Posted by: Vikram | September 6, 2008

Eve-teasing: A consequence of inter-caste conflicts ?

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.


  1. That’s stretching it about as far as it will go…..I will just say this, some of these academic reports are just written because they have an interesting title.

    I can email the paper to you. The research is based on extensive interviewing, not any simple intuition.

  2. Just because they have interviewed people does not mean that it is objective. In any case I would like to read it please.

    Check your AOL mailbox.

  3. I find it hilarious and disturbing at the same time that a few guys from the West descend into India and, after a well packaged but half-baked study, based on gaping ignorance, try to condescendingly educate Indians about their social dynamics!

    This particular study, pitching SC men against OBC women, is stretching the limits of commonsense.

    OBCs are a creation of VP Singh and do not form an identifiable ‘caste block’ like the SCs do. Till VP Sing came along, it was just SCs/STs and the rest.

    It needs no study or education to understand that with very few SC girls enrolling in a college, many guys, whether SC or otherwise, who indulge in eve teasing do so without determining the caste of the girls…the girls just have to be from the OBC or other upper caste lot!

  4. I had never heard of this! Anyway, I prefer to believe that there are far simpler reasons for eve-teasing and molestation in India.

  5. This post has brought out quite a bit of cynicism from the readers, I would just like to clarify some things.

    This study deals with one possible cause of eve-teasing, nobody claimed that all sexual abuse is caused by caste conflict. But as your own responses indicate, this reason is not one ppl in India might think of.

    Certainly, more SC girls in college and more mobility in Indian society will lead to decrease in eve-teasing, this is the main lesson from this article.

    This is not to say that there arent other major reasons, most notably the apathy of the police and general lack of respect for the law (and women) in the country.

  6. I am shocked at the conclusions drawn. “Research Reports” may make a good read. But relying on these reports is the choice of the recipient. As a popular saying goes “There are 3 types of lies – plain lies, white lies and statistics” Can we change that to 4 types and add “research findings”?

    Mavin, first off this is not a research report, it is a peer-reviewed journal article by an anthropologist from a well known social sciences institute. The conclusions from this article are as valid as those from an article in the Nature magazine from a Harvard biologist. So, whose findings should I rely on ? Yours ? What would give you the qualifications to be able to comment on this issue ?

  7. Many years ago, there was an interesting paper by Kaushik Basu in EPW on variation in cultural norms across Indian cities. The example he used was taxi drivers in Bombay and Delhi – the former took you directly to the destination whereas the latter took a circuitous route to pad the fare.

    Eve-teasing can be looked at in the same light – I understand there are significant variations between the two cities. Perhaps one could learn something by trying to explain the differences.

  8. What was surprising to me was not the study itself but the reaction of people to it. Though the study is hardly representative and does not talk about eve teasing from all possible angles the possibility of the existence of a caste based angle is surely there.

    I am from TamilNadu and I can actuallly understand this report because many colleges in TN (especially Law) are polarised along caste lines.

    The recent law college clash in TN was between SC students and OBCs and OBC students do look down on SC students who interact with OBC girls..

    (I remember a particular incident in a theatre, the movie being screened was about an SC guy falling love with an OBC girl and at the end of the movie the Sc guy gets killed by the girls family. Some guy in the theatre shouted “This is what happens if you take our girls”. The incident would have been funny if not for the fact that the man was actually serious about what he said).

    I won’t go so far as to say that only SC students indulge in eveteasing and stuff but the deprivation of cultural capital usually makes men target women who belong to the ‘so called’ elite group. Women are seen as easy targets for their frustrations. I have observed this several times myself and certaily won’t rule out the existence of a caste-class relationship in such cases because it is mostly the SCs and STs who are at the bottom of the barrel as far economic empowerment is concerned.

    I am reminded of the Bangalore pub incident though not from a caste angle. Preserving Hindu cultural values was only an excuse, most of the protesters were unemployed youth who would never have a chance to hit on the women drinking at the pubs, they clearly belonged to different class groups and hence the frustration.
    So I wouldn’t dismiss this study so easily.

    • Yes, although part of the reason for the reactions might have been, as you said the fact that there are many angles to sexual harassment that the article overlooks. Also, there are significant variations across India, I would imagine that in TN, a large part of the eve teasing is due to the reasons you mentioned whereas in states like Haryana it is just one consequence of a generalized culture of violence against women.

      I think many urban Indians simply do not grasp caste as a social factor, there are many reasons for this, which I wont go into here.

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