By Anjee Bhatia:
I was twelve when I started traveling alone. I had just started high school and it was newfound independence, the first few days of which I savoured.
I was thirteen when I was followed by a middle-aged dudh wala on a cycle. I had just turned thirteen, and was returning from school. Like any other day, I had taken a rickshaw from the metro station. He started following me from where the rickshaw dropped me, he almost followed me home. I was terrified, even though my parents had taught me what to do if I was followed.
I was almost fourteen when I first noticed catcalls, singing, and whistling. I finally knew what it felt like to be objectified on the roads, every single day.
I was fourteen and was sitting in the front seat of an auto when the auto driver kept “accidentally” touching my not-so-developed breasts. I was too scared to object or get down from the auto. He was driving recklessly, and smirking. When my stop did come, his grubby cold hands lingered on my hand while I paid him his fare. I stopped trusting autowallahs for a long time after that.
I was fifteen when I realised how unsafe public space was for me, and most other women. I was fifteen when I learned the “virtues” of changing routes, avoiding dark lanes and covering up in public spaces. I learned to not talk too loudly, not to smile, and not to attract attention to myself.
I learned that I should be prepared to be sexually harassed when I stepped out of the house. I was told that this struggle will never stop. That I was not the only one. My mom had gone through it, and so had my friends. This was the way of life, and I had to accept it. I struggled with dual feelings of acceptance and outrage.
I was fifteen-and-a-half when a middle-aged man with a huge belly followed me to my tuition. He used to stand opposite to my house, in front of the gate of an all-girls school. He followed me for the longest five minutes of my life while making obscene gestures with his fingers near his crotch.
I was shivering with fear when I frantically rang the bell of my tuition teacher’s house. After two hours of coaching, I was too scared to go back home. I was fifteen-and-a-half, and my teacher had to call someone to pick me up. I refused to go to tuition for the next three days. On the fourth day, I was escorted by a trusted acquaintance.
I still shudder when I think of that man and his obscene gestures.
I was sixteen when people started staring at my breasts and cleavage. On buses, in metros, and on the road. I was sixteen when I started carrying safety pins on public transport. I was sixteen when I learned to protect myself in crowded places by sticking out my elbows and stamping on the feet of men who came too near. I was sixteen when I started wearing my backpack in the front instead of the back.
I was sixteen when I started keeping a record of the days that I was harassed. At the end of the month, I had been harassed for twenty-five out of thirty days. I had not stepped out of my home the five days I was not harassed.
I was seventeen when a man sitting next to me in an auto tried to grope my right breast. I shuddered but asked him loudly what he was doing. He stopped. The other passengers shrugged, and I saw the autowallah smirk in the mirror. I was twenty when I was followed again. I was not scared this time, just defiant and angry. I got rid of the follower soon. I changed routes. I found a crowd. I spotted him on my way back but he didn’t spot me.
I was twenty-one when I slapped a guy for following me till the metro station. He was bewildered. The crowd didn’t react. I went on my way, feeling a mix of pride and anger.
I was twenty-two when my thirteen-year-old sister saw a middle-aged man with a huge belly masturbate outside the gate of our house.
I was twenty-two when my sister punched a guy in the nose for catcalling.
I was twenty-two when I stopped caring about my cleavage showing in crowded buses. I was twenty-two when I stopped blaming myself for being harassed. I was twenty-two when I started getting over my body image issues. I was twenty-two when I decided that I wanted to actively fight against street harassment. I was twenty-two when I joined my first movement against street harassment, slut-shaming, and victim-blaming.
I am twenty-four now and no, I won’t stop being outraged when people are harassed. Because using public space is still a battle for half the population. Because most people are not aware of how traumatising street harassment can be. Because street harassment cases and molestation incidents are still dismissed as unimportant.
Because we need to talk about this more often, and because it’s time we demanded safer public spaces.