By Gazala Anver and Raisa Wickrematunge
An ordinary journey to the airport via bus turned into an absolute fiasco this Tuesday. Certain individuals, in fact, acted as though women on a bus were a rare treat to be indulged in. The sad fact, however, is that this behaviour is not unusual in any way, and can even be said to have become the norm, particularly on crowded buses.
Katunayake bound bus 187 slid next to a bus full of school children. The young boys, spotting the two female reporters seated next to the window begin the catcalling ritual that has become a standard for Sri Lankan boys. “Nangi wayasa keeyada?” “Aaaah! Hoooo!!!” and other belligerent phrases were yelled out, with the boys shouting excitedly every time the 187 caught up with their bus. As soon as a camera was produced however, all the boys turned their backs almost instantly.
However, it wasn’t long before they retaliated with their own camera phones, with which they continued snapping pictures of the two journalists. While it is a fact that government school children are not allowed to carry their mobile phones to school, the whole spectacle was watched by an adult seated in the bus, who never uttered a word throughout. While some say “boys will be boys” and let such bad behaviour pass, what was more horrifying was the other children in the bus. Many of them looked to be about seven to eight years old, yet they too were passing lewd looks at the reporters. While the children could not be held at fault, the fact that such behaviour is accepted as the norm points at serious social implications.
After spending a good hour on the bus, the journalists abandoned the idea of going to Katunayake and got off the bus to retrace their steps back to Fort. After ambling through Maradana and then the Fort market, comments were passed repeatedly. One individual even stopping to take a better look before passing an objectifying comment saying “eka hari lassanai!” From Fort, the 103 to Narahenpita was boarded and amid the bustle of the crowded bus, one young boy under the guise of helping us procure seats, proceeded to touch us inappropriately, from relentless efforts to hold hands, to blatant groping and rubbing himself in an overly familiar manner.
A woman on a bus is not a new sight, but abuse on a bus isn’t new either. It is however, tolerated, passed off as a norm almost. If you board a bus, you have to deal with the fact that you will in some way be harassed.
Whether you receive lecherous looks, someone tries to repeatedly hold your hand, sits too close and tries the knee brush number or with more bold cases, rub their midriffs against your shoulder while you are innocently seated, or touch you inappropriately, it is given that something has to happen if you are a woman aboard a bus, in particular if the bus is crowded.
There doesn’t seem to be much bus conductors and drivers can do about harassment either. One bus conductor on the 240 bus explained that at most they can call the police if there is an outcry. “But we cannot stop the bus halfway as there are other passengers bound to other destinations. We cannot delay their bus ride because of this.”
But bus harassment continues, an unpleasant experience most women have faced and are too helpless to do anything about. By cutting off healthy interaction between couples (since public displays of affection can now lead to arrest) boys may turn to adverse methods to get their sexual gratification as being with a girl publicly is frowned upon.
Whether such policies further deteriorate social conditions and create adverse effects is yet to be seen, but the fact that women travelling on buses are continually harassed is something that is yet to be addressed.