I do not remember the last time I walked a street in Dhaka without receiving unwanted stares, lewd comments, or inappropriate touching at least once. I can’t recall journeying in public transport without awkward instances. A bus helper would lend me a hand as I struggled onto a crowded bus, but in most cases that hand would try to end up somewhere improper. Once inside, the man next to me would try brushing against me. I would sense men rubbing against me while they pass or lean over to get a glimpse inside my clothes. At public places I will be eve teased and the silent role of the ‘public’ would shock me. Every time I come across such incidents, a piece of me breaks and I question myself about what I did to deserve this. I decide to shout and ask those men to back off, but the voice inside barely comes out. Girls are not supposed to raise their voice, I was taught, so I maintain my silence.
Most women in Bangladesh and South Asia generally suffer from harassment daily. Because it happens so regularly, many people take it for granted. But, there are cases where it is a crime to ignore the matter. According to Ain O Salish Kendra, a legal aid and human rights organization in Bangladesh, in 2010, 32 suicide cases due to eve teasing were reported, while 31 occurred in 2011. Many female students dropout due to continuous harassment on their way to school. According to a UNICEF report, some parents keep their daughters at home rather than sending them to school, or marry them off at an early age to protect their honor and safety. The situation in India and Pakistan is not very different either. The 2012 gang rape of a 23-year-old student on a bus in New Delhi (Nirbhaya case) was an example of extreme violence towards women in South Asia.
Such incidents would lead to discussions about causes of street harassment and comparisons between women security in South Asia and the West. South Asians tend to think harassment is nonexistent in the West as women enjoy fuller freedom and independence there. I had this picture in mind until I walked down a street in Seattle and saw a lady being inappropriately approached. Her expression told me she was in discomfort. While walking down the road, a man screamed foul words towards me while passing by. These incidents burst the bubble that I had as a South Asian for so long. I realized, street harassment is not only limited to my region, but it is widespread.
In 2014, Stop Street Harassment, a nonprofit organization dedicated to documenting and ending gender-based street harassment worldwide commissioned a 2,000-person national survey in the USA with surveying firm GfK. The survey found that 65% women had experienced street harassment. Among all women, 23% were sexually touched, 20% followed, and 9% forced to do something sexual.
To get a better insight of the intensity of the issue in USA, I contacted Piper Daniels, the founder and director of Women Against Street Harassment (WASH), an initiative to explore and expose rape culture and the resulting street harassment through creative writing and other forms of art. She prefers not to identify street harassment as a feminist issue but rather a humanitarian issue. She says, “It is not annoyance, it is not a small problem. It dictates who you are and how you behave in public. It is meant to control you.”
She shares the motivation behind her actions, “Street harassment is something that I have dealt with since I was a child, before I even hit puberty. I grew up being sexually, physically and verbally harassed everywhere I have gone. I have gone through periods where I shaved my head and started wearing different clothes because I thought it would protect me, but it didn’t. I personally have been through a lot of horrible violence and rather than becoming bitter by those experiences, I believed that those experiences were given to me so that I can do something.” She adds, “I am not alone, I have never met a women who said I have never been harassed before. So, to feel less like a victim and more like an advocate… I really wanted to create awareness. I wanted to make a change. Hopefully we are getting to a point where we accept this [street harassment] is a cultural reality. And now we can move on to what we can do about it.”
Accepting that street harassment exists in USA in a large extent, I spoke to Ruchika Tulshyan, a freelance journalist who lived and worked in India but now lives in Seattle, to identify the similarities and differences in nature of street harassment between USA and South Asia. “The feeling of fear, the feeling of being unsafe and feeling very degraded and demoralized by harassment also exists here, eve teasing happens. You need to think twice before you take public transport.” said Ruchika. She added, “I used to take the bus every single day for 1 year, at least 2 or 3 times a month there would be someone staring at me or making me feel uncomfortable or actually saying things to me. You feel demoralized and the first response that a women has is ‘What did I do wrong? Did I look at him, smile or invite such action?’ That level of eve teasing, and making women feel uncomfortable is there. The difference is in India it would happen 5/6 times a day and even more.”
It appears that although the psychological effect of harassment is similar, there is a difference in the nature of the problem and blaming the victim. Ruchika shares, “Biggest difference regarding street harassment between South Asia and America is the element of danger. Even in daylight for example a female photographer was assaulted on assignment in Mumbai, that level of fear for life and danger in large metropolitan cities during the day is not as prevalent as South Asia. The attitude that women is to be blamed no matter what persists in South Asia, but speaking in the context of large urban areas of USA, this is not prevalent, and there is an understanding that it is not the woman’s fault. There is also shame associated in revealing, families would not support and there is shyness in dealing with the issue. But here there is more openness, if you [visit] the police, you have a chance of free and fair trial.”
But, loopholes exist when filing complaint or taking legal action against such crimes. Ruchika shared that in strong cases where violence is inflicted, punishment in USA there is high chance of getting justice as compared to South Asia. But, when it comes to someone looking weirdly, muttering under breathe, or calling out, there is a question about who to complain to and how to pinpoint the incident. She believes that more works need to be done educating men and women about what is and is not acceptable.
While talking about the connection of street harassment and Seattle diversity, Ruchika shares that although there remains a cultural difference in addressing or approaching women, when it comes to street harassment: anyone with the mindset of harassing a woman would do it regardless of background.
Streets are not safe for women, whether in a developing or developed region. The nature of harassment can be different, but the psychological trauma inflicted is the same. Still the issue is not widely discussed nor there are laws to directly address it, even if it exists, there is serious lack in implementation. We are outspoken only after a serious damage has been done or a life has been lost, but tend to forget it easily. Our silence has not helped tackle street harassment in any way, let us not wait for another extreme incident to voice our opinion, speak up!
This story was produced in the 2015 SUSI program.