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Eve Teasing, Rite of passage?

Vijay Nagaswami

"Nature has given women so much power
that the law has very wisely given them
very little."
Dr. Samuel Johnson

TRYING to be dispassionate about "eve-teasing" (an odious term in itself) is not easy, for its very mention raises the hackles of every thinking, feeling urban adult. One simply cannot be neutral on the subject.

One either sympathises with the person in question and spews venomous rhetoric at the perpetrators from a safe distance or agrees with Dr. Johnson's curmudgeonly views on the subject and sanctimoniously assumes that the victim asked to be teased. However the sheer brazenness of the recent distressing event at a Chennai cineplex demands that we take fresh stock of the issue.

Whether Dr. Johnson would have stuck to his guns if he had lived in 21st Century metropolitan India is moot. For, it is apparent even to the obtuse observer, that women are no longer teased; they are hit, pushed, slapped and pummelled.

Also, sexual gratification does not seem to be the present day predator's raison d'etre even though the frotteur is still very much alive as most middle-class women who have been subject to the unwelcome body contact of strangers in congested buses and other public places will readily testify.

You don't have to be a biological scientist to figure out that testosterone does have a lot to do with this problem, for you never come across adam-teasing, at least not of a kind that assumes the proportions of a social phenomenon.

Also, the violent eve-teasing referred to earlier occurs more usually in groups and the perpetrators except, perhaps, the gang-leaders are usually otherwise unremarkable, and often nondescript characters.

Considering that sex is not the only motive and that only men indulge in this form of behaviour, it would be reasonable to conclude that the psychodynamics of eve-teasing are closely linked to the issue of masculinity and the masculine agenda.

At the risk of appearing to oversimplify a complex phenomenon, it would not be imprudent to say that in our country, the construct of masculinity is usually equated with patriarchy. In other words, masculinity is experienced not so much as a set of emotional or behavioural characteristics unique to the male gender, but more in terms of hierachical domination over the feminine gender; so even the most "feminine" man gets a socially dominant position over his female counterpart.

Gender-segregation from childhood, lop-sided parental relationships as well as the representation of the man-woman relationship in literature and popular cinema, all serve to reinforce the patriarchal model of masculinity in the mind of the growing male child.

It may appear paradoxical that in a country where the mother is generally deified, the growing male child does not learn to respect members of his mother's gender. But, it is because of this deification that the boy finds it easy to slip into the patriarchal mode, for he does not relate to his mother as a woman, as a person, as a human being, but as a helpless and martyred dependent who needs to be venerated and cared for.

The vocal emergence of feminism has also pushed the contemporary male a little on the back foot, not only because women are threatening to encroach on his masculine dominion, but also because he does not have any idea about how he can counter-encroach on hers. So he moves squarely into the adversarial position, something he's instinctively comfortable with and, during adolescence, focusses not just on how he can express himself sexually, but also on how he can claim his patriarchal right.

As part of his evolution into the patriarchal role, an arena is required in which his valour can be expressed. Organised sport and cultural activities are examples of these, but require some talent and application.

Whereas standing with a group of peers at a bus stop or in a cineplex, passing lewd comments, gesticulating lasciviously and generally behaving obnoxiously requires mere numbers. When the hapless girl is in no position to defend herself despite visible evidence of distress, domination gets established.

And if she does make an attempt to, physical assault is restored to. Put differently, eve-teasing can be seen as a "rite of passage" for boys on their way to becoming men.

Whatever the origins of this patriarchal-masculinity, it is clear that, in the words of Mumbai sociologist Mangesh Kulkarni, "traditional forms of masculinity, which valourise self-centred, unemotional, competitive, aggressive and sexually promiscuous behaviour, require serious re-evaluation for enhancing the well being of both men and women".

Urban India urgently requires more mature orientations towards masculinity, perhaps along the lines suggested by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette in their book, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine (HarperCollins, 1991).

For this to happen, we need to reinforce policing in key areas (like Chennai's "white brigade"), strengthen legislative support for victims, encourage co-education in a manner that promotes mutually respecting inter-mingling between the genders, endeavour at individual levels to de-deify the mother-son relationship, create more social forums to facilitate inter-gender interface and encourage the formation of more organisations like the Mumbai-based-Men Against Violence and Abuse (MAVA). Let us not do a disservice to our eve-teasing sons with an indulgent "boys will be boys" attitude. For, to be part of the new masculinity model of the 21st Century, our boys will have to do much better.

(The writer is a psychotherapist, relationship consultant and author of Courtship and Marriage: A guide for Indian couples.)