Society and mental health

When your body is your biggest risk

Street harassment can affect the mental health of a woman

Charumathi Supraja

She was 19, travelling alone for the first time. She reached her first stop without incident. It was when she was sitting in the pre-paid auto, still in the auto stand, when she felt his hand on her body. She flinched and turned to her left. He had already leapt over the metal divider and was making obscene gestures from across. Clearly, he had not built this dexterity and confidence in one day. She felt sick, shamed, furious and helpless. She couldn’t move.

Years later, regardless of other enabling experiences, she turned 19 again and relived the experience - she would look for hands that could come out of nowhere to invade her body. Even later, she would wonder why she hadn’t leapt out of the auto, chased and shamed the man who had, in one swift move, forever altered her relationship with her body.

Street harassment so commonly affects women that products are made, defense techniques are discussed but no one peers into the heads of women who “routinely” view their bodies as their biggest risk. How does a woman negotiate daily life and aspiration when her body, her only home, is forever under threat?

“Young women I have supported, experience such harassment when they get exposed to the 'real world'. Anxiety and panic attacks are the extreme responses. Some of my clients make career changes, or choose different courses because of street harassment,” says Dr Sandip Deshpande, Consultant Psychiatrist, Sexual and Relationship Therapist, People Tree Maarga, a psychiatric hospital. “A woman who used to work night shifts had to put up with advances from men on her way to work and at work, so routinely, that it affected her body image. She ended up with depressive illness. Her sexual relationship with her partner was affected. Street and workplace harassment can have ramifications on the whole family.”

The impact of harassment

“I was not aware of it then but I think I changed my way of dressing after that incident. I preferred baggy clothes, became more watchful, constantly alert... There was no sense of ease in negotiating the streets anymore,” says Shyamala Suresh, a cyclist and runner who works at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS), recalling her earliest memory of street harassment. She was possibly 10 or 12. She used to walk to a painting class with two younger girls. “We had almost reached, when a man came and grabbed me from the back. I instinctively escaped. We ran into the class.” She links this incident with her decision to become a cyclist and work on strength by lifting weights. As college girls, she and her friends would "accidentally” stamp the foot of a man who was trying to get too close or would use a bag as protection from a predatory man. “But there was always this fear about provoking the man. You never know, he might throw acid on you tomorrow.”

Another woman who cycles around Bangalore says she feels safer biking than walking, or sitting in an auto or cab. Once, when she happened to be in a salwar kameez, a man on a motorcycle slapped her body and sped off. “It took me a while to register it. Ever since, I feel more comfortable in gender-neutral clothing. I ride fully covered. From school kids to middle-aged people, they have only one question when they look at me – huduga na hudugi na (boy or girl)?” Gender clearly influences the choice of behavioural response.

Sonam Manoj, Clinical Psychologist and Student Counsellor, was an intern when a client came in with severe anxiety about her daughter’s safety in the presence of any man – relative or stranger. “She was suspicious of every man, even her husband and father-in-law.” After a year and half of therapy, this issue was linked with an early experience of harassment in the client’s life. A tea-seller stationed opposite her house had made advances when she was about 12. He was regarded as a friend by the family. She developed a strained relationship with her father, to the extent that they didn’t speak for two years, when she ignored his request to get water for the tea-seller. She grew up to be a highly independent woman, travelled solo, lived and worked in many cities. But the incident was buried deep in her psyche and emerged, years later, as an irrational fear of any man in the presence of her daughter.   

Constantly having to watch out for harassment and attack “creates a great sense of vulnerability” says Dr Prabha Chandra, Professor and Head, Department of Psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS). “There is a sense of it being unfair. A woman feels angry and betrayed by society when she has to constantly look over her shoulder and startle at every motorbike that passes. While a one-off incident may just cause indignation, if it happens repeatedly, it creates a sense of helplessness. Even something as simple as a man looking you up and down with a leer - can make a woman feel objectified…not a nice feeling at all.” 

She adds that repeated incidents in the absence of support or redressal can cause anxiety and panic. "In extreme situations, women maybe unable to go out alone.” Yet, not all women are willing to be deterred by this universal problem. “A lot of young women are defying this helpless attitude. They are going out there and facing it all, getting home late on their own, driving back at night, going to a store late. The more women are seen in these spaces, the more they will feel stronger,” she says.

She advises women to talk about this problem openly. “Share your fears and feelings. Don’t think it happens only to you. Expose the person who does it to you. Naming and shaming in a planned way is important to make a woman feel stronger. Write it in a blog, use your local bulletins to (name) the unsafe places and need for police patrol or lighting.”

Priyanka Pai, Pilates and swimming instructor, dancer and movement therapist, says, “it helps to be agile on a daily basis. Not enough to do martial arts once a week. Take the stairs in your building.” She was part of a programme that trained women in the practical aspects of being safe, using everyday objects like hairpins, umbrellas and keys. “Remember that the attacker may be a professional like you may be trained in IT or Science or something else. He has planned it thoroughly but you can learn to scream from your gut. Train the body. Run away.” Keeping your phone charged and knowing at least five numbers by heart can help, she adds.

‘Why Loiter?’ (co-authored by Sameera Khan, Shilpa Phadke and Shilpa Ranade) details how women have very little claim to public space, especially for purposes of pleasure and just hanging out. Sameera says they wrote the book “…because we passionately believe in women’s right to public space and the city, as equal citizens – for work and for pleasure… Women should not be censured for accessing public space but instead be encouraged. It’s time for women to claim the city as their own.” 

Imagine having to flaunt wrinkles, dress differently or erase yourself from public spaces for any reason. If you can do this easily, it is highly likely that you are born female or relate to being female or do not fall into the mainstream definition of a “man”. If imagining this is difficult for you, it is time to stretch your gaze and look deeply into the daily lives of women and girls.  

White Swan Foundation