The last month of last year brought us a dark incident, which triggered a mass reaction. A reaction that questions the very core of our social and cultural being. It is not about the rape of that unknown woman. It was not the first, and sadly it will not be the last of such incidents. This incident has touched each and every individual and family. Even those of us who typically watch such news like outsiders, with indifference. A rape or molestation, is something bad that happens in some other world to someone we don’t know. We are not concerned for it in our day to day, safe, sheltered lives, right? It is something to be read in newspapers, and seen on TV, and rarely, heard in gossip grapevines, and discussed in hushed tones.
But dig a little deeper, and we realize that it is an ugly manifestation of a deep rooted cultural phenomenon, that no one has escaped. Not you, not me, nor any girl or boy who grows up in India. A phenomenon which is close to home, and very personal.
I was stalked as a schoolgirl. I was street harassed innumerable times, when I was a teenager. I am very lucky that I did not have to face anything worse like molestation or rape. But I have grown up in the shadow of that fear, of something terrible happening. The youthful growing years of adolescence, when one is trying to cope with the fast changing environment, and one’s own hormones, and societal expectations covered with this constant fear of the worst, a constant feeling of being unsafe, nagging at the back of the mind.
I was not the only one. Almost every girl I know faced this when growing up in the late eighties and nineties in a small growing city. Nothing was expressly taught, but as we grew, and experienced harassment, we instinctively learned to ignore the stares of the lechers, lewd comments from strangers on streets, and creepy shadows following behind everywhere.
Society and surroundings offered no assurance against these unpleasant experiences. Instead, we (boys and girls) were fed with an image of an ideal girl from good families that we must conform to. Directly and indirectly the signals we got placed blame and responsibility of any unpleasant happenings on the shoulders of the girl instead. For example, a personal experience comes to mind. Seemingly non-controversial, non serious. But needs to be analyzed for the hidden message it gave me, a child, of impressionable age.
We used to walk to school in a group when in high school. A group of friends, chatting and giggling, going about their lives as girls would do. One fine day, we were reprimanded in school by our teachers for this behavior on the road. For the way we move around in groups, the way we talk loudly when walking on the road, the way we laugh and attract attention, and even for wearing our hair short. Because of this behavior, we were being talked about, and stalked. Some teacher overheard a group of boys talk about us on the road in a ‘not very nice’ way. This is not what girls in good families do. They put their heads down when walking on the road and do not talk back to “eve teasers”. Behave in such a manner that you don’t attract bad attention.
That incident left me shaken at the time. I did not think of asking the teachers if they confronted, stopped, and counseled the boys who were saying bad things about us? It did give a feeling that it was my fault that I was being stalked and harassed. And so as we should, we trained ourselves to put our heads down and not make eye contact, as a defense mechanism.
I did not confide in my parents at first about the stalking, because of peer pressure, and a weird feeling like I was letting them down. Thankfully, eventually I did, and they took care of the unwanted attention, thus, strengthening my confidence. I was fortunate to have grown up in a healthy environment at home that enabled me to bloom and flourish as a person, in spite of being surrounded by bigotry and such poison outside. I wonder how many were as fortunate?
Simple pleasures like going to the movies, or eating joints, or participating in school and college cultural festivals taught us all innumerable lessons in unpleasant ways. Those who managed to block out, filter out this muck from their minds were the ones who managed to enjoy and gain from this exposure. I wonder how many girls were scared to participate? How many thought it was better to remain invisible, unknown, in the safety of their own “decencies”, than to expose themselves to being ogled, commented upon or talked about? Did we lose many a great singers, artists, dancers or dramatists because of this?
How many young and talented minds were suppressed, driven into shell, without an opportunity to freely explore and express, and learn and grow? Isn’t it a shame that there are generations of women who grew up in this environment? I agree there are many stories of success, of triumph, of women I know who grew up with me and have achieved great heights. But this, unfortunately, is the exception. Not the norm.
Through the growing years, we (boys and girls alike) have been subjected to a lot of propaganda on how a girl should be. How should she behave, what she must do, what she must not do, what constitutes her honor and what defines her limit. We have been brainwashed by teachers, by elders, by media, and by cinema.
The unfortunate thing is, in all this frenzy of raising good girls our society neglected the boys. Nobody told us how boys should be. Broadly, the boys could be identified as one of two kinds in our small conservative town. One kind was the good boys, who would never interact or talk to girls, other kind was the troublemakers. There was no recourse or structure in families, schools, institutions and workplaces that will guide the boys into behavior of compassion towards the opposite sex. A behavior of camaraderie that is mutually beneficial and enriching without any sexual innuendos to it. They were only guided by cinema, media, patriarchal pecking order in their homes and law enforcers to believe in the misconceptions of “true masculinity”. A belief, that led them into thinking that a woman is not a person, but either a goddess, or a symbol of honor for the man/men she is associated with, or an object to be possessed. That the only way to woo her is by stalking and harassing. That when she says no, she actually means yes.
As young children, we watched melodramatic movies, where a molested or raped woman had no other go but to end her life, because it was her honor that was robbed. We were convinced that one has to die, if one was raped. What a twisted and sick mentality this is. There was no other way to know that it is just a heinous act of violence, and that the survivor has the opportunity to heal, and aspire to a normal healthy life.
I am 20-25 years removed from that time today. And I, and many others like me, live in a safe private bubble. A bubble, which we have worked hard to create, a place where we can feel free, liberated and empowered. We survived, and flourished in spite of this environment, by growing up, moving out, and by surrounding ourselves with likeminded people. I wonder how many managed to do that? And how strong is this private bubble which shields us from the reality?
One generation later, things are no different, but uglier. One generation later, it took the sacrifice of a young unnamed woman to stir a delusional society into introspection. Into questioning the ugly reality that has been hounding 50% of its population, through many generations.
I say shame on all of us, young and old, men and women, who at different points engaged in loose talk, tongue wagging and gossip, in blaming and victimizing even further any girl or woman who may have faced physical or emotional abuse. Because of the dress she wore, company she kept or any unfortunate incidents she had to face. Shame on us, who witnessed girls and women being harassed in public spaces, and did nothing about it – other than discussing and finding absurd reasons why she was targeted – like her dress, or her looks, her “free” behavior, or simply the fact that she is out in a public space at a particular time.
Shame on our collective thought process, that first questions what the woman was wearing when she was molested, what was her “reputation”, what was she doing out at that hour, or who was she with, whether she is aware of her “Maryada”, instead of questioning the perpetrator, who made the conscious decision to violate another human being and took the action to actually hurt that person.
Shame on movie makers, entertainers, stars, politicians, law enforcers, and any other public figures who in various ways endorse and encourage misogyny, and mislead the younger generation. Shame on us all who shy away from discussing and addressing this issue in our own public or private lives.
And a hope that things will change for the better, mindsets will change, not just in pockets of private bubbles, but far reaching. Transcending through class and caste, through cities and villages, in India.
Hope this becomes a better country for its women, and hence its men.