In India, a young girl set herself on fire after being harassed, and she later died. In another part of the country, a young man was murdered after trying to protect his sister. Those incidents are tied to something called "eve teasing."

The innocent-sounding phrase is often used to describe catcalls, and sometimes physical assault. Women in public places in India have long been vulnerable to harassment and often, those behind it go unpunished. The assaults have continued, even as women and men have been standing up for women's safety. Commentator Sandip Roy, who returned to India after living in the United States, worries that modern India still has a long way to go in its treatment of young women.

SANDIP ROY, BYLINE: I lost touch with that peculiar Indian euphemism - eve teasing - in the years I was away from India. It sounds coy, like a Bollywood hero romancing the pretty girl as she walks down the street. And it can mean that. But it can also mean what happened to a teenager a few weeks ago, in the northeastern city of Guwahati. She came out of a pub, and got into an argument with some men. Soon, a mob was molesting her in full view of a television crew. Now, the TV reporter is accused of instigating the mob for a juicy story.

Last year, a Calcutta call center employee took the train to her suburb, Barasat. A group of drunk men started making lewd comments. Her 16-year-old brother, bringing her home on his bicycle, pedaled as fast as he could. But the men allegedly caught them, poured alcohol over her, and stabbed him to death. This year in the city of Gurgaon, home to glitzy multinationals, a young woman was abducted after her night shift at a pub, and raped. Seven young men are accused of the crime.

This is not just a story about rape. It's about gang rape. It's about ordinary men who turn into monsters as a group; and a woman who is damned because she works late, she dresses wrong, she has a drink, but most of all, she walks alone.

For all these women, the harassment does not end with the eve teasing. The state's home secretary said the call center employee from Barasat was divorced. The head of the TV channel tweeted that many girls who go to pubs are prostitutes. In Gurgaon, city officials said women just shouldn't work after 8 o'clock.

When I was a child growing up in India, few of my friends' mothers worked. Now, I know few young women who don't work. The tension over working women traveling by themselves on crowded buses, flares up over and over again - as if they're daring men by encroaching on the open street.

There have been protests all over India, and as far away as London. The government has set up anti-Roadside Romeo squads, and anti-eve-teasing programs in some police stations. More working women are applying for gun licenses in Delhi, afraid that carrying red chili powder won't be enough.

But the real protest is a quieter one. I don't know a single woman who has stopped going to work. My mother's cook - a young woman - lives in the same town of Barasat where the hoodlums accosted that call center worker. She, too, takes the local train back and forth. This year, my sister - a college professor - just got her new posting: Barasat. They cross paths every day on their trains - one coming to the city, one leaving it, women on the move, going to work, resolutely claiming their space in what used to be a man's world, eve teasing be damned.


GREENE: Commentator Sandip Roy is an editor at FirstPost.com, and you can comment on his essay by going to the Opinion Page at our website, npr.org.


GREENE: This is NPR News.

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