Letter From India: Outrage Over an "Eve-Teasing" Tragedy

Letter From India: Outrage Over an "Eve-Teasing" Tragedy

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KOLKATA—I had lost touch with that peculiar Indian euphemism “eve teasing” in the years I had been away from India.

This week I was reminded of it in horrible detail.

Rinku Das, a 23-year-old call center employee in Kolkata, was returning by local train to her home in Barasat on the outskirts of the city. It was after dark and as usual, her 16-year-old brother, Rajib, was waiting with his bicycle to escort her home. A group of drunk men started making lewd comments. Rinku asked her brother to pedal faster. But they were not quick enough. One of the men caught up with her and grabbed the handlebars of the bicycle. He pulled her off the bike and sprinkled alcohol all over her. The brother tried to stop them, and they started beating him up, saying: “Oh are you a big shot gangster now? Show us your gun then.”

That’s when the story takes its most horrific turn. Rinku ran screaming for help to the District Magistrate’s bungalow nearby. The armed guards standing at the gate refused to leave their posts. They gave her the phone number of the police station.

By the time Rinku ran back, a passerby in a cycle rickshaw had picked up her brother, who was lying bleeding by the side of the road. He died the next morning.

The papers were flooded with headlines about eve teasing, the Indian shorthand for sexual harassment in public. It sounds coy, but it covers everything from the streetside flirtation that’s part and parcel of romancing in Bollywood films to throwing acid in a woman’s face.

But for Rinku Das, the real “eve teasing” began later.

“I’ve heard about the allegation, but after conducting an inquiry, I found it was not true,” said the District Magistrate whose guards had turned Rinku away.

“This woman is a divorcee, she used to go to work in Kolkata every day, and she used to return around 11 to 11:30 every night,” the state’s Home Secretary told reporters. Eve teasing, it seems, is really about that temptress Eve, the one that led to the downfall of Adam.

The Home Secretary would probably deny it, but buried in his comments is India’s nagging discomfort with its working women. Almost two decades of having a woman prime minister has not quite erased that unease. In the 1960 Bengali film Meghe Dhaka Tara (Cloud Capped Star), a young woman goes out into the workforce to support her middle-class family. In one scene, the strap on her slipper snaps and she limps down the street in the blazing sun. She gets no sympathy from her family, no thanks or gratitude. They complain if she comes home late. The young woman says nothing, she just goes out to work every day.

The image that sticks with me about the Rinku Das story is of a young woman coming home from work versus a group of men, probably unemployed, who spend their days getting high on cheap liquor and cough syrup.

When I was a child growing up in India, few of my friends’ mothers worked. I recall telling my mother, “Don’t go to work. Then you won’t be home when I come back from school.” My mother remembers that fondly. I remember it with chagrin.

Now I know few young urban women who do not work. In 1981, the proportion of women in the formal workforce was 19.7 percent. By 2001, the figure had risen to 25.7 percent. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that 34.2 percent of Indian women are now in the workforce, though that still trails China’s 68.9 percent. In the information technology industry, by some estimates women make up over 40 percent of the workforce. The tension over working women, traveling on their own in crowded buses and auto rickshaws, flares up over and over again, as if the women are daring the men by encroaching into their territory— the open street.

Indian law does not mention eve teasing by name but recognizes harassment as criminal activity. The government has deployed anti-roadside “Romeo squads” and set up anti–eve-teasing cells in police stations but has not been able to do much. In the wake of the newest tragedy, the newspapers are full of lurid stories about the “tease and hit trail.” A young private tutor was beaten up when he tried to take on two youths making lewd comments about one of his students, a 14-year-old girl. Two sisters on a scooter were manhandled by some 30 young men from a local neighborhood club in the same city where Rajib was killed, barely 24 hours before his death.

Women have made huge strides in India in all fields. But the price has been high. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, violence against women is the fastest-growing crime in India. Most just have to develop a thick skin. Some, like Rinku Das, pay a much higher price.

It’s hard to tell how long the outrage will last. With elections around the corner, political parties are trying to capitalize on the tragedy. The embattled chief minister went to visit the bereaved family but was shown black flags in protest. The opposition party showed up with a flower-bedecked hearse with their own party flags. The family turned it down.

The shadow of the tragedy of Rinku and Rajib Das touches our house, too. Our cook, a young woman, lives in the same small town where the hoodlums accosted Rinku. A single mother separated from her husband, she lives alone, her little boy in a boarding school. She, too, takes the local train to work in Kokata every morning. At the end of the day, she gets off at the same station and takes the same "tease and hit trail" home.

“Everyone knows it’s a bad road,” she says. “But what can you do? You have to work.”