Indian Women Fight Street Harassment

30 Aug

Originally published at Brown Girl Magazine

I remember my mom telling me stories of being embarrassed while riding Indian public transportation as a teenager.  Her developing body made her the target of unwelcome attention.  I haven’t spent enough time in India to be a target of sexual harassment but the concept of “eve teasing” (a common Indian phrase for female sexual harassment) is familiar to me.  Complaints about eve teasing are often not taken seriously and even portrayed as something Indian women must endure. I felt a swell of pride when I read “Fighting for safe passage in India’s streets” (NY Times, Aug. 3) about women in India fighting against this unfortunately common practice.

The article highlights three activist groups working to change public perception of street harassment and violence.

Artist Jasmeen Patheja runs Blank Noise, a community organization dedicated to fighting eve teasing.  Blank Noise started as an art project when Patheja was a student at Bangalore’s Srishti School of Art and Design and has spread to Mumbai, Calcutta, Chennai, and other cities. Blank Noise fights harassment by staging “interventions” including spray painting harassment victim’s stories in public places, creating anti-harassment posters and t-shirts, and holding public marches.  Blank Noise’s blog includes a section about “Action Heroes.” An Action Hero is defined as “a woman who faces threat and experiences fear on the streets of her city, but can devise unique ways to confront it.” Several Action Hero characteristics:

An Action Hero can make eye contact with strangers.

An Action Hero can walk the streets without apology.

An Action Hero believes that the city is HERS.

An Action Hero does not take the age old blame for experiencing street sexual violence. She believes there’s no such thing as ‘asking for it’.

The Gulabi Gang takes a more direct approach to dealing with street harassers and recalcitrant law enforcement.  Sampat Pal Devi started her group with a few women in her small community in Uttar Pradesh by targeting a known abusive husband. Today, the Gulabi Gang includes several hundred women exposing corruption among local police forces and publicly beating abusive husbands with lathis, a traditional Indian stick.  The Gang has also set up vocational and educational centers to educate and empower rural women.  So far, the Gulabi (meaning “pink” in Hindi, for the pink saris the gang members wear) Gang has stayed away from political affiliation, citing kickbacks government officials want in exchange for support.  In “India’s pink vigilante women” (BBC News, Nov. 27, 2009), Devi explains the importance of vigilante justice for rural women, “Village society in India is loaded against women. It refuses to educate them, marries them off too early, barters them for money. Village women need to study and become independent to sort it out themselves.”

Other activists have directly involved political parties, including the Pink Chaddi movement started by journalist Nisha Susan. After Sri Ram Sene, a Hindu rightist party, began attacking women in pubs in 2009, Susan started a Pink Chaddi (Chaddi is a slang Hindi word for underwear) Facebook group encouraging a non-violent protest against the party.  Pramod Muthalik, leader of Sri Ram Sene, had publicly denounced the celebration of Valentine’s Day in India, claiming the holiday encouraged “un-Indian” actions and threatening to take action against young couples found in public together.  Susan invited women to send Muthalik pink underwear, and organized marches and protests near major city landmarks.  Their actions worked: Sri Ram Sene canceled rallies planned for Valentine’s Day and Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram admitted the party was a threat to the country.

These women are fighting for a better society every day, not just with their tangible actions, but by simply bringing awareness to the serious issue of street harassment on a national and international level.  These groups remind us that ordinary citizens can make a difference – even in a culture dedicated to tradition.

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**image pulled from the Wall Street Journal

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