Saturday, November 12, 2011
What’s the good word?
Let’s not trivialise sexual harassment by coyly calling it ‘eve-teasing’
Of all the words that seek to hide a grim reality behind innocuous euphemisms – honour killings, collateral damage, dowry deaths – the most ludicrous has to be ‘eve-teasing’. And of late we have been getting an overdose of this word in our media because of the horrific murders of two Mumbai boys, Keenan Santos and Reuben Fernandez.
These two young men were out with friends one evening when some ‘eve-teasers’ started misbehaving with the girls in the group. Keenan and Reuben objected to their behaviour and got into an altercation. The miscreants left, only to return with a gang of rowdies. A fight ensured, in the course of which the goons stabbed both Keenan and Reuben. (I wonder, does that make them ‘knife-wielders’ rather than murderers?) Keenan died on the spot. Reuben passed away a week later in hospital. And we were told that the boys had paid the ultimate price for standing up against the menace of ‘eve-teasing’.
Funny old word, isn’t it? Eve-teasing. It evokes pictures of bashful young girls being playfully ‘teased’ by mischievous young men who are just looking for a lark and some laughs. It brings to mind bucolic images of a beautiful Garden of Eden in which nubile young girls (the Eves in eve-teasing) are gently joshed with by well-meaning, witty men. Yes, it sounds nice and soft, all romantic and wonderful, doesn’t it?
The reality, of course, is quite different. What ‘eve-teasing’ means in real terms is the incessant, unremitting sexual harassment of women by men who take a perverted pleasure in tormenting them. There’s the boy whistling loudly at a girl as she walks down the street. There’s the man passing lewd comments on the physical attributes of the woman who works with him in office. There’s the boy who brushes up against a bunch of teenagers in the mall. There’s the man who pinches the bum of the woman nearest to him in a crowded bus. And much, much worse.
Yes, sexual harassment can take many forms. But not one of them qualifies to be coyly termed ‘eve-teasing’, with its connotations of playful joshing and the sense of how ‘boys will be boys, yaar’. And yet, we are constantly being bombarded with the subliminal message that these ‘eve-teasers’, those naughty boys, are just out for some innocent fun and a few laughs. And honestly, we shouldn’t take it so seriously.
At one level, this laid-back attitude to the sexual harassment of women is a by-product of our patriarchal culture in which men are allowed to get away with murder (sometimes quite literally). Their bad behaviour is excused or explained away on one pretext or the other; their various misdemeanours treated with indulgence. And never more so than when their victims are female.
But if you ask me, our popular culture is just as culpable. In India, of course, that translates into the movies. And our cinema hasn’t exactly helped by elevating ‘eve-teasing’ to an art form. Remember those Sixties movies that made Shammi Kapoor a star? In which he chased his heroines relentlessly through the first hour after which they obligingly fell in love with him? The same formula has been repeated in every decade after with everyone from Rajesh Khanna to Govinda, from Salman and Shah Rukh to Imran Khan following this peculiarly Hindi-movie style of courtship that is more harassment than romance.
There is a word for a man who follows you around, insists that you give in to his advances, won’t take no for an answer, and continues to believe that you are in love with him despite all evidence to the contrary. In the real world he is called a stalker. In Hindi movies, he is the hero. And somehow, the heroine always obediently falls in love with him in the course of the second song sequence.
As a consequence, all the men who grow up watching their heroes indulge in what is coyly described as ‘chhed-chhad’, come to believe that this sort of harassment is completely acceptable behaviour. It’s all about breaking down her defences. It’s all about brow-beating her into submission. And then there’s that old chestnut: she may say no, but she actually means yes. You just have to keep at it until she says ‘yes’ as well.
In other words, these men begin to see stalking as courtship.
But real life is not the movies. And real-life women have this irritating way of not falling in love with their harassers unlike Hindi film heroines. Unfortunately, the men can’t seem to tell the difference between reality and the movies and continue to act as if harassment is actually a legitimate form of interaction with the opposite sex. And as a society, we are implicit in trivialising this sexual harassment when we refer to it as ‘eve-teasing’.
I think the tragic deaths of Keenan and Reuben should serve as a wake-up call in this regard. These two fine young men didn’t die because they were objecting to ‘eve-teasing’. They died because they took a stand against the sexual harassment of women. And the fact that nobody stood up for them as they were being stabbed to death shows us just how de-sensitised we have become as a society.
The Santos and Fernandez families will never get their men back. But let’s not besmirch their memory by our constant references to ‘eve-teasing’. They didn’t die because they didn’t have a sense of humour. They died because they had a sense of honour. Let’s at least respect that.