Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, is a group of mothers who came together at the time of Argentina's guerilla warfare (dirty war) to protest against the disappearances of their sons and male relatives and demanded their return. Although the women identified themselves primarily as housewives, their bravery placed them at the centre of political opposition.
Maria Suarez, the co founder and producer of Feminist International Radio Endeavor, notes about the struggle:
"it was the way in which motherhood became political, the way in which women had to break the separation between the private and the public and make their concerns a public issue. these were the women who were in charge of the children, who were in charge of the livelihood of their husbands, of their brothers and so on, and once they were disappeared, these women politicised motherhood. It also meant that there was a reconceptualisation of the struggle for human rights because the motherhood and what happened in the house stopped being a private issue."
All of us, in some measure or the other, sometime or other, have been down on the streets, feeling 'stares' trailing behind our backs, catcalls, snide remarks, sniggers, in whatever little measure, has happened to us all. And this happens, even when I am dressed in the most conservative of clothes, even when I am supposed to be safe, walking with a guy. Even then it happens.
And this has happened to me also: a bunch of us, walking down the road, and a car, with tinted panes, stops right there, in front of us, incredulously(?) expecting us to 'ask for a lift'. The car still waits, even when we have crossed it and are on our way ahead. (Calcutta, 2002)
While trying to cross the road, that car, with a middle aged man, who waits, rolling down the windown pane, looking clearly and distinctively at me; expecting that I WILL get in, smiling lewdly. (Bombay, 2003)
In the train, when on the platform a guy 'marks' me out and asks "which compartment? which berth? travelling alone?" and then incredulously comes up to me in the train and says, "you can move to where my seat is, there are a lot of us there...." (Delhi, 2004)
Drunken night revelry at college rain dance parties or fests, where men 'poke' you as lightly on your arm and say, "come dance with me" and you realise just how dead drunk they are. Do you refuse? Do you accede? And worse still, in such situations what do you do if your MALE escort tells you, "Relax! Its all right. I am there na. Nothing will happen." Ya, right! (Calcutta, 2004)
When you take the public transport, and in a bus full of lots of people, you have men guffawing away; and each single female on the bus looks at the other and looks away: is this harassment? Should I be scared when my mom tells me, "see what Delhi is?" As my favorite city, I really dont want to believe her. But I am not even in a position to deny that it does not leave me feeling very very insecure. Sad, at a personal loss of my freedom to walk, stroll and use public means of transport.
Once, i raised my voice. And it felt great. Although the experience left me shivering all over. While travelling in Delhi, i normally use the "chartered buses": they ply on pre destined routes, pick up pre destined passengers. Normally, safer than the usual public transport system. There was one day however when I just could not catch my bus. And I was down to using the public transport. I travel along the Lodhi Road, Moti Bagh, Cantt Flyover, Cantt, Jail Road, Janakpuri, Vikaspuri road. There was this old drunk man who boarded the bus. At the time when he boarded, the only seat empty was the one next to me. There was already another lady sitting next to me and he came and sit in the between both of us. And started mumbling incoherently.
First, I thought he was just drunk. And then suddenly, i felt a hand brush against me. I looked up at him and thought he was mistaken. Since it didnt happen for a while again, I indeed thoughtI was mistaken. And then, it happened again. I tried moving away a little and that man moved towards me. I again tried moving on the other side, but there also was a man sitting there. And i was caught in a fix: I didnt know whether I should speak up or keep quite. But I was really running out of place.
And finally, i decided to take action. I got up and stood next to the railing. The ticket collector was there and he said 'there's an empty seat, sit.' And i told him 'not unless that guy gets off'. The lady who was sitting next to me understood. Travelling with her husband, she switched places with him and asked me to sit next to her: she promised me nothing would happen. Nothing did happen. The TC roughed up the guy, who kept on saying I didnt do anything and actually tried wanting to talk to me. The TC actually asked the driver to stop the bus and the guy was made to get down. And i really thought that when you speak up, everyone does with you. Till then they just think that either nothing is happening or you are not bothered with what is happening. That its acceptable and Ok. (Delhi, 2005)
Walking down the road, with bikes zooming on the opposite side and turning to look the other side, only to realise that they did a U-Turn and are trailing me. Its a clammy feeling. Dreadful and frightening. And I can rest assured that I am dressed from head to toe, in addition to the fact that I dont call myself either 'slim built' or 'physically fit'. (Calcutta, 2004)
What then is the value of the argument that such things 'happen' when I am the one who is not even someone who is 'desirable' or 'good-to-look-at'? What then is the logic: should I stop going out in the public. And finally, what then is the answer.
Law, doesnt help me. It doesnt protect me. It says it does, but then we all know it doesnt. Who would want to be told 'your modesty cannot be outraged, as it is establised that you are of loose character' or that 'if i dont have any injuries on my body, i must have consented and enjoyed the harassment' [MATHURA rape case] or that 'since i belong to a lower caste, i CANNOT be raped!' [BHANWARI DEVI rape case]. Law then clearly, which doesnt even provide for eve teasing and sexual harassment in public places, is not the answer.
Social change is. But how easy it is to change someone in whom it is ingrained that the hierarchy between sexes is only natural. How easy is change for people who perceive my rights to be DIFFERENT and LESSER than theirs? How do you attack the mindsets of people who consider us women to always be in need of protection. Who simply think that we are incapable of taking care of ourselves? Definitely, not easy.
But it doesnt mean we shouldnt try. It doesnt mean we shouldnt even begin. It doesnt mean that we should sit, without doing anything, because anything would be a lost cause. It wont be. Change occurs one at a time. And that is what we have to look at: changing one person at a time. And then hope that it trickles down and spreads. It is upto us, just like the Mothers of Argentina to make our private issues public, in order to get for ourselves the rights to be free from the clammy feeling. To have the right over our bodies. Both in public and private.
Ending, I want to do with this little piece of poetry, which somehow tells us how important our individual power, as part of a collective group is.
In Germany, the Nazis first came for the Communists
And I didnt speak up because I was not a Communist
Then, they came for the Jews
And I didnt speak up because I was not a Jew
Then, they came for the Trade Unionists
And I didnt speak up because I was not a Trade Unionist
Then, they came for the Catholics
And I didnt speak up because I was not a Catholic
Then they came for me.
And I looked behind...
But by that time, there was no one to speak.
Its time we spoke up. For ourselves. Before anyone going all out for us, we have do this favour to ourselves. And for everyone like us. One at a time. Is a lot many voices together :)
Posted 22nd March 2007 by J