Written By: Kritika Gupta
At most, this can be called a survey question. I doubt that any Indian woman on Quora can truly represent what the majority goes through. I’ve been asked to share my experiences on questions that seemed to be asking for general perspectives and facts and figures, but I would rather answer here, while interpreting it purely as a survey question.
Thus I can only share my own personal anecdotal experience as an urban 28-year-old living in a city that is considered “safe for women”. I don’t have any anecdotes from friends to share, I think either I move in strange circles, or we just didn’t think these things worth talking about. Maybe we’re too conditioned to ignore things in my city, which won’t surprise me at all. I won’t share newspaper articles or research papers, because I’m treating this as a personal survey question.
This question doesn’t specify Indian women in India, so I’m going to include some other experiences too, since this is a survey question and I have some experiences to share.
I’ve lived in Mumbai and have travelled exclusively by the local trains (all the three major local train lines) and the buses run by Mumbai city as well as state transit (BEST and ST buses). I have extensively used Mumbai public transport for 8 years of my life. For 4 years of my life I used public transport twice a day, 5 days a week. Now I use public transport 2 or 3 days a week. I don’t drive in Mumbai. I travel alone even at night.
Gender Bias as a female traveller using Mumbai public transport:
I’ve never been asked to leave the “general” compartment and move into the “ladies” compartment on any Mumbai local train I’ve travelled in. I enter the “general” compartment sometimes when it is relatively less crowded than the “ladies”, or even because of silly reasons like the compartment will stop closer to a station exit I want to access. When I enter the “general” compartment, I’ve never been greeted by resigned or annoyed looks. Often men make more space for me, and give me a private nook to stand in. Men in the “general” compartment have been very sensitive to my body language, often adjusting their position when we share standing room, or move their hand as I grope overhead for a handrail to support me. I’ve had men apologize when accidental contact was made. Sometimes I’m offered a seat by men in the “general” compartment, but I mostly refuse, especially if the man looks elderly or tired, because I don’t feel uncomfortable while standing and have excellent “train stamina”.
I’ve never been groped by a man in a public space. I’ve been groped/(wo)manhandled/smacked/stepped-on freely by female travellers in the “ladies” compartment of the Mumbai locals. Personally, I’ve never observed any co-passenger being groped, or accusing anyone of groping. I know that this happens, I just haven’t encountered it.
I’ve been occasionally jostled by members of all sexes (men, women, transgenders alike), and have never pinpointed it down to lascivious intent. But I agree that could be a factor of my habit of sometimes being in a bit of awhile I travel.
Recently, I’ve seen more and more men dangle their arms out as the train picks up speed while leaving a station, seemingly reaching out. They are definitely not hanging out of the train because of the lack of space, so their intent is definitely suspect.
I’ve been followed by a stoned person on my way home from the station in Mumbai. I turned around and yelled at him till he ran away, tail between his legs. I’ve been followed by stoned people on my way home when I lived in San Francisco. I’ve never had the courage to say a word to them.
In a Mumbai local train, one man in an adjacent train that was passing mine, called me “chashmish” (like the way a person wearing spectacles is called “hey, four-eyes!”). Even though it was not a sexual comment, I found it harassing and would have liked to have had a word with this (un)-gentleman.
Interestingly, travelling as a clueless 10-year-old girl in a Delhi bus, I’ve felt really uncomfortable with men staring at me, even though I was with my uncle. I have faced eve-teasing once on the roads of Delhi, by a young man on a bike, who sped away before I could respond. Recently, I’ve also come across eve-teasing on the roads of Mumbai, with the person always in a position to flee the spot before I could take action.
I see men on trains having a propensity for catcalling as their train speeds off. The movement of the train gives them a sense of security.
Interestingly, I’ve faced very vocal and threatening verbal abuse on the streets of New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Durham, NC, where I also lived for two years is a smaller university town, but I never faced any verbal abuse on the streets there. Never faced any in Minneapolis, MN either, where I lived for three summer months, or in Sunnyvale, CA, where I lived for two years. Six months in San Francisco and I faced a lot of chatter on the streets.
My experiences on reporting and fighting back:
I’ve had great experiences with the police of Mumbai so far. I’ve and received quicker responses on it as compared to the general helpline (100). I use 100 to report people creating a loud nuisance in my area late at night, because I live in a locality which is a popular tourist spot. I’ve had occasion to call the Railway Police Helpline to report a drunkard sleeping in the “ladies” coach of a local train on a languid Sunday afternoon. They took down my details efficiently and two officers boarded the train two stops later and escorted the person out. I’ve seen the Railway Police post uniformed male and female officers in various compartments (both “general” and “ladies”) on several trains, at various hours of day and night.
I give these experiences here to show that I feel fairly comfortable to be able to report instances of harassment. The issue is being able to catch such a person, as most are smart enough to leave the scene of the crime, lickety-split.
The molesters and eve-teasers on Mumbai locals need to be reported and punished and deterred, prevention is better than cure. Waiting to punish someone after they’ve committed an offense would not be an ideal solution for me. The Mumbai local train community has a great unspoken code of etiquette, and I wish this comes into active play to punish harassing physical and verbal behaviour on local trains. This would be the best deterrent to curbing molestation on local trains, more effective than policing.
In all occasions that I faced verbal sexual harassment abroad, I felt confused and uncertain as to the race and gender-implications of their behaviour. I wasn’t confident enough to know how to reply, or how to tackle the situation, so I often grinned like an idiot and walked away. Would have been great to feel free enough to call the cops.