Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Refusal(S): Street Harassment in Bombay… Under ‘Western’ Eyes*

To mark International Anti-Street Harassment Week, we are writing about our experiences of street harassment. For posts by Anouchka and Lola, please see NYE and 'Are you even black?'


On a recent trip back home, I was walking around the neighborhood with a friend, catching-up on the various goings-on in Bombay. There was nothing particularly unusual about this stroll – it was part of the routine growing-up, and a ritual, now, on my visits back. The nights in my neighborhood are dimly lit, but the streets feel familiar, even as you walk past numerous unfamiliar faces.

On this particular evening, as I chatted to my friend, I noticed a young man walking towards us. A few seconds later, he had cupped me and was well on his escape. I yelled a curse and began chasing after him. A few steps later, I had stopped, recognizing its futility.

The odd thing is, I saw this coming. Having grown up in Bombay, my instincts told me something was up when I noticed his approach. But having spent too many years away, I had let my reflexes slacken.

Verbal harassment – whether in Bombay, London, or the States – is not at all an uncommon experience. Most often I mutter ‘idiot’ or ‘asshole’ and keep moving. Physical harassment though, while not unfamiliar, is a more intense and lingering experience. The humiliation that follows is not merely an effect of corporeal shame – what is it about my body that provokes such behavior? – but more so of (a perceived) mental weakness – how could I let this happen to me… again? How could I let him run away… again? Why have I not learned to protect myself… still?

Past this humiliation lies aggravating confusion – an effect of the intellectual work that follows. I know that, had I kept screaming and running after the man, it would probably have brought out some of the younger folks that hang out in the area. A couple of young kids on bikes would probably have been happy to chase after the guy and perhaps give him a good beating. But that is precisely the problem. Had anyone from the neighborhood gotten involved, I believe that the ‘punishment’ meted out would not merely have been for the violating act but also perhaps because of who the perpetrator was – a young, most likely working class man, an ethnically lesser other.

We know that middle-class masculinities are often performed on the backs – literally and figuratively – of working-class men. I know the violence done to me. But I can also guess at the violence that the perpetrator might have been subjected to. The two are not mutually exclusive, but they appear irreconcilable. I refuse to enable some perverse performance of ethno-class masculinity, or ethno-classism in general, under the guise of redressing sexist or misogynistic behavior. What, then, is it to ‘justly’ hold the perpetrator accountable, without reproducing various forms of ethnic and class prejudices?

This, for me, is not a purely theoretically issue… or distraction. Indeed, speaking (or writing) of such issues is itself a complex task. As a Third World woman residing in the West, I am acutely conscious of the pathologization of Third World cultures. Much of this occurs through the paradigm of man=oppressor/woman=victim. I reject any attempt to deny the pervasiveness of patriarchy, and its often violent manifestations, in our communities – I have nothing against ‘airing dirty laundry’. Yet, I am equally wary of the reproduction of a colonial/racial logic in confronting the ‘social ills’ of Third World cultures – whether they be the Indian ‘epidemic’ of eve-teasing or the practices of genital cutting and ‘honor killing’. (This applies as much to ethnic and class structures within Third World communities/societies, as it does to the East-West/North-South power structures.)

What is at stake here is (stereotyped) representations of people of color. My issue with stereotypes is not purely about content, per se, but the power that they wield in producing generalized ‘truths’ – truths that permit a range of responses from reifications of dominant masculinities (and femininities), as I described above, to the militarization of ‘social justice’, as evidenced most recently in the KONY2012 campaign.

There is no doubt that street harassment is a huge issue in India. In fact, even in London, when I walk past South Asian men, I pray that they do not say anything, or behave in anyway, that confirms their stereotyped images. Yet, again, my anxieties are an effect not so much of their (potential) behavior as of the gaze they/we are subject to.

I could catalogue here all my experiences of street harassment – from men about my school, exposing themselves, to the gropes, smacks, and never-ending cat-calls. Yet, to recount these in any detail would seem to (re)produce a spectacle which offers emotive/affective power to already existent representations. I don’t believe such engagements to be politically or ethically productive – and, personally, I find them quite disempowering. Instead, what concerns me more, are the terms upon/through which we develop such engagements. That is, if we are to speak of patriarchy, sexism, misogyny, then let’s do so with an eye to racial and colonial power… and our consequent gaze… as well.

I am a bit tired of being asked told how bad things are in India – whether it is a feminist of color in the States who could never imagine herself in a place like Bombay because all the touching would just make her so mad, or the white British guy who informed me (with a pat on my back, no less…) that I should visit Scandinavia because then I’d see that patriarchy isn’t really universal. I am frustrated at attempts to hierarchize subjugation and violence; sickened by gestures that (re)position black and brown folks, men especially, as yet awaiting some form of moral enlightenment. That is the reproduction of the colonial, and I cannot stand (for) it.

It may seem odd, perhaps, that a post (by a woman) on street-harassment (primarily enacted by men) appears invested in the recuperation of the male figure. But recuperation is not the same as protection. I have no desire to ‘protect’ eve-teasers in Bombay from accusations of sexism, misogyny or patriarchy. But equally, even as I pose such critiques, I have no desire to pander to, or satisfy, a colonial/racial gaze. Thus, for me, any recuperative gesture is also, and precisely, a refusal. A thick refusal, in fact, of all that, ultimately, has been imposed upon me.

* I borrow part of this title from Chandra Mohanty’s essay (1988) ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourse’ (Feminist Review, No. 30). Also, I use the term Western to describe contemporary racial/colonial logic that is not specific to the geo-political ‘West’ but rather is reiterated and performed across a global elite, however described.

- rashné limki

1 comment:

  1. I am writing from Bombay (glad to hear it still called that) and can completely identify with experience and the Scylla & Charybdis dilemma it produces. At the same time I also feel compelled to be true to my experience of being able to travel on the tube at peak hours, jam packed like sardines in a mixed group without the same fear of being violated & to acknowledge that it is women's struggles in the west that have made this possible.

    What continues to enfuriate me is the reliance on more powerful men to protect us from less powerful men who nonetheless exert their power over us by violating our bodies. What I soothe myself with is the knowledge that there are powerful women's struggles within India and the hope that at some point these struggles will connect globally and wreak havoc with existing orders of domination and oppression!