In a corner of Esha Gehlot's (not her real name) heart is a fear that has refused to leave her for the past eight years. She was 17 then, and one afternoon, a peon in her coaching institute in Ahmedabad had suddenly cornered her, dropped his pants and attempted to rape her. Initially paralysed by fear, she managed to push him away and escape.
When her parents complained, the institute's director first defended the peon: he was an "old, loyal employee with a wife and children"; surely, he couldn't have done it; perhaps Gehlot had imagined it? When her parents persisted, the peon was suspended for a week, given a "stern warning" and was soon back at the institute, leering at Gehlot just as before.
For him, the saga had ended. For her, it had just begun. For the rest of the year, her parents ensured that she was always dropped to her coaching classes, was not allowed to enter unaccompanied and had to come straight home after class. She had to live with an 8 pm curfew all through college. Even today, as a 26-year-old advertising professional in Mumbai, Gehlot receives nervous phone calls from her parents if she isn't home by 8 pm.
And Gehlot is not the only woman compelled to live a life battling fear and restrictions. In Indian cities, where millions of women are increasingly claiming their stake in public, social and economic spheres, attitudes towards her character, morality and freedom of choice remain disturbingly archaic. On the other hand, men — such as the peon who molested Gehlot — continue to enjoy impunity, freedom from moral tethers and unrestrained freedom of movement, all gifts from the system of patriarchy that forms the groundwork of our social structure.
In Mumbai — considered one of India's safest cities — Hindustan Times looked for signs of hope and change in the new generation, speaking to students across a range of colleges in the city. We found young boys and girls struggling to debate and engage with questions of gender equality and discrimination, their responses reflecting the confusions and dichotomies of an urban society in constant flux.
Pankaj Choudhary, 19, has several female friends who wear "Western clothes" to college, but he upholds the rules that his family has imposed on his 21-year-old sister. "I don't mind her wearing jeans once in a while, but I would not like my sister to party or have a boyfriend, because this is India, and the times are bad," says Choudhary, a commerce student at Fort's Siddharth College. "But I admit I would like a girlfriend who wears Western clothes and likes to drink or smoke occasionally," he adds with a candid grin.
Here, some of his friends object vehemently. "It's different when a guy smokes, but girls shouldn't smoke or drink," says his classmate Uttam Kumar. "Why not?" Choudhary retorts. "Girls should have the same freedoms that we have."
Choudhary's contradictions are reflected in many youngsters his age, who seem to subscribe, in theory, to a woman's right to choose her own lifestyle, but often cannot reconcile this with the male-friendly morals they were taught at home.
"Today's girls are very bold and confident and I like that," says Mangesh Jadhav, 20, an information technology student at Vadala's Knowledge Centre College. "But they should stay in control, not party too late and not lose their virginity before marriage." What about the boys? "Well, they must control themselves too, but with boys, these things happen and nobody questions them," says Jadhav.
Such attitudes, says 17-year-old Gauri Karekar, don't disappear easily no matter how open-minded men try to be. "My male friends like us to join them in football games and always treat us girls equally, but they also make chauvinistic statements about girls outside the group," says Karekar, a Class 12 commerce student at Dadar's Kirti College. "We try to make them aware of how women feel, but men find it difficult to change."
Students like Karan Kumbhare, however, disagree. Three years ago, the 22-year-old came to study at IIT-Bombay from a conservative family in Jabalpur, and found himself in an environment that he believes has opened his mind. "I admit that if a woman is dressed provocatively, and is drinking or smoking, the first thought that creeps in is that she's probably loose. I can't help but think that," says Kumbhare. "But this is changing. Since I've come to Mumbai, I've spoken to these girls and found them to be nice by nature."
While changing moralities are easier to come to terms with in friendships, the question of why women are molested is harder to grapple with, and young men like Vikram Deekonda end up returning to the binary of the "moral, traditional girl" and the "immoral, modern girl".
"Eve-teasing is wrong, and guys do it to show off their guts and impress women," says Deekonda, 18, a commerce student from Siddharth College. "But girls who expose their skin invite such men, and many tapori girls — the kind who smoke and drink freely — get impressed too."
Some, like Sameer Bagade, 27, are even more rabid in their views. "Men do not harass women without provocation," says Bagade, a biomedical engineer from Prabhadevi. "When men hang out in groups in public, women often suspect them wrongly of eve-teasing. This hurts the men's egos, and that is why they harass the girls in response."
Most college girls, and many boys as well, find such rhetoric repulsive, and Gehlot attributes it to the sense of ownership that patriarchy allows men to feel over women. "Sexual frustration is an underlying cause of harassment, but the real motivating factor for men is power — the power to put a woman in her place, the feeling that they can get away with it," she says.
Jaspal Singh, a first year science student at Matunga's Khalsa College, is vociferous in his condemnation of molesters.
"Women have a right to live anyhow they want to, and we have no right to question them," says Singh, 17, a Mira Road resident. "Men ought to change their attitudes towards women, and in case a woman is being abused, the bystanders ought to help the girl instead of judging her."
Virar resident Sankalp Patil, however, believes there is an added dimension to the issue of harassment and the way it is perceived. In school, Patil and his classmates opposed their teachers' conservative rules that forbade boys and girls from sitting on the same bench. "All we wanted was to be able to sit with our friends, but the teachers were narrow-minded and thought this was wrong," says Patil, 17, now a Bhavan's College student.
Such segregation across schools and the constant indoctrination at home that girls must be wary of boys, he believes, has created a suspicious environment where even casual intermingling between the sexes is hindered. "Sometimes, all we do is say 'Hi', but girls label us as 'creeps' and walk away," says Patil, ruefully.
Clearly, not everything is black and white. As youngsters interact more with each other, they are gradually beginning to question the patriarchal status quo. Boys like Choudhary would like to see a more liberal world where men and women are equal, but believe that as long as the streets remain unsafe, women will have to deal with molestation by taking refuge in moderation and modesty.
Others, like Xanduft Rana, 20, a mass media student at Bhavan's College, have realised that the real solution lies within the men themselves. A protective brother to a 15-year-old, Rana has no problems with his sister dating boys or dressing however she likes, and, after some hesitation, is now also warming up to the idea of her becoming sexually active. "I will eventually have to come to terms with it," he says. "The rules should be equal for everyone."