Sexual harassment of women in public spaces (called eve-teasing in India) is an important social issue in the developing world. It seems to be prevalent across India, and the BBC recently carried a piece on eve-teasing in Cairo, Egypt. Martyn Rogers, of the Royal Anthropological Institute places sexual harassment in Chennai, Tamil Nadu within the context of caste conflicts and rapid economic change in the city,
sexual harassment is a manifestation of instrumental violence, deployed by subaltern or Scheduled Caste youths to contest their subordination within higher education and ‘white-collar’ employment market.
Traditional caste identities have now become economic identities, associated both with material well-being and cultural capital, the deprivation of which, is the supposed rationalization for the actions of the SC youth, but their ‘tactics’ are counter-productive as Rogers points out,
it merely escalates inter-caste violence, rather than alleviating SC socio-economic subordination.
Rogers constructs an ethnography of the Nagaram College in Chennai, pointing out the disturbing segregation between the caste groups. The middle class students of the politically dominant intermediate castes (OBCs) rarely mingle with the working-class students (mainly Scheduled Castes or SCs or untouchables). Rogers points out an extremely important difference between the OBC and SC students, few if any of the SC students are female, while for the OBC case the male-female ratio is almost 50-50, the reason being that
most SC families continue to marry females in their late teens,
One wonders what the attitude of the SC males would be in the presence of the SC females. I personally feel that they would be more inclined to spend more time courting the SC females, as there is a possibility of eventual marriage which is a near impossibility in the case of OBC females,
SC students feel too educated to marry a girl from their community …. (but) because of caste endogamy and lack of cultural capital, they know it will be hard to find an educated wife (i.e. an OBC girl) from within the college.
Cultural capital features prominently in the identities and aspirations of the youth in modern India. Wheras caste opression in previous years manifested itself in the denial of access to religious institutions and marriage restrictions, in capitalistic urban India, caste hierarchies are reinforced through de-facto denial of consumption and leisure. Rogers mentions,
SC students roam the beaches and pack inside bulging places ….. OBC students head to the air-conditioned shopping arcades to hang out in Starbucks-style coffee shops, or go to the multiplex cinema, often to see an American film.
Another important factor fueling the anxiety of the SC youth are their job prospects, where the SC students face an enormous disadvantage due to their backgrounds, as pointed by an SC youth,
If you dont have wealth, then you go to a corporation school and there wont be enough coaching and discipline
and their lack of English-proficiency,
At RPG Cellular and SKYCELL (potential employers) they will not speak Tamil. If you struggle to speak English, they will say shut up and go away. They will not respect you.
The SC youth respond to their subjugation by targeting the female body of the OBC society, they claim that these English speaking girls are ‘Westernized’ and must be disciplined, in reality, their actions are just the result of their insecurity. The OBC youth respond, not to protest the wrongness of the SC actions, but to protect the ‘honour’ of their female friends (and potential wives). If an SC male tries to make friendly contacts with an OBC woman they are violently punished by the OBC males. It is tragic that the OBC and SC use the female body as the battleground for their macabre battles of insecurity, but this was perhaps inevitable in a society that suppresses women from top to bottom,
While women disproportionaltely bear the brunt of the violence, they are effectively treated by the male students as pawns to be transacted between men in a competition to determine who dominates and regulates campus life.