PUCL Bulletin,

September 1982

Sexual harassment
-- By Deepti Mehrotra

Every single day of their lives women face what can only be described as a systematic assault on their fundamental right to free movement to personal dignity. The sexual harassment that women are subjected to on the streets, in buses, and in other public places constitute a serious infringement of women's basic rights which are unique to them. The only comparable situation is the continuous indignities which Harijans face in the course of their normal daily existence. Women and Harijans who were traditionally grouped together by men like Many continue to share a bond in contemporary India - both are denied free movement and the right to personal dignity. We outline some of the special problem that a woman traveling in a city like Delhi faces and the laws pertaining to sexual harassment.

A bus driver deriving pleasure from driving recklessly past a bus stop where she is waiting; a scooterwala refusing to take her except at double the rate; the common man ogling at her or rubbing himself against her shoulders as she sits in the DTC bus; the cyclist making animal sounds or shouting obscenities as she walks on the pavement; the policeman who winks suggestively at her; the terror she feels while walking, in the dark: these are her everyday experiences.

She begins at a disadvantage because all private vehicles are owned by men and all public transport driven by men. Driven by men. She grapples with male police who are seldom sympathetic to her, troubles. The atmosphere stimulates violence against her encouraging any man to harass and humiliate any woman. Tension becomes a condition for survival: "I am on edge every time I move out in Delhi" is the refrain of many women. Her troubles are compounded by the attitude of people around her. Public servants frequently connive or remain apathetic to the harassment of women which often amounts to criminal behaviour. Many women recount experiences in which buses are taken over by gangs of hoodlums (as happened recently with the girls of Lady Shriram College) and then assault the trapped girls. It is almost a rule that when the girls appeal desperately to the conductors to stop the bus they merely look out of the window. When women demand/appeal/ask for what is their right - a woman's seat - the conductor refuses to help eject the male usurper. The attitude of the police is similar.

Four women students relate how, three days before Holi, the policemen standing across the road specifically to prevent hooliganism looked away while the women confronted a hooligan who had thrown water balloons at them. Another woman relates how a uniformed policeman sat quite while she burst into tears after being pinched, harassed and shouted at by a strange man in a crowded bus; when she appealed to the policeman he said, "Beti, jane do" (Daughter, let him go.) Woman after woman, rich or poor, young or old, says, "I am so upset sometimes that, I go and cry at home and tell my family"….Often even at home this leads to a further assault on her freedom, because, "They tell me not to go out, nag me, worry much more about me, get tense and scold me, and do their very best to keep me home."

Remaining cooped up indoors is hardly a solution to sexual harassment.

Woman do go out and face the consequences, and in doing so many of them evolve their own methods of self defence. It is instructive to find that these methods seldom include taking recourse to the State machinery which over the years has lost most of its credibility.

Women who have started fighting back however, also feel that the State machinery should be activated at some point of time. It is important that women be able to use this machinery to serve their own legitimate needs. For this it is important that the several gaps in the information available to them should be filled.

What the law says
Section 350-CRIMINAL FORCE: Whosoever intentionally uses force to any person without that person consent in order to the committing of offence or intending by the use of such force to cause, or knowing it to be likely that by use of such force he will cause injury, fear, or annoyance to the person to whom the force is used, is said to use criminal force to that other.

Section 351 - ASSAULT: Whoever makes any gesture, or any preparation intending, or knowing it to be likely that the gesture or preparation will cause any person present to apprehend that he who makes that gesture, or preparation, is about to use criminal force to that person, is said to commit an assault.

Section 354 - ASSAULT OR CRIMINAL FORCE TO WOMAN WITH INTENT TO OUTRAGE HER MODESTY: Punishment on conviction is 2 years imprisonment or fine or both.

Section 509 - WORD, GESTURE OR ACT INTENDED TO INSULT THE MODESTY OF A WOMAN: Whoever intending to insult the modesty of a woman utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or that such gesture or object shall be seen, by such woman, or intruders upon the privacy of such woman, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a terms which may extend to one year, or with find or with both.

In addition, the Delhi Police Act has a different system of classifying and describing the crimes we are considering. The relevant sections from the Delhi Police Act are:

Section 91 - BEHAVING INDECENTLY IN PUBLIC: No person shall willfully and indecently export his person in any street or public place or place of public resort or within sight of, and in such manner as to be seen from, any street or public place or place of public resort, whether from within any house or building or not, or use indecent language or behave indecently or riotously or in a disorderly manner in a street or public place or place of public resort in any office, police station or station house. Section 92 - OVSTRUCTING OR ANNOYING PASSENGERS IN THE STREET: No person shall willfully push, press, hustle or obstruct any passenger in a street or public place or by violence movement, menacing gestures, wanton personal annoyance, screaming, shouting, willfully frightening horses or cattle or otherwise disturb the public peace and order.

Section 93 - MISBEHAVIOUR WITH INTENT TO PROVOKE A BREACH OF PEACE: No person shall use in any street or public place any threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with intent to provoke a breach of the peace or whereby a breach of the peace may be occasioned.

Section 97 - PENALTIES FOR OFFENCES UNDER SECTION 80 TO 96: Any person who contravenes any of the provisions of sections 80 to 96 shall, on conviction, be punished with fine which may extend to one hundred rupees, or in default of payment of such fine, with imprisonment for a term exceeding eight days'.

The law then recognizes the women's right to freedom of movement to some extent. To what extend do the various authorities or the law-enforcing agencies like the police protect this right?

What the police does
Police officers are proud of the hundreds of 'eve teasers' they catch in various parts of the city, particularly during the much publicized 'shaleenata abhiyans'. They use the cited sections of the Delhi Police Act against the alleged eve-teasers. However very often the police manages to round up innocent male visitors or passers by as happened at a post-graduate women's hostel during Holi - while the hooligans, by and large, managed to escape. On occasions the police are excessively vigilant as happened recently when the police would not allow women of a hostel to meet some men outside the gates of the hostel. The principal had to intervene and ask the police to be a little less vigilant. And of course it is not uncommon to hear women complain that the policemen who are posted at the gates of some of the campus hostels are themselves responsible of some indirect eve-teasing.

What seems absolutely essential in this situation is that the victims - the women themselves - be encouraged to identify eve-teasers. As matters stand, victims are being actively discouraged from reporting true incidents to the police. Women students from St. Stephen's College relate how the college principal blocked their efforts to follow up harassment cases. Families often prevent girls from filing FIRs. The negative image of the police compound this situation.

Police stations are not places where most women are willing to come and report cases, and no efforts are being made to create any confidence in women. By and large, women police are not being deployed for anti-eve teasing duty. Within the police force we face a similar sexist attitude as elsewhere. The SHO, Roshanara Thana, reportedly told some women students, "The lady police are as equally incompetent as you are." The ratio of female to male police has reportedly dropped during the past few years, the recruits being almost all male.

One thing that women can do if they are keen to get redress through the State's law and other machinery is to begin by taking up particular cases, reporting them and following them through. A few illustrations might help show the way. In May 1982, seven women travelling together on Route 503 in Delhi took the bus to the nearest police station
because two of them were being violently harassed. Legally, a driver has to take a public vehicle to the nearest police station, without stopping on the way, if any passenger so desires. At the police station the two victims filed FIRs. Upon checking later, they found that the Darya Ganj police had indeed kept the two criminals in the lock-up for some time, and the magistrate had fined them Rs.100 each (For those of us who feel this punishment is too niggardly, the Darya Ganj police have provided a green signal - "If you want you can beat the criminals with chappals, then bring them to us."

Similarly in the Indraprastha for Women, the college as a community took up a case in which three students had been harassed by male students of Satyawati College. Because of committed pressure from authorities and students, the police worked at catching and punishing the culprits.

What about the D.T.C.
A somewhat similar perspective emerges about the attitude of the Delhi Transport Corporation. When harassment is initiated, aided, or abetted by a DTC employee the case should be reported to the main headquarters of the DTC at ITO as well as to the depot at which the bus starts or ends or at both points. According to R.R. Singh, Deputy General Manager (Traffic) of DTC, they are aware of eve-teasing being a continuous problem but are unable to put a stop to it because women themselves are not willing to report cases to the DTC. Simultaneously, wide publicity should be given to incidents of harassment by whatever means available. It is particularly important to report cases of positive action so that women are encouraged in their efforts to resist harassment. Since the DTC is an organization which is meant to provide cheap and safe public transport, it is necessary to assert the right of women to a safe journey in the bus and this requires that some of the following issues be raised with the DTC.

Some of the issues which need to be raised:
Why are there so few women's specials ( a special bus exclusively for women)? This is not a 'separatist' or 'extremist' demand but a need to travel in a public transport system without being physically pushed, touched or handled by men.

The women's seat is a women's right, not a favour. Until the situation improves considerably, this is a right. Women must ask the conductor to help. If he does not, the complaint book must be demanded as well as a written complaint citing the bus number, time and date sent to the General Manager, DTC. This must be followed up.

Why is the DTC so evasive and plain scared to share basic information about the services it provides to the public? Despite several trips, telephone calls, interviews and letters, officials refused to divulge information about the number of buses, routes, employees, etc. to this writer.

The conditions in Delhi for women to exercise their right to free movement while preserving their dignity, are not favourable. In smaller towns, it is must worse with the general environment, both at home and outside, being far more restrictive. (Women in fact, are not allowed to venture out alone).

I am a woman

Weakling cowed by society;
No traditional kitten in the kitchen;
No tender shoot bowed down by a Mangalasutra;
No branch broken, helpless in the master's courtyard;
No singed flower of office, or factory.

The lifeless living thing
suppressed by men,
crushed under bars
in the name of culture-
the stuff of trade-

NO MORE the living corpse
of Kitchen, bedroom, street.

Ilamma, seizing her land


I am
Rajavva, facing the roving bull;
I am Nirmalla
I, Ankamma,
Snehalata, Nagalakshmi
A dagger that stabs
The exploiter in the heart.
One half of a struggling people am I,
Raising my head, shattering the silence of ages-
A comrade in the war,
I am
The Adimanavi, tearing wild beasts apart,
Leading Ganas.


There are definite cultural, social and economic factors responsible for this behaviour and continued repression. There are also other more immediate factors. The last is quite inadequate and at times unresponsive when women are harassed and humiliated. The authorities and the law-enforcing machinery are not always helpful and in fact connive with hooligans and criminals. But above all, it is imperative that women themselves assert their rights, fight collectively, awaken other who bear their humiliation in silence and find new ways of defending their rights. It must be noted that as the situation further deteriorates, in the context of hooliganism, harassment and official apathy, cases of women organizing and asserting themselves are increasing.

In Delhi, more and more women, both individually and in a collective manner, are coming forward to register their complaints with the relevant authorities at their place of work or study, with the DTC, at the police station or the courts or informing the public through the Press. Women are also using cruder but effective ways of self-defence - pins, scissors, umbrellas, elbows, feet or their voice.

There are other instances of women helping each other. In 1981, women from the Maharani Bagh Polytechnic organized themselves into a Rasta Roko (stop traffic) movement to draw attention to the blatant goondaism in and outside the campus. Students of Indraprastha College initiated and organized a large anti-eve teasing demonstration. Incensed by the apathy of the authorities of Delhi University, Delhi Administration and the police during Holi last year, when women students were insulted and assaulted, women themselves organized meetings and formed vigilance groups in various college. Last month when a student of Miranda House, a women's college, was molested, a major campaign, in which both men and women participated was launched. In both the previous cases, an atmosphere was created where none of the anti-social elements even dared to insult, harass or humiliate the women students.



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