[Trigger warning: graphic and distressing scenes]
In 2019, Salwa, a teenager from Srinagar, was traveling in a crowded bus when she was harassed by a man in his 40s. “He rubbed his genitals on my back,” said Salwa, who goes by her first name. “I felt there was filth on my back.”
She resisted firmly and the man deboarded, she said. But Salwa couldn’t stop talking about it with her friends and mother. “I felt dirty and cried for hours,” she said. “I can never forget his face. I still see his face.”
Salwa isn’t alone. Instead, she shares her trauma with nearly every other woman in the valley that The Kashmir Walla spoke with.
After that episode, Salwa, a student of political science in a Srinagar college, often panicked before she boarded a bus after her classes ended, in the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir (J-K). But the trauma came yet again a year later when she was traveling in the local transport and a man stood next to her seat. “He started touching my shoulder and coming closer to me,” she said. “He threw his phone on my lap. I felt very uncomfortable.”
These are two of the many incidents that “have left scars on me,” said Salwa, who remembers them vividly.
Overcrowded buses have proved to be a haven for sexual harassers in public spaces, women told The Kashmir Walla. And, fearing reprisal from regressive society, not every time the voices are raised against it.
Salwa, now 20, believes that women are so “used to sexual harassment” that they can often unsee it. “Sometimes we don’t realize that we are being sexually harassed in public transport,” she said. “Harassers keep justifying their acts by making excuses like the bus is crowded.”
For Mohsina Malik, a 23-year-old from Srinagar, in hindsight, traveling with elders is better than traveling alone as an adult. “It is kind of safe to travel with elders and guardians,” she said. “Now I don’t feel traveling alone is safe and there are too many thoughts [of being harassed] in my head while traveling.”
She also had very similar events to share. Last year, Malik felt uneasy on a crowded bus, which she boarded from Amira Kadal area of Srinagar, when she felt a hand on her shoulder, “of a man in his thirties” sitting next to her.
“He started touching me inappropriately,” Malik said. “It triggered my anxiety.” Despite telling her harasser to “sit properly”, Malik continued to brave his actions. “I de-boarded the bus midway,” she said. He followed.
“I ignored it [because] I know how people would react to it,” said Malik. “The guy could have lied which would put me in the wrong state and image.”
As per the Indian Penal Code, sexual harassers can be punished under section 294 (obscene acts and singing songs directed at women in public places), section 354(A) (sexual harassment and punishment for sexual harassment), section 503 (criminal intimidation), section 354(D) (stalking), and section 499 (defamation).
Though there are several punishments under the mentioned sections, women rarely file any complaint against the harassers in the public buses. Advocate Tabassum Rasool told The Kashmir Walla that the reason behind the silence is “things being taken lightly by the police”.
Rasool stated that women in Kashmir are aware of their rights and know the remedies. “They want to raise their voice against sexual harassment but there are lacunae in our system,” she said. “Judging women and not providing an atmosphere, where she can feel secure to lodge a case, is to be dealt with.”
“No doubt not all executive wing is so but many of them are. And the same needs to be improved,” said the advocate.
In the summer of 2016, the ‘Ladies Special Buses’, launched by the Jammu and Kashmir Road Transport Corporation (JKRTC), was started by the then chief minister Mehbooba Mufti. However, following the Covid-19 outbreak the administration had imposed restrictions on public transportation. Everything resumed months later but the women’s bus service did not. The authorities from JKSRTC continue to quote COVID-19 restrictions for discontinuing the bus service.
Meanwhile, where some women are eager for the revival of the bus service, Shah Rutba, a 21-year-old student in Srinagar, doesn’t approve of an ecosystem where women need special buses to evade harassment in public spaces. “Unfortunately that has become an idealistic scenario, so I think [the service] should be there because they make many of us feel comfortable and able to travel,” she said.
Rutba, who travels on a public bus for her college in Srinagar, said that a woman should act upon the harassment right at the spot. “People talk against harassment happening on public buses, but only on social media,” she said. “We need [people] on the ground. Realistically, very few people take up steps against it.”
Malik said she felt more comfortable in a separate bus. She concluded: “Females don’t speak against it most of the time and whenever we speak against it, people ignore or don’t support us at that time. And that is very disturbing. We must raise our voices regarding such evil happenings.”