Yesterday, I was filled with a deep, deep sense of despair.
Never, in recent memory, have I felt this numb, this deflated. As I read, account after account, after abusive account - from women and men and the children we have been - I was engulfed by a frozen sort of exhaustion.
Account after abusive account on Blank Noise led to more windows opening up into my own memory - this happened to me too, at ages six, eight, nine, ten, eighteen, fifteen, twenty-five.... all of this and more. That man, that place...
Writing the last post, I had thought I was making the token gesture - how difficult could it be to speak up, anyway? If I can live it, I can talk about it.
Talk about something that's choking our gender-divisive culture, something that is making monsters of us when it comes to sexual attitudes and liberties.
When the comments started pouring in, I was a little overwhelmed. Then the downpour became a deluge, and now, I am very quiet, very sad.
Because... that these 'strategies' I had written of, in part-horror, part-rage, with a sense of bitter irony, should be taken as 100% serious advice.... could anything be sadder than that?
One part of me wants to un-read it all - all those hundreds of stories here, in the comments and those entries for the blog-a-thon. As if un-reading it, could undo it.
But for all that, I have more to say.
If we're going to build a serious debate around this issue of abuse (please let's give 'eve-teasing' a grand burial right now. This minute. The word has no significance, no relevance, no place in our experience), we need to talk beyond the rage, beyond the sharing, beyond the opinions.
Because if we stop here, then we might as well have never started.
The first thing we have to deal with is the definition and scope of 'harrassment'.
We may recognize that each individual has different needs for personal space and different perceptions of appropriate behaviour, BUT if we're going to take a legal stand, insist upon pan-Indian, or even global standard of behaviour as a norm, we're going to need specifics.
Is staring/ ogling/ checking out/ leching wrong?
I don't think so.
Does it make me uncomfortable?
A man leering at you through the evening can ruin your party. But I also recognize that this bothers me more in situations where I know the leer can easily turn into a grope.
Besides, there are many occassions on which I have 'checked out' members of the oposite sex (no pun intended, she says, biting down a smile). I want to continue to have the right to look at men, appreciatively or just to guage the attraction quotient. Men have the same rights, then.
Is whistling, passing comments, singing songs wrong?
Does it annoy me, as a woman?
But I recognize that the man is not phycially or psychologically damaging me in any way, and so he has a right to whistle, sing or comment.
EXCEPT when the words turn abusive or sexully violent. Verbal violence is punishable by law. Threats are punishable by law, and there is no reason a woman(or man) should have to hear any.
Is touching wrong?
When you touch a another person without his/her permission, you run the risk of violating the person. If you touch them in places that are - in normative terms - regarded as sexual areas, therefore off-limits for those who do not have sexual rights over you, this person will be perfectly justified in snarling, snapping, slapping or otherwise reacting violently to your gesture. You could also be punished for it legally, though we - as a society - must come to some sort of agreement about what punitive action is fair, or deterrant enough. (One blogger - I'm confused about who - suggested community service. Picking up trash. Scavenging. I think that's not a bad idea, actually.)
I also believe that we Indians already recognize this, cultural conditioning be damned!
That is why there are many more incidents of feeling up/groping/pinching in crowded places like buses, trains, bazaars, footpaths - where it would be hard to pin blame, where one can pretend it was all an accident. That is also why men will take fewer chances if a woman is accompanied by a man, but will grope and pinch with alacrity if they're in a big group themselves.
Is following/stalking wrong?
I have not figured out the precise definitions for this, but legally, at least, there is a precedent for disallowing stalking. (And we really must learn to use the word 'stalking' instead of 'following', which sounds like a benign sort of thing a cute puppy-dog might do, when he isn't nipping at your ankles.)
Is propositioning wrong?
I don't know.
We are swimming in slightly murky waters here. Almost all relationships begin with a proposition of some sort. (This, incidentally, is the same line adopted by every single stranger who has come up to me with a proposition for 'friendship') Almost all of us have accepted some propositions at least partially, tentatively, from some trusted people.
I personally do not blame the stranger who walks up to me, saying he wants to have sex, or offers to 'buy' me. He is only asking me a question. I find it offensive - but I think we, as women, must also learn to question the reasons for our taking offense at such a question. Why are we so insulted if somebody equates us with, or treats us like, a prostitute?
(Speaking for myself, I find it equally offensive when I am asked my religion while entering a temple or a mosque, or filling up a government form. In all honesty, I think the latter is a far more dangerous question).
But when I have said 'no', and this stranger persists in making his offer, it does amount to harrassment. Then, I have the right to tell him to get lost. If he doesn't listen, I have the right to drag him to the law enforcement authority.
Which brings us to the cops.
The police is known to be unsympathetic. I think we should lobby for the police to be especially trained in dealing with instances of harrassment and I also think that the women's cell of the police should be prepared for complaints against their colleagues who fail to treat a victim of sexual harrassment as they should. The battle will be uphill at first, but a few prosecutions should set a precedent. Precedents are good weapons.
And yes, I believe training and counselling does help.
I have been to a police station alone in Delhi - fighting off my own instinctive misgivings - and have found at least one bunch of officials to be polite and non-lecherous, even though they may not have been as quick and efficient as I want them to be. I was later told that some sections of Delhi police have been slowly workshopped into behaving with a modicum of courtesy. If this is true, bless the workshoppers.
Some people have spoken of clothes and the impact they have on harrassment.
From personal experience, I know there is no direct correlation.
The first incident I mentioned, when I was 13, occurred when I was in frilly frocks and still had ribbons in my hair. Almost all later incidents have happened when I have been in shalwaars and full-sleeved kameezes.
Strangely, the rare times when I have stepped out wearing short skirts and tank tops, men have kept a slight distance. I fail to understand this paradox. But I do have a hypothesis -
When I am wearing a short skirt in public, I give out a signal. That I am not meek. I'm not your regular bhartiya naari and that you cannot count on my being a placid, accepting victim.
Many more men stare at bare shoulders, bare legs... many more women stare too. But, in my limited experience, few men dare to touch a woman they're shocked by.
And yet, knowing this, I find myself hesitating. Worrying.
I bring out my short, revealing clothes every week, try them on and put them back in the cupboard. This is not because I will attract potential molesters. This is because I know that IF there is an attempt, I will be held responsible. I will hear 'but look at what she's wearing'.
I do this because my own women-friends come up with quasi-insulting statements like 'you don't like clothes, do you?'. Because I've been told that there's a time and place for every dress; high heels and bare shoulders are only okay if you're at a private party, amongst friends and are getting picked up and dropped off in a private car.
I've been told and I cannot shake off the fear that IF something goes wrong, I will be humiliated even further by allegations that I was 'asking for it'.
THIS fear is what we have to counter.
We begin by watching our own tongues. When we see a girl in a mini-skirt in the train or in the vegetable market, we stop saying 'ohmygod! what's wrong with her?'. We have to stop telling each other 'your bra strap is showing'. (It's only an effing strap! Give me one good reason why it should not show?)
Sure, the change will take time. But the change must come from us. From everybody who believes that a person has the right to not be molested, whatever the circumstances.
Some other men mentioned feeling ashamed. They are angry that all women view them with suspicion, contempt and fear.
All I can say, is - the burnt child dreads the fire.
Or like we say, doodh ka jalaa chhaas ko bhi phook-phoonk ke peeta hai.
Besides, the nice men are in a bit of a minority. I can recount more than ten incidents of harrassment, right now, without having to dig into the darker recesses of memory. Listening to other women, I'd say that ratio is fairly average. If there are ten wrong-doers for every one victim.... you do the math.
Can you imagine the scale of this gender's collective fear? Where is the room for rational behaviour, or trust?
Yes, this too can change.
For every man that tries to grope me, if there are five men stopping him, it will change.
For every small gang that roams the streets looking for somebody to harrass, if there are two small gangs on the lookout to protect, it will change.
For every woman in an oversize t-shirt, walking with a file across her chest, if there are a hundred who refuse to cover up, refuse to de-sex their persona, refuse to slouch, it will change.
For every family that tells a daughter 'don't go out alone at night', if there are fifty families who send their girls out at night, armed with the determination to have fun and the confidence that they're not going to be the only women out alone, it will change.
For every woman who scurries past, head bowed, if there are ten who strut, and smile at nothing and everything, it will change.
When we have men and women talking to each other without being censured for it,
when boys in school are taught to take permission before touching women,
when girls in school are taught that it is okay to give this permission, if they want to,
when both genders can interact without fear of ostracism or moral policing,
it will change.
Until then, I leave you with these lines by Dushyant Kumar:
"sirf hangama khadaa karna meraa maqsad nahin
meri koshish ye hai, ki ye surat badalani chahiye.
mere seene me.n nahin to tere seene me.n sahi
ho kahin bhi aag, lekin aag jalni chaahiye"
[My purpose is not to simply create a furor
this attempt is to try and change our situation.
And if not in my breast, then let it be in yours –
it doesn't matter where, but the fire must burn]
Let's keep this fire burning.
Action Hero Annie Zaidi