After studying and working for nearly ten years in New York City, art director Natasha Sumant found herself changing her behavior every time she visited her home country of India. She, and other women like her, felt they were always under scrutiny by men. And always under the thumb of patriarchal norms.
“On coming back to India from NY, as a woman, the first thing you tend to get acutely aware of is how you conduct yourself in public spaces, because the male gaze is rampant and your body is policed in public spaces,” Sumant said. “Not by law or any political institution but by society and its expectation on how women occupy spaces outside the home. Often, the perception is that what you wear determines how safe you are, but we know that this is just society’s way of controlling women.”
In India, street harassment is tidily obscured under the sweet-sounding name “eve teasing.” This euphemism sums up everything from catcalling to physical harassment in public spaces. Women going about their business on India’s streets, worshipping in temples, attending class or traveling via metro or bus might be subject to lewd comments or worse. But there’s little the country does to protect them.
The rampant harassment women face in public prompted Sumant and photographer Pretika Menon to create the editorial “Sit Like a Lady,” featuring streetwear brand Gundi Studios and three female rappers who are disrupting expectations put on women with their work–Dee MC, Sofia Ashraf, and Anushka Manchanda. The editorial sees the three women on the train, on the street, and on the beach flanked by red-clad specters representing society’s disapproval. The title of the editorial is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the mundane ways in which women are conditioned to change their behavior to avoid harassment.
“Take a look at any Indian street and you will notice that there are more men than women on it,” Menon said. “We want to put the message out there that this is the time to be brave, to challenge the status quo and make ourselves comfortable on the streets. The more it is normalized, the safer it becomes for all of us.”
Currently, there isn’t a law in India that deals with the phenomenon of eve teasing directly. Instead victims have to register their complaints under the nebulous Section 294 of the Indian Penal Code, which outlaws obscene acts or words in public, or Section 509, which punishes people who make an action or say something against the “modesty of a woman.” Neither is enforced effectively in India. Meanwhile women and girls are the victims of overt sexual harassment in public spaces.
“In cities, lot of things can happen that are mentally disturbing to a woman,” rapper Dee MC said. “Unnecessary glares, unwanted brushing against our bodies, lewd comments, these are just few things every girl must have faced at some point in her life.”
Unchecked by police, eve teasing often escalates into full on stalking in India. Stalking was only outlawed in the country in 2013, in the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape which ended in the death of 23 year-old Jyoti Singh Pandey. And though the new law immediately lead to thousands of cases of stalking being registered with the police, stalking is still a major problem. Only about a quarter of the cases lodged end in conviction. Almost 80% of those accused are out on bail before their crime is even documented.
Catalyzed by the lack of effective avenues to report harassment, activist Jasmeen Patheja founded the group Blank Noise to protest rape culture and victim-blaming in the country.
“Most [people] I reported the [harassment] incidents to didn’t take it with seriousness it deserved. It was perceived as ‘boys will be boys,’ it’s just ‘eve teasing,’ and ‘there’s nothing you can do about it,’” Patheja said. “I noticed that my friends walked in groups, making everyday decisions around our safety, freedom and mobility, that were invisible to them.”
“In India and South Asia it was called ‘eve teasing.’ Teasing not harassment. That which boys do for fun. In the global north, it was referred to as cat-calling. The absence of vocabulary both in India and globally revealed that street sexual harassment was viewed as a non issue,” she continued.
Blank Noise has lead events that encourage women to reclaim space in public, like their “Meet to Sleep” which saw women gathering in public parks to take naps together without fear of being harassed. They also stage protests under the hashtag #INeverAskForIt that challenge society’s propensity to blame survivors of rape and assault for the violence they experienced.
Other groups in South Asia are also doing the work to normalize women in public spaces, fighting harassment to do so. Girls at Dhabas in Pakistan organizes meet ups for women to eat in streetside cafes called dhabas among other actions. They document their protests through social media and have found support from all over the world.
For activists like Patheja, it’s not just about eve-teasing, it’s about creating a safer India for women to live their lives. And progress is happening she says.
“There are many Indias. It is a place of plurality. Different challenges across varying degrees for different identities of women. Violence on women, justified and perpetuated through patriarchy is a connecting thread,” Patheja said. “It allows shame [and] blame to thrive. It limits her chances of being born, because it is connected to dowry and there is a widely prevalent practice of female feticide. It allows child marriages. It justifies sexual assault on the street. It [is reflected] in statements made by those in power, justifying violence against women. This is shifting, in India and across the world. This is good turbulence.”
Photography Pretika Menon
Art Direction Natasha Sumant
Makeup Eshwar Log
Models Roxanne Tarapor, Jessica D’cunha and Pallavi Nagesh.