x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Harassment is part of everyday life in Delhi

The brutal gang rape and beating of a young woman on a bus has put the spotlight firmly on India’s misogynistic attitudes. Suryatapa Bhattacharya, Foreign Correspondent, reflects on the ‘eve teasing’ women face daily.

Journalist Suryatapa Bhattacharya reacts when a man on a scooter rudely commands her to get out of the way while on a pedestrian walkway in New Delhi.
Journalist Suryatapa Bhattacharya reacts when a man on a scooter rudely commands her to get out of the way while on a pedestrian walkway in New Delhi.

NEW DELHI // Every woman in Delhi and, I am sure, across India, has a story about harassment, intimidation or, as it is known in India, "eve teasing."

I know I do.

I have been groped, harassed, and threatened by men as I do my job as a journalist.

It doesn't happen all the time, but it happens often enough that I have come to shrug off many of the instances.

As a journalist, I give my mobile number out to many people, who, in turn, give it to others. There are at least 10 numbers in my phone labelled: Do Not Answer. They are phone numbers belonging to people who make obscene, anonymous calls to me, several times a day, for days at a time.

One of the callers, by coincidence, even rang on the day of my wedding. At first, I would try to shame them by telling them it was improper behavior and threatening to call the police.

It did not work. Threats to turn their number over to the police were met with laughter because I would have to explain to officers how the caller received my business card. And dealing with the police is a lengthy process, with documents, questioning and wasted time. It is often easier to ignore the calls.

Every time I step outside the house, I have to put aside a litany of advice drilled into me over the years growing up in India and Canada. Do not talk to strangers, especially men. They get the wrong idea that you are interested in them. Do not get into a quarrel with a man you don't know, keep your head down and walk away. Do not eat food offered by strangers, they will drug you and rob you, or worse. Do not accept a ride with someone you do not know. Try not to take public transportation if you can help it. Come home before dark.

As a journalist, I break all the rules. Once, my breaking those rules almost made me a statistic.

It was in July 2011, not long after I had arrived back in India after more than a decade away. One night, in Delhi, I took an auto rickshaw home.

I noticed we were headed in the wrong direction only when I did not recognise the bus-stop signs. I began to panic as we hit a lonely, dark stretch of road that I have since come to learn is infamous for being the site of rapes.

The driver began telling me lewd stories and trying to touch me on the thigh. There was little I could do.

Luckily, the police were out that night. I flagged down a policeman at a checkpoint and explained my predicament. Once the three officers at the checkpoint learnt I was a journalist, they questioned the driver, deemed him intoxicated and high on drugs, and took his details.

I was told to get out of the rickshaw, and wait with them for another taxi to drive by. The problem was, however that I was in the middle of nowhere.

I was left with a terrible choice. Get out of the rickshaw on a dark road or hope that, if the police had the driver's details, it would be security against his unwanted advances. I chose to return to the rickshaw.

As he drove, I called two friends who began tracking me using Google maps. As I passed a bus stop or street sign, I told them where I was and they used the maps to give me directions home.

As I neared my home after 45 minutes - double the usual time - the driver, fuming at his humiliation, said that he would teach me a lesson and sped up, racing past my house. I lied and told him there was another police checkpoint ahead. He hesitated, the rickshaw slowed and I jumped out. During the past year, I have interviewed dozens of activists and lawyers who offer a variety of reasons for sexual violence against women. Two months before the gang-rape incident in Delhi, Jagmati Sangwan, a professor of women's studies at Maharshi Dayanand College in Haryana, talked about a troubling trend of gang rapes. Women are often filmed during the attack in attempt to blackmail them into silence.

Kirti Singh, a lawyer and activist in Delhi told me that Indian laws, in theory, offer the strictest of punishments: 10 years minimum to life imprisonment for a gang-rape conviction. Police attitudes and drawn-out court cases, however, make it hard to get convictions as investigations often go stale.

There are helplines to report stalkers and obscene calls, and special units for women and children, but they are rarely used by victims who blame the insensitive attitudes of police and a society that is quick to judge, and dishonour a woman, who reports any kind of sexual violence.

Like me, millions of women across India step outside their homes every day to work, to get an education, to go to the markets, to visit friends, to watch a movie. Most of us take the bus. Chances are, we will be groped, stared at, and harassed.

That 23-year-old physiotherapy student, returning from the movies, who rode a private bus on a Sunday evening, represents what we all fear. She was raped repeatedly and brutalised so badly with an iron rod that doctors had to remove her intestines to prevent the gangrene from spreading to other organs.

If this incident is not a tipping point, I dread to think what will be.