When it comes to inter-city or inter-state travel, I tend to rely on buses. They are convenient, reasonably comfortable, fairly quick and economical. Being a woman, a woman who travels alone often, I get regular doses of advice regarding safety.
Make sure the bus is fully occupied. Make sure there are other women. Try to get a seat next to a woman. Travel only on credible buses. Takes Volvos, avoid other state roadways buses.
So a few years ago, I took to booking my bus tickets online, and I noticed an interesting feature. Many online portals provide seating details and ensure women are allotted seats next to other women.
At least, that is the appearance that is created. In my experience, each time I was told I would be seated next to a woman, I was invariably next to a man. That however, is not the point I wish to argue. Regardless of how detailed your planning, you cannot avoid the possibility of a woman being seated next to a man on a bus, but why are we trying to? We cannot deny the fact that a bus is a public space where men and women will be in proximity to each other, we cannot change that. What is interesting is what men are doing to exploit this apparent “opportunity”.
My first experience with sexual harassment on buses came from travelling on local buses in Bangalore. But the first time I really realized it was a problem was when a friend of mine told me what had happened with her on an overnight bus to Mumbai from Bangalore. Apparently, she was sitting in a window seat right in front of a middle-aged man, and right next to a woman. Once the journey was well underway, the lights were turned down in the bus and most people were asleep, my friend noticed that something was poking her in the back. She was startled. On investigating, she discovered that the man on the seat behind her had stuck his foot in through the crack of the seat and had proceeded to feel her up, with his foot. She got up and attempted to confront him, he pretended to be asleep, she decided to sit down again. And sure enough, his foot was back up there feeling her back and posterior. Finally, she complained to the bus conductor who explained that the man’s foot was just moving in his sleep but agreed to change her seat. I had the privilege of experiencing this phenomenon in person, on a bus from Bangalore to Gokarna.
But an even more interesting experience came by on a bus to Goa, this was a “pretty spiffy” bus and I happened to be travelling with a bunch of friends on this occasion. I was in an aisle seat and fast asleep, it was 3 AM. On the bus, there was complete silence and abject blackness, when suddenly I awoke to see the silhouette of a man and his hand reaching toward me, completely taken aback and having just awoken, I hit him on his hand, he scurried away and was in his seat by the time I was on my feet.
I searched the bus to see if I couldn’t recognize him and have him thrown off the bus, but I had no idea who he was.
Ask any woman who travels on buses and she will have her own stories, just this morning, I was on a Himachal Roadways bus to Delhi and the man next to me insisted on rubbing his entire length up against me, some might argue that I may be misinterpreting accidental touches for purposeful harassment but I feel that any woman can distinguish between an accidental nudge and perverse touches.
It is important to ask one question, why are these men behaving in this way? Surely one cannot be so starved for a woman’s touch that he has to sneak up on her in the dark while she is asleep.
While there is the possibility that some of these men may be somnophiliacs, and should either embrace their identity with a willing partner or seek the requisite professional help; these men would definitely constitute a minority. The rest of these men, differ from each other in many ways; socio-economic status, physical appearance, caste, religion, age, professional inclinations to name a few, yet they seem to have this need to forcefully explore a woman’s body in the most creatively secretive ways in common.
Is it fair to say that a puritanical society has stigmatized even innocent touches between the opposite sexes to the point where it all is deemed taboo?
Do Indian men have no recourse, no healthy channel to express their sexual identity or are they not aware that they have that option?