Why are we letting our daughters down?

UNDER THREAT

Fight back The first step in fighting eve-teasing is to acknowledge the crime and call it by it’s real name — sexual harassment.  PIC getty images

On September 10, 2009, five schoolgirls aged between 14 and 17 died during a stampede at a government school in Khajuri Khas in northeast Delhi.  The media reported the incident and one newspaper asked rhetorically, on its front page, if eve-teasing led to the stampede and suggested that indeed it was eve-teasing that was responsible.  Within 48 hours, the incident had stopped being newsworthy and disappeared from the papers.

Drop the euphemism

When “eve-teasing” kills, as it seemingly did on September 10 when 300 students rushed up and down the school’s lone stairway following a last-minute change in examination seating arrangements, it is perhaps time to once again examine the etymology of the term.  What is eve-teasing, exactly?  The word does not exist in dictionaries. Western speakers of the language do not recognise the term. The nomenclature is uniquely South Asian and particularly familiar in India.  It suggests a harmless, almost playful, fairly innocent activity. We have grown up seeing countless references to eve-teasing — we know that it happens at roadsides, in public transportation, movie halls, college campuses, on beaches. Its characteristic modus operandi includes the catcall, the suggestive remark, various kinds of physical aggression — groping, pinching, molestation, etc.  And the teasers of Eve?  They are young men, students, established anti-socials and hoodlums, middle-aged men, daily commuters…
 
As a nation, we have not yet learnt to call this socially deviant behaviour by its real name — sexual harassment. To tease is after all to ‘playfully make fun of or provoke’, annoy, vex, pester.  Our use of the etymologically curious term ‘eve-teasing’ continues, suggesting that we continue to see all women as provocative, corrupting or sexually tempting, like an Eve unredeemed by revisionary scholarship.  Using this mindless euphemism replaces the need to punish those responsible for sexual aggression and humiliation of women in public spaces.  

Zero, not hero

Why do we continue to condone this sexual aggression?  Is it because it has always been glorified by our movies? Half a century of cinema with its habitual romanticisation of sexual predatoriness, where the hero’s threats of conquest are rebuffed in stanza one but embraced by song’s end, where the eve-teaser is in fact the hero, is bound to have some effect on the national psyche.  The disappearance of the iconic vamp from cinema screens, to be replaced by A-list actresses doing raunchy item numbers and the labelling of all as sexually available, the appearance of women as disembodied body parts on music videos (a new song repeated on local airwaves exhorts women to ‘shut your lips and talk with your hips’) — reinforce female passivity and glorify their objectification and disempowerment.

In India they add to the cultural cocktail of honour killings, bride burnings, dowry deaths, child marriage, female infanticide, declining female-male sex ratio, selective abortion, stove explosions and other regular kitchen mishaps.  And ultimately as they reinforce the systematic disrespect for women, the lessons are quickly assimilated by inured teenage boys on their way to manhood.

To call a crime by its proper name is to acknowledge that it exists.  This postmodern truism that the language of our culture constructs what is ‘real’ in our everyday existence is nowhere so true as in the blindness to violence against women. To trivialise this violence by calling it ‘eve-teasing’ is to not have to acknowledge the depth, pervasiveness and seriousness of the misogyny. Therefore it was ultimately ‘eve-teasing’ that resulted in the death of five teenage girls.  The schoolboys who groped and molested them on the narrow stairs are not guilty of anything else.

When do we stop letting our daughters down?  The generations of girls who are growing up knowing that crimes against them are nothing but ‘teasing’?  That rape is routine? That domestic violence is a given?  That when you go to your school in the morning to write an exam, you may end up, as Lalita, Afroz, Mumtaz, Monica and Ayesha did, dead of suffocation, with blunt injuries on the chest, abdomen and limbs.  In a civilised nation, if this was the result of being trapped by sexually aggressive boys, the verdict would be homicide.  In India, it is merely eve teasing.

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