Understanding the Power of Shame
In Delhi last week with the Amplify team, I unexpectedly got a first-hand lesson in what public sexual harassment feels like, and came away wondering how to use public shaming to control behavior.
Our team has been in Delhi and Kathmandu for the last two weeks meeting with many women and girls about their experiences with urban safety. Many of these women and girls discussed public transportation as an important site of female vulnerability, so it has been on my mind as we make our way around the two cities. Still, I didn't know how to react when I found myself in an urban safety situation of my own.
A Delhi rickshaw (not the one that I rode in).
A few days ago after eating dinner out, our team got in a rickshaw to be taken back to our hotel. Because there was so little room in the rickshaw and there were four of us, I got into the front seat, taking my place on the tiny bench next to the driver. As we began driving, I noticed his arm lightly resting against my chest, but chalked this up to a lack of room in the front seat—his arm needed to push out at that angle in order to steer, and I remember feeling badly for being in the way, worrying that I was hindering his movement.
As the little rickshaw shot down the highway at breakneck speed I could feel his arm pressing more and more tightly into my chest, but still I rationalized this as a simple lack of space issue, not wanting to make a scene by pushing his arm away while his safety was in our hands. I pointed out his arm to my colleagues in the back seat with a laugh, envisioning him as simply a distracted rickshaw driver annoyed about carrying a group of Americans, but without any specified intent. Gradually, though, I began to feel his arm moving up and down on my chest in a motion that was clearly not associated with steering and powering the rickshaw. And then I felt it: his hand was now on my thigh, rubbing up and down. I panicked. I whipped around in my seat and started repeating to my workmates in the back seat, under my breath since I was still embarrassed to be making a scene: “This is not OK. This is not OK.” My colleague saw what was happening and slapped his hand away, but the driver seemed unconcerned and found his way immediately back to my thigh. Finally we yelled at him to pull over the rickshaw, and I jumped out and switched places with a man in our group, taking his place in the back seat. Of course, as my colleague reported, once there was a man in the front seat, the driver’s body parts were comfortably far from touching him.
I remember sitting in the back feeling like a fool. Had I unknowingly implied to him that this was acceptable behavior by not speaking up sooner? Although I knew it shouldn't be the case, his actions did feel now like a progression of movements, testing the waters of what I as a woman and a foreigner would allow. And how could it be possible that he seemed so unfazed by the initial slap at his hand? When we arrived at our hotel, our driver still felt brazen enough to argue about payment, and I was again surprised by his lack of shame.
This seems to me to be a major difference between Delhi and cities in the United States, where I live: I have a hard time imagining a similar situation in the US where the driver wouldn’t afterward exhibit some outward signs of embarrassment. Although we know that sexual harassment still occurs in the United States in public places, there does seem to be more secrecy surrounding its enactment. A man in the United States would most likely be embarrassed to be “caught” touching a woman’s leg. In Delhi, at least for this driver, touching my leg and rubbing his body against mine seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary, and nothing to hide. And if public shame is such a potent deterrent, how might we leverage its power toward solutions in womens’ safety?