I’ve been avoiding writing this post. Maybe I didn’t want to go public with my experiences, or I didn’t want strangers to know how I have been feeling for the past three months.
But here is how I have been feeling in India: harassed.
What is sexual harassment and why is it so prevalent in India that I could not escape it even with the support of academic institutions, an embassy, and a host family in New Delhi?
Let’s start from the basics.
Sexual harassment is intimidation, bullying or coercion of a sexual nature, or the unwelcome or inappropriate promise of rewards in exchange for sexual favors. In most modern legal contexts sexual harassment is illegal. As defined by EEOC, “It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.
Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.
Both victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex.
Sexual harassment is an extremely pervasive problem in India for many reasons. Although the large cities in Indian are more “modern”, with a greater percentage of educated, working citizens, there is a huge influx of migrants from villages who seek manual labor and who are often uneducated, illiterate, and have extremely conservative views about how women should appear and behave. These large cities are often extremely overcrowded, an opportunity for men to touch quickly and rapidly and not be easily apprehended for their actions in busy public centers or during popular festivals and holidays.
There is a racial bias as well. Sexual harassment is rampant in India, but it happens to different women for different reasons. It happens to Indian women because the aggressors are Indian men, and Indian women are simply there, on their home turf. But there are many ethnicities within India. I became familiar with some of the ethnicities from the Northeast, since I made some friends from Assam. I learned that many Indians discriminate against these Northeastern people, since they are not majority Hindu and dress in a Western style, and believe that Northeastern girls do not mind a little touching here or there. Foreign tourists are also often touched since Indians believe that women from Western countries very easily have sex and “want” it. Incidentally, many condoms feature explicit pictures of foreigners engaged in sexual acts.
What can explain these cultural assumptions? India is a Hindu majority country, and the second largest religion is Islam. Both prohibit sex without marriage. Many people, including young people, actually do wait until marriage to have sex. Maybe it’s because people in Europe, South America, or North America wouldn’t kill their daughters for dishonoring their families if they lost their virginity before marriage. That happens in India. It’s not common, but let’s just say that virginity is a huge issue, especially for women, in India.
The problem of sexual harassment is widely acknowledged, yet there is no real effort to change the mentality of urbanites or increase punishment for sexual harassment. The most that Indian cities have done is to create ladies-only compartments on metro lines or trains, and create many commissions for the safety of women. When I bought an Indian SIM card, I downloaded the contacts saved in the SIM card so that I could have the local numbers for the police and hospital, and I was shocked to see many additional contacts that I did not expect: Anti-Ragging (sexual harassment is known as ragging or eve-teasing in India), Anti-Obscene No, Rape Crisis, Women’s Commission, Anti-Stalking, and so on. Pick up any newspaper in India and you will read about what happens when men who believe that they can get away with sexual harassment decide to take the next step – gang rapes of children, kidnapping and trafficking, abductions at 6 pm near metro stations, and so on. It happens on a daily basis, across the country.
Statistics mean something, despite testing errors. And if 9 out of 10 urban women in India are sexually harassed, then I believe that this clearly serious problem in India needs to be addressed. People need to stop acknowledging the problem, and step up and do something.
I’m still uncomfortable talking about my personal experiences of being harassed in New Delhi on such a public space. But here’s what I can say: I left the city because of the frequent harassment. I could no longer comfortably walk on the street by myself, not even during the day. I became paranoid of all the men on the street, and would become extremely tense and agitated whenever I left my house. I hated living in such a repressive and abusive environment. I hated knowing that all the other women in the city shared some of my experiences, and that some have had worse. I cried listening to stories that other women told me. They told me these stories to comfort me, but instead I felt worse. No woman should ever have to suffer such intrusive, disrespectful, and ultimately destructive harassment. I made the decision to leave India because of this issue and because of other reasons. I don’t know when I will return to India, but I am much more resolved to work on issues that affect girls and women. I now know what it feels like to feel impeded by my sexuality, instead of feeling empowered by it. The road to progress in equality for women is bumpy, to say the least, and there are people caught between the lines of tradition and modernity in places all over the world. They deserve our awareness, attention, and concern.