Shehnaz Shaikh, (name changed) recently found that approaching the police to report harassment may not always be a pleasant experience.
Two months ago, Shaikh, 19, left her Mumbra home at 6.45 pm and was on her way to a private computer class, where she teaches basic computer applications children.
As she was walking on a road opposite Mumbra Police Chowkie, which is relatively less crowded, a young man approached her. He proclaimed his love for Shaikh and proposed marriage to her. When a startled Shaikh refused, he grew aggressive. “He held my hands and covered my mouth,” she said.
This was not Shaikh’s first encounter with the 19-year-old — the youth had been harassing her for several months. He would often park himself in the lane leading to her house and pass lewd comments each time she passed by. To escape her harasser, Shaikh told him that she would consider his proposal.
“Not a single passerby would intervene. The police station was right across the road, but nobody bothered to inform them either,” said Shaikh.
At 9pm, when Shaikh returned home and narrated the incident to her mother, she decided to lodge a police complaint. Though they reached the Mumbra police station at 11.30 pm, the mother and daughter were maid to wait till 1am. Shaikh claims that there was no policewoman at the station. When she told them what happened, they were less than accommodating.
“The policeman responded saying – ‘I know very well where women like you go at night and what you teach,” said Shaikh, quoting the policeman. “I couldn’t believe my ears. When the harasser was called to the police station, the policeman slapped him. But he also kept saying that I must have given him false hope.”
Even today, the man continues to harass Shaikh, but she hasn’t gathered the courage to approach the police again.
“I am just as afraid of the police as I am of that guy,” she said. “After all, the police blamed me for the incident.”
Shaikh is among many women in the city, who refrain from reporting cases of harassment to police. Findings of the HT-Akshara survey revealed that while 95% of the 4,225 women had faced street sexual harassment, only 4% had reported the incident to the police.
Reasons for this ranged from fear the police would not take any action and the tedious process of registering a complaint to apprehension of approaching the police. 20% of the respondents feared that they would be blamed for the incident, as was experienced by Shaikh.
For most women, it is largely police insensitivity and grueling interrogation that act as a deterrent. For instance, Shraddha Singh, (name changed) 24, didn’t go to the police when a drunk man in his late 30s felt her bottom. The incident took place in mid-December, at 12.30 am at Colaba Causeway, when Singh was talking to a friend on the street. “My friend was furious. He was about to hit him with his helmet, said Singh. “But I stopped him. The Amboli incident kept playing in my mind,” she said referring to the murder of Keenan Santos and Reuben Fernandes in October when they tried to stop men from harassing their women friends.
Why didn’t she think of calling the police? “The cops too can be unsupportive sometimes. Plus, I know they are not going to take any action.”
The survey findings also show that only 7 % of the women had used police helplines. But Urvika Pandey, 24, - who called 100, the emergency police number, to report an abusive auto rickshaw driver, was shocked when the policeman later called her back on the cell phone – to tell her that he liked her voice. “He said that I spoke good Marathi and should call him on his personal number if I ever found myself in trouble,” said Pandey.
Thane resident Priyadarshini Ohol, 29, also had a bad experience as a teenager, when she had gone to a police station to register a complaint against an incident of chain snatching. A policeman accompanied her to the spot of the crime, and then groped her.
“It was dark. On the pretext of having a poor eyesight, he asked me to walk ahead and peep through a hole in the wall, through which the thief had escaped,” says Ohol. “When I moved forward, he began to feel my behind. I ran away.”
Veena Poonacha, director, Research Center for Women’s Studies, SNDT blames the popular media, such as Hindi movies for “normalising” sexual harassment. “The casual attitude towards sexual harassment on the streets and public places shown in these movies permeates down to the society in general, including the police.”