Blank Noise

I usually stay away from opinion posts in my blog. In part, because I will rather listen, discuss, engage with something I feel strongly about than to merely write about it.


But, over the past week or so, I have been following the Blank Noise Project with interest. It is a blog-o-thon to protest against eve-teasing. Most of the posts I have read so far have been intensely personal chronicles by women, most of whose stories resonate with me.


I believe I am fortunate in this regard. I recall only few memories of open eve-teasing. Of bottom pinching (age 18: Andheri station in Bombay. Rush hour, a crush of bodies and moist hands that reached out and grabbed me) and thrusting men (ages 15 - 23: numerous small incidents, most of which I have conveniently forgotten). But, I do remember the fear - that trapped feeling.


Age 16. A remote hill station in India. I and some classmates of mine are walking back from "camps". Camps was yet another residual tradition from our British colonial days that our school faithfully followed. We, a group of 12th standard girls, had just spent 4 days in the closest approximation of "in the wild" we had. [background: Camps involved backpacking to a remote campsite, cooking by campfire, living cramped like sardines in tents. I loved it.]. We were exhausted - 4 days of collecting your own water, cooking your own food, building your own fires - and we were beat. Add to that the unnecessary large bags laden with clothes that we had not worn (after all, we were 16 or 17, and this was our first outing in "regular clothes" that we had had in months) and the long march home, and we had never felt more tired and irritable than then.


The journey back was along the main road. We had somehow spilt up into three groups, depending on our walking pace and our group consisted of 6 girls. The other two groups - one of whom was with our teacher - was nowhere in sight. Every car, bus, truck, auto, bike that passed us on the highway were filled with men who yelled "baby, baby" and thrust out their arms out us, forcing us to walk single file as far back from the road as possible. It did not help that some of us were wearing sleeveless shirts - after all, we were just coming back from camps.


We were humiliated and scared. And furious.


Then, it happened. Two men on a bike slowed down next to us, keeping pace with our walking.


-C'mon baby. oh baby baby.[kissing and slurping sounds]. girls girls. come here baby.


They were within arm's reach of us. Suddenly one of the girls snapped - she flung a bottle of water in his face.


The situation went from bad to terribly-filmi-infinitely worse. The man slowed down and started yelling. He threatened to get off his bike and come and hit us. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion. We were walking faster and faster, none of us looking at the men, just walking. Yet, I can't remember moving at all - all I remember are the torrent of abusive words he were hurling at us. And, then, just as abruptly, he left.


For a couple of minutes, we just kept walking in silence, not daring to look back, not daring to hope that they had really gone. But, there was silence and we finally stopped and looked around. I can't remember the details - some of the girls broke down, some of us just stayed mutely frightened, yet others discussed what we should do. We reached a common consensus - that we will wait till the group with our teacher caught up with us and walk together.


It occurs to me now that our teacher should not have been a source of protection for us. She was 25 years old, as slim and as small as any of us. Yet, we needed something to fall back on and as the authority figure, we decided that no harm will come to us if we were with her.


20 strained minutes went by and then we caught sight of the other group. Relief flooded us as we explained everything to our teacher and friends. We were relieved enough to go back to joking and talking loudly. Only our teacher stayed watchfully silent. She must have been petrified - this was a tough situation to face on one's own but she was also accountable for 15 young girls.


The noise of a bike in the distance. Again strained silence. But, just a couple of strange men we have never seen before, whooping at us. Then another bike. And then another. By this time, we are more relaxed. And, then suddenly, they are back and they have another friend. We were walking in double file by then. Without realizing it the older looking, more buxom girls were on the inside of the file and the flatter, younger looking girls on the side closest to the road. I was on the outside and I could smell the man as he got off the bike and came towards us. I could not see him - I was too scared to look.


My teacher fell back two steps and stopped him with some quiet words "These are young girls. Don't do anything to them. They didn't do anything. Don't you dare touch them." He is yelling and screaming the few english words he knows "fucking. these girls coming here for fucking. we fucking them." and then frustrated with his lack of english, he switched back to his native tongue, still cursing. Now that we understood the words he was saying, the possibility of those words coming true seemed absurdly real. Absurdly, because it didn't seem possible that this was happening to us.


Maybe it was the tough stance that my teacher took or her quiet words. Maybe it was the fear coming off us. Maybe it was the thought that these girls looked rich and their parents may have connections that could get him killed if he touched them. Maybe it was his friends on the bike, frightened by the sudden serious turn to the events, that were yelling for him to come back. But, he suddenly turned away and got back on his bike. As he went past us, he spat at us.


There were no more jokes, no more talking till we got back to school.


Years later, I was telling some of my cousin's friends this story and one of them said "well, you were asking for it - wearing sleeveless t-shirts in a remote place like that and walking along the highway." What shocked me was not so much his sentiment, widely shared with a large number of people, but the fact that I almost instantly agreed.


This is what I fear the most. The invisible rules that guide what you wear, do, say - distinguishing you from victim to "asking-for-it". The endless need to stay on guard. Be watchful. Go with male friends. Don't stay out too late. Dress carefully. Don't call attention to yourself. Especially don't call sexual attention to yourself.


At one level, these are basic simple precautions. At another, they are an antithesis to everything that the women's rights movement has fought for. And, the time when young girls like me start unknowingly, sub-consciously buying into these notions is when we need to stand up and fight against these ideas. The Blank Noise Project is a start.


I will like to end this post on a happier note. Two instances when I saw women stand up, fight back and turn against the men who abused them. Both in Bombay.


A man passing by a group of college girls on his bike, reaches out and grabs a girl's breast. She whips around, grabs him by the arm as he goes past, succeeding in pulling him off the bike. With the aid of her friends she drags him to the nearest police station which is 20 minutes away. During this time, he goes from cocky to scared to petrified - at one point, he breaks down into tears and begs the girls to let him go, saying that he has a wife and kids back home. At this, the girl retorts "All the more reason to ensure that you never treat women like this again."


A late-night movie at a theatre. As we try to leave the theatre, we can hear yelling at the entrance. The crowd is moving very slowly and everyone is looking towards something going on near the door. As we approach, we see a man on his knees saying "sorry, sorry, sorry" rapidly. A young attractive woman is standing above him, asking him "will you ever do that again? WILL YOU? WILL YOU? DON'T YOU EVER TOUCH ANY WOMAN LIKE THAT AGAIN."

As a young girl, seeing these women take on the men so boldly signaled hope of a kind. True - these situations don't always turn out well. Men have been known to strike back and/or to gang up against the abused woman. Worse has happened. I am not saying the above cases are solutions. But, they, like the Blank Noise Project, are the beginnings of a move away from that crippling fear so many of us have felt in the face of overt, ubiquitous sexual harassment.

- Action Hero A