International airports are deemed to have better facilities and security than domestic airports, but where there are drunken louts from my city, Kolkata, on the prowl, no place is safe. A woman travelling alone through South Asian airports when harassed and "eve-teased" publicly doesn't matter to police officers posted there; and the odd officer who makes sympathetic noises says he doesn't want to get involved in a diplomatic tangle. I was returning from a conference which The Statesman had nominated me to attend in Kuala Lumpur on a Biman flight and today morning was transiting through Dhaka's Zia International Airport, where I had a three-hour wait before my connecting flight, BG 091, to Kolkata. While waiting at the lounge I noticed that a group of three men in perhaps their late 20s was staring at me. I ignored them, naturally. But within a couple of minutes one of them said in a loud voice: "See the way she is looking at us... she wants to compete.” They cracked up at their "joke" and then walked over to where I was sitting; one of them took the seat next to me, the other two sat in front of me. They started whistling and singing lewd songs. Soon, the "leader" of the trio passed a lewd comment directly at me and started making sexually suggestive gestures. I rushed to the police booth located at the transit lounge and requested the officers to take action. One of the cops asked me whether I knew the "boys". I said I did not. I waited at the booth whilst he walked over to the three men and inquired about their nationality and the flight they were waiting for. The cop came back and told me that they were my “countrymen” and were waiting for the same flight as me. Within minutes, however, having spotted me in the police booth, the trio entered the booth and began questioning the police officers for having questioned them. When the cops told them that they were acting on a complaint by me, the leader of the trio got offensive and made some nasty remarks about my “lack of good looks” and it being “no crime to sing”. Addressing the policemen, he added, apropos of nothing in particular: “I have had a lot to drink but I still came over to your booth to empathise with you as you people have to handle crazy women like her (pointing at me) every day.” One of the policemen told the trio: “Okay, okay... now you go back to your seats.” They did, but not before the leader of the trio threatened me with dire consequences when I reached Kolkata. All of this happened inside the police booth at Dhaka airport's international transit lounge. The policemen told me that since all the men were Indian they could do nothing. One of them advised me: “They are young men, it happens. You should ignore such things.” For the next two hours, whilst I ignored them, the three men continued to sing vulgar songs, clap, whistle and pass lewd comments as I sat waiting for my flight. No policemen or passengers, though they were very few around, protested. Finally, the flight was called at 10 a.m. and I waited for the trio to leave in the first bus. I took the second bus to the aircraft and boarded with a sigh of relief thinking the ordeal, unpleasant as it was, was over. But as I began walking down the aisle to my seat (24 A) I was assailed by lewd songs again as I crossed seats 7 A, B and C where the trio was ensconced. The next 50 minutes passed off peacefully. But the moment the flight landed at NSCB International Airport, the trio began pointing at me and whistling from their seats. I had had enough. I asked the flight attendants to take me to the airport security officials. But they just showed me the way to the immigration counter and refused to get involved any further. I narrated my ordeal to the security officials near the immigration counter but they insisted they wouldn't listen till I first filled in my immigration form. As I was doing so, I noticed the trio spotted me talking to security and they began to make a run for it. Then, I screamed at the security personnel to stop the men from fleeing, and asked them whether this was the way they behaved when passengers came to them for help. Hearing my shouts, a female immigration official approached me and asked me what the problem was. The trio had completed their immigration formalities and disappeared by then. She told me to calm down and called for a senior CISF officer. The officer arrived whilst I cleared immigration. I rushed to the luggae conveyor belt along with officials to look for the trio. An officer kept asking for their names till I snapped back: "These people were harassing me. Am I expected to ask them their names?" He kept quiet after that. I suggested that he get the list of passengers on flight BG 091 and confirm the names of those occupying seats 7A, B and C. I kept on running from one part of the airport to another looking for the men but couldn't find them. I lost my cool and told the CISF personnel that because of their delayed reaction, the men had escaped. Then it struck me they could be hiding in the toilets. I described to the CISF jawans what the men looked like and told them to look inside the toilet while I stood just outside the door. One had escaped but two of them, including the leader, was found cowering there. I was very disturbed and frazzled but I insisted the leader of the trio be taken into custody; by that time my brain had stopped working and I was not sure about identifying the second man, so I asked that he be let off. An officer from the airport police station had arrived by then and I took the trio's leader to him. I said would accompany him to the PS to lodge a complaint. As I waited (for 45 minutes) for my luggage, the leader pleaded for mercy, his bravado all gone. He belonged to a large group of "carriers" based in Khidderpore. Some of the elder members of the group requested me to "forgive the boy". I asked them whether they would have done the same had it been their daughter in my place. They left me alone after that. We went to the police station where I lodged a complaint against the man, Md Imran. At the police station, the officers took me to a different room while Md Imran was put inside the lock-up. The officers told me the possible cases he could be charged with, adding he would get bail. Yet again I had to explain to police officers, this time in India, that being harassed in this manner was not something that was acceptable. He may well get bail, but at least he would think a million times before doing this to another woman travelling alone.
(The story was written on 29 January, 2011)
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