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“Eve-teasing” : Safety in Mumbai

So, I have been reading the media reports about India being unsafe for women. I have been living in the United States for about 13 years now. Although I have visited India pretty regularly in these 13 years, I haven’t spent more than 5 weeks consecutively. Now reading all of the reports and blogs I am trying to reconcile my experience in India (or primarily in Bombay) with what I have been reading.  And I have been trying to figure out if things have just gotten worse or is it just my perspective.

Growing up in Bombay, I was never afraid of traveling alone. As I used to quip, this is one of the most populated cities in the world—how am I really ever alone!  I wasn’t nervous about getting into a train at night. When I was studying for my bachelors degree, I often stayed late in college or had “study dates” with friends and didn’t think twice about reaching home after 10 pm.  When I graduated and accepted  my first job  in medical equipment sales, I didn’t blink when I had to travel all alone to parts of Bombay that I had never been to (or never even heard of)  alone to visit medical clinics.

That is not to say that there were no incidents.  Eve-teasing (rather a benign sounding term for  what is actually public sexual harassment) was common. A few gropes here and there were expected. My girlfriends and I all had several of these stories to share. Of the guy who pinched your butt in a crowded railway station. Of the guy who grabbed your boobs as he rushed past you on the road.  Of the guys who passed lewd comments while you walked to buy a packet of bread. We spoke about the group of guys who sang the latest Hindi film song accompanied by suggestive gestures. And about the creepy fellows who crank-called your home, when you were all alone. Or even more frightening—of those men who followed you home silently everyday till you decided to take a new route home.

Despite this, I was proud of being a Bombay-girl. I counted these “inconveniences” as a payback for the independence that I had.  I was proud of the fact that I could travel alone to meet friends –unlike my cousins in Kerala. I didn’t need a 10 year old boy to accompany me and my girlfriends if I wanted to see a movie in the evening. I was never scared of using public transport unlike my friends from Delhi. I didn’t need to cover myself from head to toe unlike some of the folks I knew who lived in smaller towns (read: any place other than a metro city). I was a Bombay girl.  I was confident. I could handle eve-teasing. I know how to navigate an unknown area. I was not embittered or terrified or traumatized by these events.  As far as I knew it – these were reprehensible acts performed by cowardly men but it was a part and parcel of life.

But now after years of being in the US, these media reports have made me question my former reaction to such incidents.  In the last 13 years that I have spent in US, I have been heckled just once (I was so out of practice of handling this that I was flustered and hurried away) I don’t have to watch how I sit in public (cross my legs – in Bombay, don’t cross legs in Kerala). I haven’t had to worry about getting into an empty train compartment.  I don’t worry if my dress will make me a target for attention. I haven’t needed to watch or worry if I am showing too much cleavage or if my bra-strap is showing. I can laugh out loud and not worry about getting noticed. I don’t have to clutch a book to my chest when I walk in a crowded mall. I haven’t ever needed a sharp implement (safety pins/hair pins) to discourage wandering hands when I am seeing a movie.

I can understand when people say it is not fair to compare the two countries. And I don’t intend to justify or rationalize the differences.  In fact, I am actually feeling guilty (almost like I am committing treason) when I feel relieved about not having to face eve-teasing. I didn’t even realize what a burden I was carrying till I didn’t have to carry it anymore! Its strange and very sad that I was proud of being a Bombay girl because I could survive the eve-teasing when it would have been much better to be proud of being a Bombay girl because I didn’t have to face any!

Posted in Personal.

Copyright Deepa