In Uttar Pradesh, anti-Romeo squads were recently enlisted as part of a women-protecting machinery promised in the election. The squads were modeled on the anti-Romeo Dal put together in Gujarat back in 2001. The nomenclature ‘Romeo’, however, used to describe wayward men in India who sexually harass women, is the key phrase here. Interestingly, the same word had been employed during the Love Jihad movement, where the said movement was also often referred to as Romeo Jihad.
Love Jihad was a phenomenon that first launched in 2009, where right-wing vigilantes believed that Muslim men were tricking young, Hindu women to marry them with the intention of converting them into Islam. Since Romeo was the embodiment of love, and since the vigilantes stood against public exhibition of love, through word association, Romeo and Jihad were used to describe the movement. What is of concern though, is that both words, one Western and the other Islamic, were potent words placed next to each other to issue a sense of the ‘other’.
In India, however, mainstream conversations are often littered with references to men who loiter on the streets and whistle at women as ‘roadside Romeos’ — even though the loiterer may have never heard of Shakespeare or his fictional character. Romeo then becomes part of the Occidentalism narrative, which is the reverse of the phenomenon of Orientalism, where the East carries certain misinformation about the West.
Both ‘eve-teasing’ and ‘roadside Romeo’ are Indian-invented-English-euphemisms, used particularly in South Asians countries like India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. Sexual harassment in India has often colloquially been called ‘eve-teasing’. Dr. Heidi Pauwels, professor of Asian Languages and Literature at University of Washington points out in The Woman Waylaid at the Well or Panaghaṭa-līlā, that eve-teasing is an umbrella term used to describe anything from “milder annoyance, like staring, whistling, and passing comments, to scary physical actions like groping, molesting, and stalking.”
However, in context to something as psychically and psychologically disturbing as sexual harassment, both the terms seem light and ineffectual. ‘Teasing’, for instance, suggests playful attention given to a woman by a man. It does not imply the alarming nature of a sexual offense. Romeo too, an immortalised fictional character who stands as an embodiment of romance and love, has been distorted and relegated to an absurd symbol of a harasser.
It’s important to question why both – Romeo and Eve – are characters lifted from Western literature and used to describe wayward men and their misdemeanor towards women in India. Or why in particular, instead of calling them Anti-Romeo Squads, they are not called Anti-Harrassment Squads or Women Protection Squads.