Feb 28, 10:45 pm ET
NEW DELHI (AFP) – It sounds almost playful, but “Eve teasing” is a daily torment for many women in South Asia, who are now trying to call time on what they see as a bland euphemism for sustained sexual harassment.
Widely used for decades by the media and police in India and Bangladesh, and to a lesser extent in Nepal and Pakistan, “Eve-teasing” is a catch-all term that encompasses anything from lewd comments to assault.
As a reference to the biblical Eve, women activists argue that it carries an additional offensive inference — that of the woman as “temptress” who was complicit in her own downfall.
“It’s a dismissive term,” said Jasmeen Patheja, founder of an Indian community performance art group called “Blank Noise” that combats the abuse of women in public areas.
“Calling it ‘Eve-teasing’ is actually a denial that it is sexual violence,” she told AFP.
Following a spate of suicides by victims of sexual harassment, activists in Bangladesh successfully petitioned the High Court which ruled in January that the term Eve-teasing belittled the seriousness of the behaviour it described.
“The ruling sent a message to the local media, police and the educational establishment it should be dropped and replaced by appropriate terms like sexual harassment, abuse or stalking,” said Salma Alik, head of the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association.
From January to November 2010, 26 women and one father of a bullied girl committed suicide in Bangladesh, and 10 men and two women were murdered after protesting against sexual harassment, according to a local rights group.
Estimates differ on when the phrase “Eve-teasing” came into common usage, although it appears in newspaper articles dating back to the 1950s and 60s.
There are suggestions that it was appropriated by the media in order to avoid the word “sexual” which might offend sensibilities in culturally conservative countries.
Even though today’s Indian newspapers are laced with sexual references, the usage has persisted — often in headlines to stories which, on closer inspection, detail cases of women being slapped, groped and having their clothes torn off.
As a result, activists say, the common perception of an Eve-teasing incident is often one of young men having some innocent fun at women’s expense.
A recent survey by the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) of 1,000 teenaged boys in Mumbai showed that the overwhelming majority viewed the practise of Eve-teasing as harmless and inoffensive.
The Hollaback! movement — an international e-activism network against street sexual harassment — opened its first Indian branch in Mumbai last month and has begun a campaign to expose the reality behind the euphemism.
“Calling it ‘Eve-teasing’ trivialises the act; it isn’t teasing, it’s harassment,” said Aisha Zakira, Director of Hollaback! in Mumbai.
“And sexual harassment on the street is a gateway crime that creates a cultural environment which makes gender-based violence okay,” Zakira added.
There have long been complaints that police in countries like India and Bangladesh are dismissive of sexual harassment as a serious crime and many argue that this mentality is reinforced by the idea that victims are only being “teased.”
Many incidents go unreported, activists say, because women believe they will simply be courting ridicule and even further harassment.
“Most victims are ashamed to tell even their mothers because they fear being stigmatised,” said Madhumita Das, a senior specialist in ICRW’s Asia regional office in New Delhi.