Earlier this month, on International Women’s Day, we published an article exploring the issue of sanitation-related violence against women. In this piece, we used the term ‘eve-teasing’, which refers to public acts of sexual harassment, including whistling; passing explicit comments; singing lewd songs, and inappropriate touching. We know that women and girls are often targeted in this way when walking to find a place to find to use as a toilet. Many women venture out in the dark to lessen their chances of being seen, so they are alone and vulnerable in an empty place. It would be wrong, however, to assume that assault is something that only happens in isolated areas; it is, in fact, the public nature of eve-teasing and how it is openly referred to that deepens its controversy.
‘Eve-teasing’ is a wide-reaching umbrella term is a controversial euphemism that is generally used in South Asia and is most popular in India, Nepal, and Pakistan. The phrase ‘eve-teasing’ causes dispute because, while there may be varying degrees and forms of sexual harassment, every instance has roots in violence and violation, and the way we talk about harassment should reflect this. In the current climate, we are beginning to interrogate phrases such as ‘locker room talk’, which masks degrading objectification of women with light-hearted, flippant language. This is something we must continue to do, as language is politically and culturally determined.
The contemporary discussion about sexual harassment is reaching all corners of the globe and, much like the Weinstein scandal has forced workplace abuse and power dynamics into the foreground of Western consciousness, the difficulties faced by women in India have become a greater part of the national narrative since the horrific rape case in Delhi in 2012. Although studies are sparse and measurement methods vary, ‘eve teasing’ is thought to be very common with 50% to 100% of women reporting victimization. The daily threat of ‘eve-teasing’ is often enough to curtail women and girls’ participation in public, as this is generally an activity that takes place in broad daylight. In a recent article in The Guardian, Michael Safi discusses how students at Banaras Hindu University have reported instances of security guards and staff turning a blind eye to abuse. Two men on a motorbike sexually assaulted one undergraduate student while two security guards were only metres away. When she told the warden about the incident, their response was: “They just touched you. They didn’t do anything serious.”
It is clear that sexual harassment infiltrates countless walks of life and is ubiquitous in institutions and societies all around the world. Although progress has been made, sexual abuse and harassment are almost always tied up with deeply held cultural beliefs, customs, and ideologies. While the act of dismantling such ideologies will be an extensive, time-consuming process, we can begin by considering the language we use to describe such vehement acts. The phrase ‘eve-teasing’ is a perfect example of a deeply inadequate euphemism. To ‘tease’ somebody does not imply violence. To ‘tease’ somebody is a relatively tame action, suggestive of childhood games and unkind, immature jokes. Surely this is not an adequate description of a form of abuse?
Prominent feminist theorist, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, has picked up on how both elements of the phrase ‘eve-teasing’ place the blame on women; categorizing abuse as something inherently linked to womanhood, and positioning the very presence of women in public as provocative. First and foremost, the word ‘eve’ alludes to the biblical story of Adam and Eve, in which Eve tempts Adam to stray from the path of righteousness. Secondly, the Oxford English Dictionary definition for ‘teasing’ is “to tempt someone sexually with no intention of satisfying the desire aroused.” Mohanty concludes that the term ‘eve-teasing’ paints women as a seductive temptress who isn’t providing something she has promised. The man is therefore fully within his rights to take it forcibly; or at least, his actions or reactions are understandable.
One commonly acknowledged aspect of ‘eve-teasing’ is that the girl should put up with this behaviour and ignore it, especially in instances where there is no physical injury. We all know that it is a lot easier to ignore something if it is widely treated as being inevitable and trivial. The ways in which an action is perceived often comes down to how we choose to label it; language determines the severity and regulates how an act is understood and internalized within society. ‘Eve-teasing’ is a public act, played out on a public stage, and we now need to change the public dialogue that surrounds it.
Safi, M., 2017. India’s female students say ‘to hell with it, we won’t stand for molesting and Eve-teasing’ [online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/07/india-female-students-eve-teasing
Dasgupta, P., 2017. Why are we Still Calling Sexual Harassment ‘Eve-Teasing’ in India? [online]. Available from: https://www.huffingtonpost.in/2017/07/04/why-are-we-still-calling-sexual-harassment-eve-teasing-in-indi_a_23015316/
Mohanty, R. I., 2013. The Term ‘Eve-Teasing’ Must Die [online]. Available from: https://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2013/04/21/the-term-eve-teasing-must-die/
Talboys, S. L. et al., 2017. What Is Eve Teasing? A Mixed Methods Study of Sexual Harassment of Young Women in the Rural Indian Context. SAGE, [e-journal] pp.1-10. Available from: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/2158244017697168
Baxi, P., 2001. Sexual harassment. Available from http://www. india-seminar.com/2001/505/505%20pratiksha%20baxi.htm