Happy Women's Day. I am writing today's post for the Blank Noise Project. Strike that out. I am writing this for myself. Thank you, Blank Noise, for giving me a way to speak out.
My first encounter with street sexual harassment (perhaps apart from sundry lewd remarks that I do not remember) occurred when I was in the sixth standard in school. I was too innocent to realise what was happening, and only wondered why the man stood so close to me in a relatively empty bus. I was too young to even understand that my breasts could be an object of desire. I was on my way to school when it happened – and yes, I was in uniform.
That was the beginning of years of what I can only term torture. I began to dread the daily commute to and from school. I tried to protect myself with my school bag, to defend myself with my water bottle, to show my discomfort, to move away. Sometimes, it happened so blatantly I wondered how no one else had seen it. Yet never did a voice or an arm rise in my protection. I did not speak about it to anyone. Telling my parents would only have meant giving up the little independence I had. I would pray to God each day to spare me from the torture. I wondered why he often refused to grant my prayer.
As I grew up, such incidents grew less frequent. When I got into college, it was rare and I could usually protect myself with an angry glance or push. Maybe it had to do with the fact that I looked older and stronger. Or maybe it had only to do with my school uniform, which had rendered me younger and more vulnerable.
When I was old enough to understood more fully the significance of those groping hands and thrusting bodies, I was filled with rage. I would sit on the bus, silently challenging anyone to come near me. I was raring to use my fists, my voice, to vent some of my burning anger. It was perhaps that look of anger on my face that acted as a deterrent. The frequency of such incidents fell away to almost nothingness.
Yet, there were times when someone casually brushed his hand against me and I did not retaliate. I remained silent, out of that aversion towards creating a scene that had been ingrained in me since I was young, out of an unknown fear that perhaps stemmed from those years of silent torture, out of shock. And each such time made me angrier, at the criminals who performed such acts, at the world that allowed such things to happen, and at myself for not having the courage to fight back.
One day, I was on a bus in which the only people standing were a middle-aged man, a girl in school uniform, and me. Some time passed before I noticed that the girl seemed uncomfortable. I looked to see the man pressing close to her. The bus was full of people: no one spoke. And the girl was not alone – she was with a couple of friends.
All my memories came flooding back. I asked the girl if the guy was troubling her. She nodded. I shouted at the man to stand back. So protected do these criminals feel by the shroud of fear and shame that covers the victims, that this guy needed telling twice. I told the girl to come stand by me and threatened the guy in a way that would make my bolder friends proud.
It did not make up for what I had gone through. It was probably not enough to stop the guy from harassing his next victim. After all, not one voice was raised to support me. I shrieked in the silent bus like a mad woman. Yet I felt vindicated that I had not committed the ultimate crime – I had not stood by and let it happen.
I spoke up again, when a woman sitting next to me was harassed. This was a couple of years later, and I was bolder then. Now, I would speak up again. And again. Until the silence of the crowds around me made me lose my courage.
And more than the groping hands and lewd whistles, it is this silence that we have to overcome. It is the fence-sitter that we have to get on our side. Because many of those sitters on the fence are men who are simply not aware that such things happen. They do not know what it is to spend one day as a woman – to walk out in the evening with your fists clenched and your heart beating hard, to go home in an autorickshaw or a cab with mobile phone in hand, ready to dial a male friend at a sign of danger, to not go out at all because the risk does not seem worth the fun. They do not know how it feels to walk down a street in broad daylight and hear lewd catcalls, to stand on the pavement and have cars stop by you, to talk to the grocer, the bus driver, even the courier guy, while his eyes are on your chest.
Most of the men I know would condemn such behaviour. Yet they do not often realise how frequent it is. That most women – especially women who work/study out of the home and use public transport – face sexual harassment daily, be it in the form of vulgar remarks, a lewd glance, or a groping hand. And it is the fault of us women, that they do not know. Read this brilliant article by a man who discovered the daily horror of street harassment that women face. And, if you are a guy, look out for such instances and try to stand up for the victims. And if you are a woman, stand up for yourself. And talk about your experiences. By not telling our brothers, our cousins, our friends, we are losing allies. And we need all the allies we can get to win this war to make the world safer for ourselves and our daughters.