Urban Warfare

16 Mar

At the end of our holiday, my friend Marge and I found ourselves in a cousin’s apartment, discussing our “adventures”. One of those involved a bar set in the middle of an artificial wilderness. Sweaty, grimy and tired, we gratefully stumbled our way in the dark to what looked like an abandoned heritage building in the middle of the carefully manicured “forest” surrounding the resort and threw open the door to meet the astonished gaze of some adolescent who was doubling as the bartender that night – and about five chipli uncles settling in for their umpteenth drink of the early evening.

“Hey,” the male cousin interrupted, laughing. “What’s a chipli uncle? Is it some kind of ageist thing?”

We gaped at him. A chipli uncle is… a chipli uncle. Who doesn’t know what a chipli uncle is? Granted there is no actual word as “chipli” in any Indian language that we know of – as a matter of fact, I think it’s something Marge invented. At least, if I remember correctly she introduced me to it.

But for those who don’t know: a chipli uncle is the guy who can’t keep his hands off his crotch and his eyes off your chest; he could be younger or older, white or brown, well-dressed or a ragamuffin, but he can often empty a room full of women by simply walking into it; he’s the one who thinks the girls love his off-color jokes and overshares about his bodily functions because he believes in frank talk.

A chipli uncle is the guy on the bus who once told me he “understood” my “psychological problem about being touched” which was shared by “many women” when I asked him to stop leaning all over me when he had a recliner seat all to himself. A chipli uncle is the guy who sneaked his hand under Marge’s sweatshirt to grab her boobs in the middle of a night on another bus journey. A chipli uncle is the guy who interviewed my friend Pops for the position of “personal assistant” and then told her most of her assisting “work” would take place at night.

When caught out, the chipli uncle will actually stand his ground and mumble a series of “sorry”s. I’ll never understand that. I find the whole urge to fondle strangers odd and disturbing but what do they think will the end result? Are there women out there who turn to their attacker and go, “OMG! This is totally my fantasy too!” And when the chipli uncle apologizes what does he think will be the response – “Oh, you’re sorry you molested me? Well, as long as you’re sorry, we’ll just call it bygones then! No harm done! What are you doing for dinner?”

A chipli uncle is the grown up version of the guy who, in his youth, used his allowance to get into a movie theater so he could sit behind a pretty girl(s), squeeze one finger or maybe a couple through the crack between the seats and poke her somewhere, anywhere!, as long as his finger made contact with her body. He’d risk personal injury, glares, brawls, shouting, name-calling, public shaming and penury for a chance to tickle some girl whose overwhelming feelings for him are disgust, rage and an urge to thrust a giant safety pin through sensitive body parts.

“How fucking repressed are these people?” Marge asked me as we giggled in disbelief while comparing war stories. “Imagine being so desperate that you get your sexual highs from poking some strange girl in the back with one finger!”

Between the two of us, we figured we’d been hassled in every movie theater in our hometown, been followed on the streets of multiple Indian cities, and groped on various highways. When we traveled anywhere in India, especially when using public transport, we automatically put on what we like to call our “Do Not Rape” outfits: loose fitting salwar kameezes with high necks, thick dupattas, and (preferably) long sleeves.

It is hellishly uncomfortable, especially in the summer when you’d prefer to wear something sleeveless or light cotton but want to dress so that in case things get really out of hand, the police and/or bystanders won’t diminish the strength of your case by casting blame on your outfit. Logically, we know we could be dressed in a full length burkha and still get felt up. Realistically, however, it’s easier to cover all your bases than expend your energy trying to educate assholes on the finer points of the emancipation of women when you’re already stressed out.

And even with that degree of armor, I don’t think either one of us has ever felt completely safe on the streets of India. Not only do I find myself dressing according to the possible character of autowallahs, taxi drivers and other unknown male passersby on the street rather than my personal inclination, over the years I’ve developed a trick of scanning my surroundings for possible threats.

A friend and I often kid that Indian women would make excellent assassin-spies because our spider senses are so advanced – nobody needs to train us to automatically assess all possible threats. We’re used to weighing our options at a subconscious level just walking down the street.

I don’t know when the humor began to leach out of me – perhaps it was when Marge told me about the time when she and a friend went to see a movie on the first day of its release and she had to make her way through the teeming crowd of would-be fanny-pinchers with piece of broken mirror.

“I could hear men go ‘ow’ all around me as I walked,” she shrugged. “But you know what? You don’t want to get hurt, you keep your hands to yourself.”

I’ve always known that molestation is a terrible thing – nothing like being groped by a stranger to teach you that – and that it’s rampant in India. But I’m so used to thinking of it as an inevitable part of my experience as an Indian woman that the sheer scale of it never quite hit me until I was listening to Marge talk about cutting her way into a movie theater.

I mean, it’s a bloody movie theater! She put on her Do Not Rape outfit (she’s almost always in those when she’s in India) and went to see a movie with a girlfriend. It’s the simplest thing in the world. And yet, she might as well have set off for the wars: donning armor and packing heat.

It’s fucked up.

I saw an ad for the Incredible India campaign in which Aamir Khan exhorts the public to stand up for visiting foreign women who find themselves being hassled. That’s nice and it’s about time. The first thing women from anywhere notice about India is that “eve-teasing” is part and parcel of the Indian experience. But Indian women are the ones who find out about it first.

Molestation is the everyday experience of all Indian women regardless of age, class or chutzpah. You could be a fifty year old woman buying vegetables at the market – and you’ll be plotting your escape route from the seller to the auto stand, strategically avoiding all the men who look like they want to touch and holding yourself on guard against the rest just to be safe.

Your mother, your sister, your wife, your best friend, your blogger – the sisterhood of Indian women is based on our everyday battle against the chipli uncle. The fact that this is possibly the nth post you’ve read by an Indian female blogger on the subject should tell you all you need to know.


Posted by on March 16, 2010 in Life, Personal


43 responses to “Urban Warfare

  1. bollyviewer

    March 16, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    A BIG YESSSSS to everything you said. I’ve never had to cut my way into a movie theatre, but I’ve taken buses in Delhi where the choice between standing and sitting down was the choice between being groped by several men or just one man! 😦 I learnt quickly to be like some of the intrepid Aunties on the bus – ask the man to move away a bit or to not touch, in a voice loud enough to reach the rest of the bus. That usually did the trick – the man would be embarrassed enough to leave you alone for a while. And it never occurred to me that there were places on this earth where a woman did not have to put up with this constant harassment! Thank goodness I was wrong!!!

  2. Silvara

    March 16, 2010 at 6:07 pm

    Wow…this totally hit a nerve. Born and brought up in Australia, my first experience of this when I went to India when I was 15 and THAT EXACT THING happened when we went to see “Soldier” (lol) at the cinema in Delhi. I was in shock – I wasn’t prepared for this part of the culture – nobody had ever blatantly touched me liek that – not to mention he was trying to feel my sister and myself both at the same time through the cracks. What made it worse was my second cousin who we were there with told me to “Forget about it – it never happened. Don’t make a scene”.

    My aunts told me to wear “loose” clothing, like the t-shirts and jeans I was so used to wearing at home were considered indecent and the cause of so many men staring at my chest.

    It’s completely fucked up. When I ask any of my cousins/friends/women who come to Australia what they like most about here – it’s the freedom – just to be themselves.

  3. Beth

    March 16, 2010 at 6:39 pm

    I am full of thoughts, none of which I can express clearly at the moment except NO WONDER I didn’t understand/respond to the Chak De India scene the way its primary intended audience did.

    Toodles! I’m off to go cut some uncles.

  4. RP

    March 16, 2010 at 10:15 pm

    I have been following your blog for a while and HAD to comment on this post.

    Growing up in India, all Indian women learn almost from puberty how to fend off all the eve-teasing and groping they will have to endure over the years ahead. Having been in the US for a long time now, I have tried to explain to my friends here exactly what eve-teasing is but it is something you can’t quite explain without experiencing it yourself and it is not an experience to be wished on any woman.

    We always carried “armor” as you put it … ours in college used to be plastic bags with our books, held in front of our body like a shield 🙂 or umbrellas were always a good choice for whacking someone who tried to get too close. Still didn’t stop all the repressed a**holes looking for a chance to jerk off. Really, thank goodness for places where one can have the freedom to wear anything and be yourself without being stared at, groped or molested in any way.

  5. sachita

    March 16, 2010 at 10:37 pm

    First of all, chipli(even if it doesnt mean anything) and uncle seems too much respect for these creatures.
    “loose fitting salwar kameezes with high necks, thick dupattas, and (preferably) long sleeves.” – absolutely of no use. I was once in thaat costume when one of these grey haired creature almost thrust himself from behind. I was 15 and so innocent that I looked back thinking it is a mistake with quite an angry face – the guy actually smiled at me! One of my biggest regret is, I didnt remove my footwear and hit him, atleast hurting him with a needle wud have been ok. could have atleast called out for my brother. Instead all I did was just get down in the next stop(it was my stop).

    One of the problem is, people always – the media and the movies always talk about the 20 something/teenage males while in reality it is the one who is old enough to be your father/ grand father who create the most trouble.

    Not that 20 somethings arent any trouble – i mean catcalling and screaming out and when we dont respond, some of them even getting angry at the no reaction(hello, what did you expect, flutter my eyes, run towards you in bharaathiraja movie style?) and making me feel like wearing dupatta over a t-shirt but the worst has come from the middle aged. Also, because people are less likely to suspect these ones.

    And agree having walked at every hour of the 24 hour alone in US without sticking to curfew times is FREEDOM. Even if i still cant do it without a vestigal fear.

  6. Banno

    March 17, 2010 at 12:09 am

    Sad, but true. We grew up like that, and sadly, still having to teach our daughters to be wary, to watch themselves, to be alert, and all of that.

    And knowing that despite all that she does, she’s still going to get those leery looks, gropes, comments.

  7. apu

    March 17, 2010 at 12:34 am

    How many chords did this post strike? I remember being 11 or 12 when a man first put his hand on my butt in a crowded bus – and – I honestly didn’t know wtf to do – two aunties sitting behind – who could presumably see what was happening – instead of asking the man to move, commented on me, saying, my god, doesn’t she feel anything?

    And I so get what you mean by those Do not Rape outfits – it’s not that we honestly think we are less likely to be assaulted – it’s more than we are less likely to be blamed for it!

  8. pavementphilosopher

    March 17, 2010 at 3:00 am

    Urgh! this post brought back memories of my first bus ride in delhi – after being molested (not eve-teased, MOLESTED) by the guy standing next to me, I yelled at him in broken hindi. The entire male population of the bus laughed at me, including the driver and conductor. I got off 5 stops early, weeping.

    Unfortunately, Indian women seem to take this as a part of life.. two years after the bus incident I was walking down a Delhi street in winter, wearing salwar suit, sweater, woolen shawl and monkey cap (!) and I still got groped by a guy on a bike. By then, I was barely exasperated, forget outraged. (So much for Do Not Rape outfits)

  9. Srinivas

    March 17, 2010 at 7:54 am

    OMFG!!!! I have no words..

  10. roswitha

    March 17, 2010 at 8:21 am

    Oh, thank you for writing this post. And that ad has always infuriated me. I have no problem with the idea that men ought to be treating tourists with respect: it’s with the implication that they must do this to present a fair face to the outside world. How about just being decent human beings to ALL women, including the ones you live with, for heaven’s sake?

  11. dipali

    March 17, 2010 at 10:33 am

    The dirty old men don’t stop, either, even with white hair and half a foot in the grave. Bah to them and to our thoroughly repressed, holier-than-thou, sacred cow of Indian culture:(.

  12. sukh

    March 17, 2010 at 10:58 am

    we all have our terms for them – ‘chipli’, ‘letch’,etc. when i was in college, there were certain professors our seniors warned us about-one was NEVER to interact with them can never know what a battlefield ordinary living can be for women.simple everyday decisions like taking a bus late at night are so difficult to make.the people who watch while you’re being molested are the worst- they rationalise it,tolerate it, anything except speak up. i think that most people in india subliminally think that women ‘s right to move about freely should be restricted, it makes them’out of control’ and (horrors!)on par with men!makes me want to throw up.

  13. M

    March 17, 2010 at 11:35 am

    God – this post brought back all those emotions – fear, anger, loathing. Like someone commented upthread, the biggest change in the US was the simple freedom to wear “normal clothes” and walk down the street, ignored by all and sundry.

    Beth, yup – this is why EVERY Indian women adored that scene in CDI….

    And RP – it’s not just from puberty onwards – it’s whenever you start going anywhere by yourself. For me that was at age 7 or so – heading down the street to the local shops for some urgently needed grocery items – there was a man who used to expose himself on the corner oppsite the shop…blech.


  14. Radhika

    March 17, 2010 at 1:24 pm

    just got this in an email – and thought you’d like a dekko

  15. Raven

    March 17, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    Sing it, sister. I’m not adding anything because there’s nothing to add. Just – yes, to all of this.

  16. Magnus

    March 17, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    It’s strange as to how a “few good men” ruin the name of their entire community, and sad too. Extremely!

    • Broom

      March 18, 2010 at 10:14 pm

      I don’t know, Magnus. It’s not just a few men, if I (and every woman I know) had to face molestation pretty much everyday that I traveled by bus or train or went into a crowded place.

  17. Broom

    March 17, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    Somehow, calling these men ‘uncle’ gives them a sense of respectability. I’d rather call them chipli bastards.
    I grew up with all these ‘experiences’. It bothered me for days (& still does) when I realised that every Indian woman I know has grown up with this experience.

  18. Veena

    March 17, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    First time commenting….awesome post! I wonder if India is the only county where ALL women have gone through this. What really annoys me that it’s still called “eve teasing”, as if it’s something cute or funny. It’s molestation, that’s what it is.

  19. fromherewegosublime

    March 17, 2010 at 6:25 pm

    umm India is definitely not the only country where this happens. Men in China and Japan are probably just as sexually repressed as India. Also its not much of a “warfare” if the other side doesn’t fight back. is it?

  20. Arch

    March 17, 2010 at 8:04 pm

    I had “almost” forgotten about this inherent part of growing up in India. It makes me as mad to recollect now as it made me back then. What ever is wrong with these Indian men?! bah!

  21. Reema

    March 17, 2010 at 10:51 pm

    wonderful post! Its a blessing if any Indian girl goes out of home and comes back without being eve teased. The warfare starts the moment u step out!

  22. apu

    March 18, 2010 at 12:13 am

    It also occurred to me that chipli is something to do with chipkali? There is something lizard-like about these “uncles”, isn’t it? Though perhaps that comparison is unfair on the lizards.

  23. Gradwolf

    March 18, 2010 at 12:20 am

    This instantly reminded me of the White Noise project. Was it international or something India centric? Did it just die? I was trying to google for it and nothing came up.

    On a lighter note, the pepper spray never became popular in India. Or it did?

  24. Gradwolf

    March 18, 2010 at 12:22 am

    Aah my bad. It was called Blank Noise.

  25. Dipika

    March 18, 2010 at 2:37 am

    Urban warfare indeed.

    I constantly have fantasies of keeping a knife on my person to stab and then twist into anyone suspect. But even in my fucking fantasy Reality Ensues. I’d have to change my route after the glorious stabbing.

  26. Shivani

    March 18, 2010 at 5:02 am

    I have nothing to add to what you & other commentors have already written but just wanted to add to what Apu (#7) said about other women also condoning such acts. My friend once slapped a guy (rather uncle.. he was old enough to be her father) in a bus who felt her up & raised hell around. Another lady who was sitting next to them and saw it all later came up to her & told her how she shouldn’t have done that & how people will talk & how her “reputation” will be affected & the uncle might just splash a bottle of acid on her face to get back at her.
    Wtf ? I was speechless. All I could manage was to tell her to go slap the lady twice as hard on my behalf

  27. DewdropDream

    March 18, 2010 at 1:07 pm

    I always wished I had a superpower. Laser eyes or something that would skin the balls of every man who’s ever molested a woman. Castrate them for good measure too. Bastards.

  28. Amrita

    March 18, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    What can I say girls? Just sitting here, reading your comments and getting angrier and angrier. 😦 Apart from the very first time it happened to me, I’ve given vent to my feelings on the spot and gotten into fights, and you’d think fighting back makes you feel better – well, I do have the satisfaction that I didnt shut up and take it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have blood soaked fantasies.

  29. Katyayni

    March 18, 2010 at 2:55 pm

    Hell Yeah!
    and no, India is not the only country. I live in Kathmandu and have been felt up on almost every road of the city. We call it the “Hands Out Syndrome” here. And the worst is that out of the masses of men it is very tough to point exactly who the culprit is. It is my sincerest wish to someday catch hold of one and award them with a swift kick to the groin for their efforts in making women feel nothing more than a piece of flesh… in spite of all that we have achieved and gained!

  30. musingsandmemories

    March 19, 2010 at 2:00 am

    Hi, have been reading your blog for some time but this made me delurk and brought back the terrible memories. At 15, I had started staying in a hostel and used to travel overnight by bus for leaves etc to reach home. And the experiences in those journeys made me almost want not to go home. In fact recently when I had to make a overnight bus journey after 5/6 years I was very reluctant to do so 🙂 fortunately no such experience; may be these uncles, being the cowards they are prey on the really young and vulnerables.

  31. pitu

    March 19, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    Yay! You’re back! I missed you 😀

    And faboo post. Most distressing. The thing that makes me super mad is that it’s actually female relatives who advise you to ‘not make a scene’, ‘not have a tantrum’. etc. The one person who actively and vocally encouraged me to fight back in every way possible AND physically bashed up a guy he saw bothering me, was my maternal grandpa. Nobody else ever told me what to do to fight back!

    My fondest memory and one I relate to my younger cousins is when my nana told me to approach this gang of Romeos who used to tease me, with all 4 family dogs (big, well fed strays we’d adopted, not some pampered pomeranians) on a leash and not discipline them when they snarled/threatened to bit. It was FANFUCKINGTASTIC! One guy almost peed his pants. They were shaking.

    If I didn’t think the BMC would have a problem with me and take away my dogs, I’d have encouraged them to tear those guys’ crotches out and leave them in a bloody pool on the side of the street. And no, I do not kid. Castrato, baby!

  32. Katyayni

    March 20, 2010 at 4:48 am

    I have been travelling on the buses since 16. Rather late, and in Kathmandu the situation isn’t as bad as India also, the women here do slap men and do raise hell. Thank God for that… though my mom always told me to take it, with my head bowed down. I didn’t. But that hasn’t made me slap people either… the result… I have been molested at least 5 times in my life, but been unable to deal with it, in anyway but carrying a deep anger, until that anger boiled within enough for me to want retribution. These days I fantasize about creating a band of women, much like super heroes, who work towards exposing these sick repressed bastards… and thus shatter their entire false image of respectability.
    In stead of expecting a better treatment from these men, I think that govt resources will be better employed if they were aimed at educating the women to unite and fight… tooth, nail, knife, whatever comes handy and whatever achieves the result. This HAS to STOP!

  33. Rahul

    March 20, 2010 at 10:09 am

    Blank Noise is a great project.

  34. munimma

    March 22, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    finding resonance. extremely so. unfortunate. Will it ever stop?

  35. memsaab

    March 23, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    Ooh broken mirror! I LIKE your friend Marge. It happens here too, although not nearly on the same scale.

    Women do need to fight back—use that “tight slap” well and use it often! And scream.

  36. ajnabi

    March 23, 2010 at 4:01 pm

    It does happen here. Just, not as often, and if you’re over 18 people will usually come to your defense. If you’re a young woman, you’re told not to make a fuss and are suspended if you fight back. At least, that’s what happened to a friend of mine, so when I was fourteen and a guy my age on the bus kept grabbing my ass, I kept my head down and said nothing. It still infuriates me. My daughters know how to fight back and I don’t care if they get expelled for it.

    • ajnabi

      March 23, 2010 at 4:01 pm

      And by “young” I mean under 18. Oh, and welcome back!!!

  37. Shalini

    March 24, 2010 at 9:46 am

    There’s a 70s movie called, “Doosri Sita” which features Jaya Bhaduri as a woman on death row for taking an axe (literally) to her abusive/rapist husband and ma-in-law(Lalita Pawar). I’m surprised that hasn’t caught on in real life in India.

  38. Sue

    March 26, 2010 at 5:53 am

    *stands up and applauds*

    I used to call them fuckfaces but Chipli Uncle sounds more descriptive. Thanks for the addition to my vocabulary.

  39. Jan

    April 12, 2010 at 10:08 am

    OMG this is friggin hilarious. Um, and yes, I believe Chipli is Marge’s made-up word (or maybe its just one of those Thrissur words that no one else in the world uses, I don’t know) but now it shall be used by women everywhere, thanks to you. And one day it might even be in the dictionary. YEAH!

    • Amrita

      April 13, 2010 at 2:37 pm

      Hee, one reader at a time!

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