, Feminist@Fifty, from this Tuesday, exclusively in Different Truths.
Already there are two things you know about me. One, I’m a female. Two, I’m fifty.
That’s the two things we first notice about someone, isn’t it? Gender and age. At least, the overt gender, because we understand gender better now.
Growing up in a highly privileged upper-middle-class family, I thought I was in the privileged position to celebrate and enjoy both – being female, and being nineteen.
Arriving from a small town, the first, in fact, the only training that was deemed necessary was the fine art of travelling in local buses. My mother, being a city girl, came down with me, and every day we took the same bus: from the stop closest to home to my college where classes were to start in a week. Every day, we’d take the bus back and forth, I’d learn how to push through the throng (what queue?), juggle my wallet and change, buy a ticket, spot a seat, maneuver to it and slide in or stand and make my journey and finally get off at my designated stop.
“Very quickly, I realised that this was a minefield. In the unspoken manner of those days, many things were communicated through body language. We were a liberated family, but we never spoke about sex, other than in a functional, technical way, conveyed with the distinct message that it was messy, over-rated and gross. So the nuances had to be picked up from my mother’s tautly held body, her immediate shifting and placing herself behind me or between the nearest male and myself, her squashing me into the window seat while she sat defensively straight in the aisle seat, her watchful eyes constantly flitting around, and her tense neck muscles.
“Be careful” was the coded message. Why exactly, I realised the first day after she returned home and I took a bus alone. I almost fell into an empty seat and squeezed myself close to the window. A man took the seat next to me and I barely glanced at him. Those days, we wore fitted shirts, with hooks at the side. I thought I felt a touch, just a light finger, poking through the gaps between the hooks and a slow slide of the fingertip against my skin. “Nobody could be that bold,” I thought. The next time it happened, I felt a wave of shame wash over me, a palpable heat. I was sure my face must be red. The third time it happened, I turned towards him in anger to voice my indignation, and my voice dried up in my throat as inadvertently my eyes fell on his lap.
The man sitting next to me had unzipped his fly and his penis lay exposed in his lap, slightly shielded by the diary he held at a slant. In a crowded bus. In an aisle seat. He just sat there, a sly grin on his face now that he had finally managed to draw my attention to it. I looked around swallowing nervously. Everyone was staring vacuously out of the window. No one seemed to notice. I did not dare to glance back at his lap or at the horror that lay exposed. The creepy touch had been just the overture. A mere opening gambit for the true violation that lay waiting to ambush me.
I got up from my seat, stumbled through the crowded bus and stepped out at the next stop. I had no idea where I was. I had tears running down my cheek. People were staring but I had no way to stem the tears, to gulp down the horror.
One man asked, “Are you lost?”
An older woman moved protectively closer, “What happened?”
“A man, a man…” I stuttered unable to complete my sentence.
“Oh! Eve teasing…,” she murmured running a sympathetic hand down my arm. “Even at my age, I have to be careful.”
So that’s what it was. The flashers, the touchers, the perverts, the lewd commenters, the scary stalkers, who would follow you from the bus stop to home, keeping a broody silence, were all clubbed under the umbrella of ‘eve teasers’.
We had no syntax for it.
We were not given the right terminology.
We just had the age-old refuge of the oppressed: don’t make a noise, don’t draw attention, don’t ‘dress up’, walk with your head down, stay with other women.
When I think about it today, after all the reading I have done about other oppressed people, the black slaves, for example, it’s exactly the same pattern of behaviour that was advised: don’t look up, don’t challenge, don’t draw attention, and don’t fight back. Slink into a crowd with your eyes down.
Thirty-one years later, we have words for it. Sexual harassment, sexual abuse, molestation. Having the words for it, being able to articulate and name a wrongdoing brings the correct light and attention to it.
We, that is, the educated, privileged, upper-class women. Our newspapers, social commentary, social reportage, the legal system, police and women themselves continue to accept the ridicules euphemism of ‘eve teasing’.
In rural areas, in under-privileged low socio-economic sections, there is still no language for this. We need more words to name it in the vernacular. The phrase that is used is ‘oppression of women’ or ‘exploitation of women’. We need the words, for how can that which is unnamed ever be held to responsibility.
For a large part of India, we continue to live in the era of eve teasing.
I’m a feminist. Aren’t you?
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