Chocolate and Gold Coins

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Street Harassment and Gender Segregation

I have been reading a variety of interesting and disturbing stories about a form of sexual harassment in India: Charu, Ash, Sujatha, Sunil, Vulturo, and (via Greatbong) Premalatha and Blank Noise. The guys are just strangers who act inappropriately in public toward women. Two questions arise immediately: 1) “Why does this happen so often in India?” 2) “What can India do to prevent it?”

Suppose you are a young attractive female riding on a bus. The seat next to you is empty. A man enters the bus and looks at you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable. Maybe he looks a little like this…you know the type. Then he moves to sit next to you. Your heart maybe beats a bit faster as you wonder, “What will he do?” You might wonder if he will leer at you, or even touch you, or worse – grope you! Is there anything you can do?

I believe the situation of two strangers sharing a seat on a bus is always going to be a bit uncomfortable – but it will be extremely uncomfortable for a young lady who has to sit next to a strange guy. This is somewhat unavoidable and both will feel awkward. It might be made worse if the woman really makes the guy feel awful by looking down and scrunching up next to window as if he smelled foul. You cannot make people like you. You just have to make the best out of an awkward situation.

But for a woman, what can she do if the guy is some kind of jerk who gets his jollies out of making the woman feel bad? Maybe he will purposely touch her and then smile sadistically. She can leave the bus, but the guy still wins. And what if the guy gropes her?

There is really only one effective method to fight back: using Mace spray or pepper spray. Do most women in India carry it? Definitely, the perps will think twice if they think women carry pepper spray.

Another method to prevent inappropriate contact is to segregate the genders. But I think this is exactly the wrong approach. This just reinforces the idea that men cannot be with woman and act civilized.

In fact, I believe that gender segregation in the schools is the answer to the question, “Why is eve-teasing so common in India?” Boys need to develop social skills in order to mature. One of those skills is to interact with females who are not family relations and not be goofy. Another skill is to learn empathy for people who are different than you. These are not things that you can learn by reading in a book.

The problem in India is that society has become so concerned about the problems caused by having boys and girls together that they never have them experience cooperation with the other sex until marriage. Even then, the boy and the girl are not allowed to get to know each other in private. Boys/men just don’t know how to act appropriately around girls because they lack positive experience. This is why separating the genders causes the problem it intends to cure.

It probably is not a good idea to place teen-age boys and girls together and let them get too friendly. They might discover more about biology than you want them to know.

However, it might an excellent idea to have boys and girls do at least one major project together a year to help build social skills. And it might be even better if the project focuses on sexual harassment so that these young adults get a double lesson.

In general, I think that eve-teasing is simply a function of poor socialization. If boys and girls could learn to cooperate through each stage in life, the idea of acting inappropriately in young adulthood will seem less natural.

P.S. My apologies to the random person whose picture I took off the web as an example of an "eve-teaser". Of course I have know way of knowing if this person has ever done eve-teasing. He just looks like the type.

It occurred to me (after reading Sunil's blog) that Vikrum Sequeira's post on gender segregation is a nice companion to this post.


  • Good post!

    I know who the chap in the photo is. Shall warn all the ladies! :D

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:02 PM  

  • People who grow up without interacting with many women will certainly feel uncomfortable interacting with women - I still do. But I don't think that makes them more likely to indulge in eve-teasing.

    I don't think people from "good" families will ever do eve-teasing. I have grown up interacting with very few girls but never took to eve-teasing. Cultural background from home, I think, is all that matters - modulo of course the fact that people might be spoiled in bad company at college.

    I have seen lots of eve-teasing college guys interacting very naturally with their female college-mates. I think gender segregation has nothing to do with the issue.

    Secondly, what I have heard is that young eve-teasers hardly go beyond leering, and that groping is something middle-aged people resort to. Indeed, the middle-aged people would have interacted more with women ( in particular their wives ).

    In many families in India, I think children aren't taught respect ( other than to elders, of course ), courtesies, manners etc. In fact people often bring up their children telling that they have to be selfish to survive. Principles are looked down upon.

    In fact studying in a class which had girls ( with whom I never interacted, nevertheless ) was only a painful experience - teachers would be softer to girls, praise girls specifically when they do better in exams also. Harsher punishments would be reserved for boys. Discrimination in some form is unavoidable when there is no gender segregation.

    By Blogger froginthewell, at 11:57 PM  

  • Indian men are quite unique. As a Western born European my perspective is obviously coloured by my own male culture and as such I find Indian men very interesting. Many of the men I met in India had childlike qualities and were quite playful which is wonderful to see in men. The way they interacted with their male friends was fascinating showing physical closeness and intimacy.

    In a Western society this kind of behaviour would be misunderstood and the men's sexual orientation would be under question. In India, I am pleased to say, men allow themselves to express intimacy with their male friends. The most obvious reason for this is that men in India are discouraged from connecting with women and expressing intimacy in public. This I feel brings in the shadow side of male-to-male intimacy, in that I often experienced males interaction with women in negative ways.

    Males in India obviously hold a lot of repressed sexual feelings and because Indian society does not allow a natural expression of their sexuality when men interact with women they are often childish and sometimes quite disrespectful. When I travelled with my wife in India, when she was with me, we would not experience any problems. As soon as my wife was on her own men would constantly hassle her, try to touch her and make a general nuisance of themselves.

    The cultural division between the sexes in India may well be to blame for a lot of the shadow behaviour men express towards women but may be Indian men just have to grow up in that department.

    Overall I take my hat of to Indian men for allowing themselves to express their innate childlike and fun natures and for giving themselves permission to have close friendships with other men which as a Western man I don't often have the opportunity to experience without having to face the fears of our societies ideas about male to male intimacy.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:04 AM  

  • Hi Michael,

    I think you are the only blogger (I have read) that has actually suggested a practical solution - the pepper spray.
    I am not sure if they are widely used. I found this TOI article that mentions it in the title but has scant little information (it TOI - what else do you expect?). The Wikipedia entry on Pepper Spray also mentions about it becoming in vogue in India recently.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:31 AM  

  • Hi Srikanth, Froggy, David, and BongoP
    Srikanth: Thanks - I actually changed the picture to an even more dangerous looking person!

    Froggy: Obviously most men in India grow up being fine people who respect woman. But saying "if you want better behavior - get better people" might be true but it doesn't suggest any solutions. Harsher penalties might be helpful.

    I am suggesting that gender segragation does play a role and there might be something that could be done about that. Personally, I believe the cost of gender segregation is really huge - it means that lots of Indian men and women will miss out on many valuable friendships and working relationships.

    David: Interesting viewpoint. I think you might be right that in the West we tend to be guarded in our friendships. Every relationship is might be interpreted by one or both parties as potentially sexual so people are wary of being too close.

    BongoP: I would be surprised if woman in India didn't arm themselves with this. That would be a powerful deterent.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 12:37 PM  

  • That is true, what I said doesn't suggest a easily implementable concrete solution. But then I think, as Bongopondit says, your suggestion would be quite effective.

    The reason why women in India might have some reluctance in using it, I think, would be that the girls who are yet to marry cannot afford to lose an image of being gentle and shy and all that ( otherwise they may not get proposals for marriage - given that not too many go for love marriage ). But then there should be atleast some women who wouldn't mind that, and I think their getting into action itself can make a difference.

    My main point was that gender segregation has nothing to do with eve-teasing. Most islamic countries have more gender segregation than India does; I am not sure if all of them have a police force as effective as India has.

    By Blogger froginthewell, at 1:36 PM  

  • Nilu has made a similar point about imposing costs on the perpetrators by use of pepper spray and guns. I left a long comment there and reproduce a part of it here. This explains why I don't think that is a practical option in India because the 'victim' on whom the spray is used may seek revenge through extra-judicial means for what he will perceive as a challenge to his manhood. In a country where people throw acid just because a girl spurned his proposal this is not a very unlikely scenario.

    My point is that while using mace or a gun/air-gun as a cost is an option, a woman after weighing the situation may deem the cost incurred on the perpetrator to be too high depending on her personal judgment of what kind of acts warrant such high costs like gun use. I read only one account by Hemangini Gupta where she actually took the perpetrator to the police and despite pleas from bystanders not to 'spoil the man's life,' stuck to her decision. Therefore I think simply existence of a law against such behaviour is not a cost amd also not a very practical option either even if that law is implemented properly. Unless all laws in general are implemented and the justice is speedy, looking towards the rule of law as an effective cost is futile. What if no one chooses to exercise that option for the fear of that person taking a revenge?

    Given the lax implementation of other laws in India (assuming one ensures the strict implementation of the eve-teasing law) what is to stop a person who has been sprayed with pepper spray or jailed for two years from following the girl the next day and doing something worse to her the next time around with acid? (I am sorry for sort of using this fear as an example for making a point) These are the kinds of things one weighs when faced with filing a police complaint or imposing a cost with pepper sprays and air guns and knives in India. Because in India there are costs associated with imposition of costs themselves.

    Regarding gender segration, I think it is impractical and not advisable too. I think associating shame with the act of eve-teasing also can be looked upon as a cost, albeit a minimal one. It has worked in case of the US to a decent extent when downloading illegal movies started being looked down as a theft. Without any overt implementation of the law regarding downloading illegal music most people refrain from doing it because of the social conditioning. So I think the blank noise project was a success in this regard because by creating such noise it managed to equate eve-teasing with sexual harassment at least in the minds of the readers of those posts.

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