Lighthearted Terms for Harassment Impede Progress


I was living in India during its last festive season, which includes the celebration of Diwali, the Festival of Lights, arguably the most important holiday in the nation.  We (the other Westerners with whom I was living and I) were warned by our Bengali counterparts to be careful. Diwali, after all, is commemorated with flashing lights, and it’s a common practice, we were told, for “Eve-teasing” to be taken to another level: sometimes, to show their interest, festive men will throw lit firecrackers at women.  I figured that if I could survive Dengue Fever (which I suffered twice), I could deal with second-degree burns, but the frequency of “Eve-teasing” in India is, honestly, something I never actually got used to, despite its pervasiveness.

I recently learned that the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) released a statement, quoting that a survey of 1,000 teenage boys in Mumbai “showed that the overwhelming majority viewed the practice of Eve-teasing as harmless and inoffensive,” and I wasn’t at all surprised.  I forwarded the report to my English-cum-Indian roommates with the headline “Sneaky Gropes,” which is the term we fashioned to describe the crime.  But why wouldn’t boys take it more seriously?  Used as a catch-all term in Southeast Asia to describe what we would call harassment and assault, “Eve-teasing” sounds innocent and playful, and therefore implies that it’s all in good fun, like stealing kisses on the playground.

Unfortunately, what Eve-teasing in public places really is, is street harassment.  “And sexual harassment on the street,” Aisha Zakira, Director of Mumbai’s local HollaBack!, says, “is a gateway crime that creates a cultural environment which makes gender-based violence okay.”

But what I can tell you from personal experience is that the practice of Eve-teasing is not okay.  Once, in a rush to meet my friend for lunch, I forwent my usual rickshaw ride for a bus, and what happened there left me rather distraught: one of the employees on the bus reached under my shawl and groped me – an unmistakable, no-way-that-was-an-accident squeeze – twice!  I pushed him away the first time; the second time, I jumped off of the bus and walked the rest of the way to my stop.  Looking up, I saw the man hanging out of the doorway of the bus, yelling at me, as if I were the jerk for not being receptive to a little jovial fun.  I spent the rest of the day trying to figure out if the assault was my own fault.  But, truthfully, there is no fine line here between avoiding ethnocentrism and demanding respect: the beauty of the country of India is easily undermined when you’re being groped repeatedly under your shawl on a bus, or when a man grabs your ass on your way onto a rickshaw.

Fortunately, women and men in countries like India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan are starting to find a voice, and they are using it to shout back against street harassment.  In Bangladesh, the High Court recently ruled that the term Eve-teasing demeans the severity of the action, after activists demanded change.

If we can change the vernacular, then we can change the attitude.  Similar to men in the United States swearing up and down that their lewd comments are “compliments,” men in Southeast Asia calling harassment “Eve-teasing” is nothing but a misnomer.  Let’s start calling it what it is, and calling it out on being wrong.


Melissa A. Fabello lives in New England, where she volunteers for various feminist organizations and runs the lesbian blog and community ToughxCookies.


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