Image credit: @missgloriadesign
A few nights ago, I was returning to a friend’s house after a fun evening with my colleagues. As I approached her building, I took out my phone — possibly to text her saying I was almost there. Right then, it was snatched out of my hand. The shock took a few minutes to register, and I saw two men speeding off on a bike with my phone. A phone that has years’ worth of exchanges with family, friends, partners, acquaintances. A device that has close to four thousand pictures — all of them highly personal, and some a little more than the others.
As I stumbled out of the auto rickshaw in a panic, resulting in a deep gash on my knee and a psychological impact that will take me a good while to overcome, I had never felt more helpless. I should have been grateful that I was (largely) safe, that all I lost was a phone. But I was upset beyond belief, afraid of the fact that some strange men had access to some of the most private aspects of my life. What if they’re looking at my pictures? What if they end up on the internet tomorrow morning? I conjured up several unpleasant scenarios in my head.
Then I blamed myself. Why was I using my phone in an auto? Why was I out at 9 PM? Why was I out after dark? I had, over my last three years in this city, developed a sense of security that for a woman, was almost brazen. I travelled home alone late after work, made dinner plans (something I barely did growing up because I was afraid to go out after dark), went to parties , and got back home on my own. Perhaps this was the world’s way of giving me a reminder that women aren’t supposed to feel safe doing these things.
Later that night, after a short hospital visit and a lot of panic, I sat sipping a beer with my friend. And I felt surprisingly calm. It was just a phone after all. Yes, if some of my pictures end up on the world wide web, I won’t be happy. But I won’t be ashamed either. I’ve done enough of that. Walking with a slouch, wearing clothes a size too big, looking over my shoulder, making myself small.
It’ll be a while till I recover from what happened, sure. But I’m not going to let those two men take away the sense of confidence and safety I took years to develop. Perhaps my phone has been wiped of every trace of my life, perhaps not. Maybe all those pictures are still there, maybe not. I can’t say what could happen. But I can now safely say, I don’t care — because those were some great pictures.
I’m often asked why there is such a long gap between my articles. My response is always the same: that I need something to make me really mad, an experience that agitates me enough to write about it. Usually, it takes a while, but I don’t worry much- I know that sooner or later I will have an experience, a conversation that will make me want to tear my hair out.
A couple of days ago, against my better judgment, I got into an argument on Facebook with someone who shared an article on the women’s compartment in the Delhi metro being a “symbol of patriarchy” (*facepalm*).
I found myself explaining why safe spaces for women are necessary, why travelling harassment-free is not a privilege, and how separate compartments are an effective (yet flawed) solution.
What followed was a barrage of mansplaining: separating the “victim” and the “oppressor” isn’t a solution; women need to speak up against harassment. You need to defend yourself.
Wow, really? My little feminine brain would’ve never thought of that.
I was asked why I was getting so angry, after all, it was just meant to be a healthy discussion.
What was just a healthy discussion to him was something I experience every day of my life.
Speaking up isn’t easy when at the age of 16, a random man gropes you outside school, looks you in the eye and walks away like it was nothing.
Speaking up isn’t easy when you’re standing on the footpath dumbfounded after a man old enough to be your father asks you for a blowjob while you’re on your way to the bus stand after college.
Speaking up isn’t easy at the age of 14, when a stranger walks in while you’re alone at your grandma’s house, gropes you and leaves (and yes, this happened in “fully literate” Kerala).
I am angry because every woman I know and spoke to about this article had similar experiences.
I am angry because my sister was sexually harassed in a temple when she was 10 years old.
I am angry because my best friend called me one night, about ten years ago, sounding frantic because a man was masturbating beneath her window.
I’m angry because many of you will read this and go “Not All Men” instead of thinking “Yes, All Women”.
The simple solution of women “speaking up” against unwanted sexual advances gets complicated by the fact that men who violate women probably haven’t been taught how to handle rejection very well.
So I am angry because every time I step out in public, I have to make myself smaller, inconspicuous, just so that I can get to my destination without having my body and space violated.
And that is something that cis gendered heterosexual men will never understand. So no, you don’t get to tell me what to do when I’m harassed. And you definitely don’t get to decide what’s best for women.
A while ago, a friend of mine, doing her Masters in an apparently premier institution, was rather excited because her boyfriend was coming to visit for a weekend- however, the thrill soon dissipated when she realized getting out of hostel for a weekend, that too to meet a boy (!) would be rather difficult.
“Why don’t you just say you’re going to stay with a friend?” I suggested.
“No, no. The warden will know it’s a guy. I don’t want any trouble.”
Fortunately, she found a way- convincing the warden that she was going to an aunt’s house for a weekend of platonic family fun, obviously.
Here’s what really gets to me- the hypocrisy of our so- called liberal, feminist universities that teach us feminist theory by day, and police our bodies and mobility by night.
“Fight for equal rights”- but only if you’re back in hostel by 9 PM!
“Sexual liberation”- but not before marriage!
“Reclaim public space”- but not around the boys’ hostel!
Aah, the boys’ hostel- a land of the unknown -who knows the kind of pleasures (?) that lie there!
I wonder where this anxiety stems from- what’s the worst thing that could happen if a girl went in? She’d have fun? She’d meet guys? She’d have sex? (A woman having sex and not just to make babies? Where is her sanskaar?)
University administrations should be in on a little secret- we aren’t dying to jump every male student in sight, and even if we are, where’s the harm as long as it’s consensual? (Decent sex ed classes in school would’ve been useful, but I guess that’s un-sanskaari too)
The same universities that talk to us about independence and autonomy over our bodies will have wardens call us frantically after dark, threatening to complain to “Sir” in admin- because girls these days are going out too much!
The same wardens, who harass us when we come back at 12 am after ladies night, are completely okay with us coming back at 3 am after midnight mass- because didn’t you know, that’s what good Christian girls do?
Coming back to my friend, her troubles didn’t end there – once at the hotel, they had to take separate rooms, because they weren’t married- you know, lest an unmarried couple defile the hotel by having consensual sex- but of course a husband possibly raping his wife would be perfectly OK.
We shouldn’t have to pretend to be married just to be with our boyfriends (or any man for that matter)-so no, we’re not actually going to “spend time” with our aunts, our uncles, our grandparents. We’re going out, to eat, to drink, to have sex, to meet men, to meet women, to dance, to live.
We’re tired of this- tired of having no say in our own lives, tired of patriarchal curfews, tired of being made to be “good girls”- you are not doing this “for our own good”- we don’t want to be “kept safe”, we don’t want to be controlled- all we want is the right to just be, to explore our opportunities, our bodies, our cities- the right to have fun, the right to take risks.
(Image source: Pinjra Tod)
Imagine this: You’re at a party with a bunch of your friends. You’re a little buzzed. Eventually the music dies down and you all end up crashing at your friend’s house. You wake up the next morning and you know something’s not quite right. Something happened but you’re not ready to talk about it. You feel ashamed, you try to forget.
You don’t want to make things awkward, so you don’t say anything. You meet your friends again- he’s there, and you pretend that nothing’s wrong. This goes on for weeks, till you can’t take it anymore. You finally confess to your friends- he molested you that night after the party.
“Why did you wait so long to bring this up?”
“Didn’t he apologise? Just let it go”
“Lets not make things awkward for the group.”
“Maybe you just misunderstood.”
“Why did you stay over at his house even though you have a boyfriend? A decent girl wouldn’t do such a thing.”
I wish this was a situation I just made up, but I am drawing from experiences of women I know- and unfortunately I am sure it is something a lot of women can relate to. Few can understand the courage required to open up about sexual assault- especially in a culture that will blame you and shame you into believing it was all your fault in the first place. Because of course, a good girl would never get attacked, A good girl wouldn’t provoke men. A good girl wouldn’t go for parties. A good girl wouldn’t drink. A good girl who “belongs” to one man would never stay over at another’s- and if she does, she is going to be assaulted- what else do you expect, really?
All our lives we are told how to be good girls, how to be good women. Keep your voice low, and your neckline high. Keep your eyes down, and your guard up. In college, I was told that good girls shouldn’t smoke. In college, my sister was told good girls don’t get tattoos and piercings. Hostel wardens tell us good girls don’t wear shorts and shouldn’t meet boys.
A friend was told by her ex boyfriend not to wear low cut tops, lest it tempted men. I was told I was using lipstick in order to lure men- I said I did it to feel good. He said I was becoming too outspoken.
A few weeks ago I visited an NGO working with women as a part of my course. I heard several accounts from women who were beaten, sexually abused, forced into marriage and into prostitution. A part of me was shocked, and a part of me wasn’t even mildly surprised. One story in particular stayed with me- one woman told us about her abusive husband- he used to beat her regularly- he once hit her on the head with a rock, she went into a coma and he then cut off her nose and upper lip (to those who think we don’t need feminism-let that sink in for a while).
When asked whether she tried going to the police, she told us she asked for her family’s support in order to file a complaint, and her parents didn’t let her- because, “court aur police jaane waali aurat buri hoti hai” ( women who go to the court and to the police are bad women).
This idea of a “good” girl/woman doesn’t just work to limit women’s choices, mobility and voices- it also puts us in great danger-so ingrained is this concept in our minds that we would rather tolerate abuse, tolerate harassment, than be seen as “bad” women.
I have finally come to realize that it is okay to have a voice. It is okay to say no. It is okay to speak up. And most importantly, it is okay to take up space- intellectual, political and physical- in fact, it is a right that we have been conditioned not to exercise. So go get pierced, tattooed, wear skirts, go for parties, or stay at home, its up to you. Lastly, speak louder and walk taller- because you never ask for it and it is never your fault.
About a week ago I made the mistake of visiting Charminar- my friends and I had been quite excited-we couldn’t wait to shop for trinkets and try the much talked about biryani and kababs. However, I soon regretted it. The minute we stepped out of the cab, it started pouring, and the men started harassing.
It’s not like I didn’t anticipate it. We’d been told to dress “appropriately” since it was a conservative area (as if dressing conservatively ever stopped a woman from being harassed). We followed the rules, dressed in patialas, kurtas, with duppattas. Surprise, surprise, we still got stared at, and leched at. Apparently we were “byudiful, gorjuz girls enjoying the rain”. Thank you for that, creepy man on bike, we definitely needed your vaildation to feel attractive.
Being conditioned to ignore such things, we walked to a restaurant to pick up some food, where we were told by one of the waiters that we should go upstairs to the air conditioned area, because you know, it would be more “comfortable”. It felt like an insult to my intelligence, because even a cursory glance around the place made it obvious why we were being shuffled off upstairs. The ground floor was fully occupied by men who were staring at the five of us as though we’d just walked out of a UFO.
Cut to a few days later, in the midst of a heated discussion in class that had turned to voyeurism, personal space, and sexuality, a classmate turned to me and asked what I thought about men who stare at women. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I had an articulate answer, so I asked where exactly this question came from- turns out, a (male) college professor had told her, that women shouldn’t get offended when men stare at us, because they are merely appreciating our beauty. She seemed genuinely confused, as though it was wrong to get upset when a man stares at you. I was so angry I could barely get any words out. I hope I can answer her question better through this post.
We have the right to be angry when a man stares at us. We have the right to be angry when a man passes a remark about our bodies. Because no, it is not a compliment. It doesn’t make us feel beautiful. It is not “flattering”. We get to decide when a stare makes us uncomfortable. We can tell the difference between a man “appreciating our beauty”, and a man who tries to “keep us in our place” by making us feel like we don’t belong.
We all know the stare I’m talking about- the kind that makes our skins crawl. The kind that makes us avoid eye contact. The kind that makes us retreat into a kind of shell, just so that we can make ourselves invisible. So no, it is nothing remotely romantic, it is not personal, it is not friendly. It is an expression of power designed to make us feel inferior, to assert the masculinity of public spaces
In class we were once told that everything is political- every interaction is an expression of power inequalities. Street harassment is political, and the beginning in a continuum of sexual assault. It is not “catcalling”, it is not “eve teasing”, it is harassment, plain and simple, an instrument to assert male dominance over our bodies and spaces.
I myself have never had the courage to directly confront a harasser. I don’t know if I ever will. When I look back at the multiple times I have been harassed in some way or the other, I think of all the things I could have done and said. But the reality is, when it happens. most of the time you choose to ignore it, or you freeze up. I don’t have any solutions or advice to give. I just want to tell my classmate, and every other woman who has been asked to “enjoy” harassment by an utterly clueless and insensitive man- that in a world where you will probably be violated in some way or the other multiple times over the course of your life, where you don’t have the right to your own body, don’t let anyone take away your right to get absolutely bloody furious-because, in the words of Leymah Gbowee, “it’s time for women to stop being politely angry”.
Monica : Careful. Careful. CAREFUL!
Chandler : I’ll tell you what, for the rest of our lives, I’ll be careful until told otherwise.
Having just moved into a hostel, I’ve been trying to reconcile what is supposed to be a new found freedom with a set of rules and moral codes that I have never had to think about before. When to come home, what to wear, when to go out etc etc. While sitting with a few of my new classmates, one of them said- ” Yeah we can go out and all…but we were told not to wear shorts and skirts.” I just nodded.
I went for a walk this evening with a friend. It was around five, there was still light out. I was in a good mood- I’d made a new friend, I felt like I was settling in-when we were stopped by who I am sure was a well meaning gentleman, and I was told that it wasn’t safe for women to be walking around in the evening. My (male) friend then assured him that I would be back in the hostel soon. I was totally zapped, I said that it wasn’t even dark yet, and we kept walking.
I didn’t appreciate being made to feel like I didn’t have an equal right to walk down that street, and I definitely didn’t appreciate being made to feel like a liabilty to the person I was with. But as always, we just accept it, and move on. Because, no, we don’t have the right to walk down the street, but apparently potential rapists do.
Now if there is anything I hate more than other people telling me how I am supposed to keep myself safe, it’s men telling me how I should keep myself safe. Because, here’s the thing- you aren’t giving me any new information. We women have spent the better part of our lives trying to keep ourselves safe. Being careful has become an art, manoeuvring the various boundaries that society has set for us. We know when and where we can wear shorts, when we need to carry a stole to cover ourselves, when we need to travel in cars and when we can take the metro. We know we need to carry pepper sprays or deodorants. we know we should go out in groups, we know by what time we need to be home.
Simply being alive puts us in a state of danger. We’ve been told to be careful as soon as we’ve been able to walk and talk-careful of strangers, careful of over-friendly uncles, careful of drivers, domestic helps, and the list goes on. It only gets worse when we’re older-that top is too low, that skirt is too short, carry a jacket, don’t leave your drink unattended, don’t come back alone, just don’t attract attention to yourself.
So don’t you fucking dare tell me what I need to be doing when you have the privilege of being a heterosexual man in India who has no goddamn idea what it feels like to be under threat every time you step out of your house.
Now I could go on and on about the same thing-I wonder when public spaces will be made more inclusive, I wonder when women are not going to be viewed as objects that need to be locked away from the lecherous male gaze. I wonder when I’ll have the freedom to do whatever I damn well please- until then, like Chandler, I guess I will be careful for the rest of my life, until told otherwise.
Ever since I stopped watching Grey’s Anatomy, I’ve turned to Pinterest for my daily dose of lessons on life and love. All my free time is spent on this insanely addictive app, and a few days ago, I found a quote that really stayed with me :
“The older I get, the more I see how women are described as having gone mad, when what they’ve actually become is knowledgeable, and powerful, and fucking furious.”
I can’t even begin to explain the many ways in which this is true. The things I’ve experienced, read and watched in the last one year have made me fucking furious, and rightly so. For the sake of keeping this post at a reasonable length, I want to talk about one particular book that has made a huge impact on my life, and I suggest you all read it- “Why Loiter”, by Shilpa Phadke, Shilpa Ranade, and Sameera Khan.
This book focuses on the way in which women in particular access public spaces in Mumbai, but I think all of us can relate to it, no matter where we live. It made me realize the many ways in which I have to manufacture respectability every single time I step out of my house and the process starts even before I step out of my front door. First, I have to think about whether I have access to a car, what time of day it is, which area I am going to, who I am going with-just to name a few. The question of safety is entangled with the concept of being a “good girl”– maybe if I wear a duppatta over my top, no one will grope me. Maybe if I wear a loose t-shirt, no one will notice me. Maybe if I don’t make eye contact with any man on the street, I won’t be leched at.
After reading the book I realized how women tend to take up as little space as possible in public. We make ourselves seem smaller than we are-to avoid harassment, yes, but also because of a larger culture in which women aren’t seen as having an equal right to a highly masculinised public space. More often than not, we need to demonstrate a purpose for being out in public- this took me sometime to understand, until I looked back on all the times I waited for a friend specifically at a bus stop, obviously so that I looked like I was waiting for a bus, and not just standing around. I thought back to all the times I called a friend while walking on the road, or fiddled with my phone, just so that I looked like I was “doing something”. I thought back to the times when I got onto a bus and tried to make myself invisible, just so that I wouldn’t “attract attention.”
As the book eloquently points out, different bodies access public spaces differently, but public spaces in India are designed keeping in mind a physically able male (the lack of infrastructure for the differently abled calls for a separate, lengthy discussion). It further points out the lack of sanitation infrastructure for women in Mumbai. There are hardly any public toilets for women, and the ones that do exist shut by 9 pm. I started observing my own city and I don’t think I noticed a single toilet for women on the streets-not one that we would actually consider using anyway. Either this implies that women don’t need to pee; at least not after dark, or maybe that they shouldn’t be in public after dark anyway.
When I was younger, I remember resenting having to take public transport. I thought girls my age who had access to cars at all times had so much added freedom-and as I’ve started travelling by car more, I realised that this is simply not true-reading this book as made me think about my own behaviour so much more closely-yes, now I can dress pretty much however I want to. I don’t have to think twice about wearing a skirt or a dress, and that’s great-but I soon realised what the book was saying- now I get out of my house, get into a car, get off at a mall or a restaurant, get back into the car and I go home- I am in public, without ever truly engaging in public space. All I’m doing is going from one private space to another, without really being in public at all.
It is of course wonderful to be able to travel without the possibility of someone bumping into you and rubbing up against you “by mistake”-access to a car does give us a limited sense of freedom-but wouldn’t it be even better if we could use public transport more comfortably? If we didn’t have to rely on cars and drivers? Isn’t that the goal of public transport, to make the city accessible to everyone? And no, separate compartments/autos/ seats for women are not a long term solution. I am grateful to them, obviously-in the six months I spent in Delhi I must’ve taken the “general” compartment in the metro (funny how “general”=men), just a handful of times, and it won’t be a stretch to say that those few times were fraught with anxiety. However, the focus needs to be on making spaces inclusive, not creating exclusive spaces for women.
So I’d ask all the women reading this to think back to all the times you’ve seen groups of men loitering on the street-just talking, having a smoke, relaxing- at any point of the day or night. The next time you witness this, notice the ease in their body language. Men feel like they belong in public. They don’t need a purpose to be out. They can take a stroll at 10 pm in their shorts. They can go downstairs for a smoke at 3 am. They can go out and buy cigarettes or alcohol without being given as much as a second look. And that’s fine. The question I’m asking here is: why not us?
I shouldn’t need a reason to walk down the street. I shouldn’t need a reason to stand around on a foot path or in a narrow lane. I shouldn’t have to pretend to text while waiting for a friend outside my house. I should be able to sit in a park with a group of girlfriends in shorts and a tank top without the nagging feeling of being watched. I don’t just demand the right to access public spaces-to go to school, college or office. I demand the right to access public spaces for the sake of pleasure-to take stroll, to watch a sunset, to watch the world go by-to have fun.