By Ritica Ramesh:
It’s easy to write about the warmth of the sunshine kissing your cheek whilst at a holiday on the beach. It’s easy to tell the world about the plethora of emotions that take over you when you finally meet your loved one after eons and it’s easy to pen down your thoughts on who should be player of the year, but it isn’t easy to admit how vile it felt when a stranger’s palms pushed up against your breasts while his mouth hungrily searched for yours when you were fifteen.
It was a misty October morning, an eerie morning and I couldn’t quite wrap my head around why. The cold winter air snaked around the faltering trees near to my apartment, making the leaves rustle loudly, interrupting the stillness of its surrounding. Staring evasively at her feet, little did my 4’5” figure know that the rustling wasn’t from the leaves on the trees, it was that of a strange, seemingly drunk man walking towards where I stood. Adrenaline pumped through my veins and I pushed myself far against my compound wall, hoping to evade any sort of eye contact. The farther I moved away, the closer he moved towards me and what followed in those next five minutes (five minutes which felt like an eternity) changed the girl I was forever. I was touched in places I shouldn’t have been, called things I shouldn’t have been called, and I was forced against my will to submit to a twisted scoundrel’s drunken desires. At that very moment, my eyes were shut tight and my mind blank. I didn’t process anything except how tremendously erroneous everything felt. All of a sudden, the man backed off and ran away before I could pull myself back together. He vanished, leaving behind bite marks on my cheek and scratch marks on my chest and neck. He was gone before I realized I was molested. Sexual abuse wasn’t just something that happened to the girl in the village, or that girl on the T.V, it was something that could even happen to you. I read about how your first kiss should feel like in the books and I’ve watched in on TV, but I realized that my first kiss was one of immense pain and discomfort because the first boy to kiss me wouldn’t be my knight in shining armor, instead it was a drunken laborer looking for cheap thrills. I realized that the skin on my chest was bleeding and warmth of my blood juxtaposed the chill detachment of my body. Then, it slowly dawned upon me that I was sexually abused for the first time in my life.
The entire episode happened while I waited for my school bus, and I was clueless about what to do. So I stepped into the bus when it came and that entire day, I convinced everyone I had a stomach ache and a fever so they would leave me alone. I didn’t even know who it was because I was paralyzed with fear and my eyes were closed. I still live in the same apartment, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen the man again. I told myself there was no point in reporting anything to the police, simply because I had no possible leads. No eye witnesses, no suspect and no strong evidence. But that wasn’t the reason I didn’t go to the police. I didn’t go to the police because I was drowning in shame. I didn’t tell my parents, I didn’t tell my friends and sometimes I even told myself that it didn’t happen; it was just a nightmare. I was hiding behind a façade and even when I had secret baths at 3 A.M for the third time in the day to wash off the filth I had been exposed to, I blamed myself. I shouldn’t have gone down to wait for my bus fifteen minutes early, even when the sun hadn’t risen yet. All I wanted was to enjoy the winter breeze that seldom arrives where I lived, but I shouldn’t have craved it at the expense of my safety.
On somedays, I can still feel the knot in my belly sending a shiver down my spine and I still hide in dark corners with a bruised mind. My innocence was embezzled away from me. My life had been abridged to a helping of dilapidated visions from far off days that could never be accurately deciphered. Sometimes, I can still clearly remember his dusty hands hovering over my tiny face and the numbness of my hands preventing me from moving. I can still recall the sick smile on his face and the scent of his cheap perfume forcing its way into my nostrils. For weeks, I was silent. For weeks, I guarded this memory as if it was a forbidden secret.
I told my mother one afternoon, three weeks after because I couldn’t keep it in anymore. I wept and I felt dreadful about what had happened but my mom helped me get through it. She told me about how back in India, all of these were common occurrences and it happened to almost every woman, including her. She also told me that it didn’t mean that what happened to me was acceptable. She asked me to evaluate what I was doing to myself by immersing in misery and that I should stop playing victim and become a stronger person so that if it ever happened again, I’d know what to do.
Things got better after I told my family. I felt better about myself and what had happened. I did intense internet research and reading and found out that so many people felt the same way I did. As time progressed, I healed. I had a dark phase again a year ago where I’d get nightmares about everything all over again, but by this time, some of my friends knew and they were there for me. I am forever thankful for that. One day, a friend of mine told me about a similar ordeal that she’d been through. I told her about mine, and I helped her talk. I told her that at least we have solid support systems and didn’t have to go through anything terrible all by ourselves to which she responded, “Exactly. Besides, I’m grateful that it wasn’t rape. Just molestation. At least it didn’t go any further. So it isn’t a big deal.”
‘Just molestation’. At that point, anger for my friend engulfed me. How could she say that? Of course it was a big deal. How could you downplay someone who was exploiting your body? Of course, rape victims grieve a billion times more than victims of molestation. But is that something you should really be thankful for? Then it struck me that I too am guilty of accepting things just because they were pervasive. Till I was fifteen, when a guy on the road catcalled me, I was flattered. Sometimes, I would even smile. Till I was fifteen, when a man “accidently” brushed past me in the mall, I would say “I’m sorry,” as if it was my fault. Till I was fifteen, I thought that it wasn’t rape, it was nothing. Till I was fifteen, I was guilty of being a timid, little girl who welcomed and accepted the abuse of my own body.
But what you do only hits you hard when you see someone else do the same. Which is why I write this today to tell you that my dear girls, you deserve more than what you allow yourself to. In the gravity of the moment, you might think that you are alone and that you have nowhere to go. But I want to tell you that you’re wrong. It doesn’t matter if all he did was touch your thighs or if he raped you, if it feels wrong, it IS wrong. It doesn’t matter if it was your uncle, your father or the nice old man down the street who always gave you a birthday present – if it feels wrong, it IS wrong. In most cases, your molester will threaten to harm you or your family. As a victim and survivor of sexual abuse, it is your duty and responsibility to break the vicious cycle. You owe it to yourself and every other woman on this planet to stand up for yourself and make a difference. Remember, in most cases your molester will also tend to abuse you or someone else again. Most sexual offenders are repeaters, unless punished and corrected. Just know that, if YOU don’t speak up, there is a great chance that you will be abused again or that the sequence will break into someone you care about.
Trust me, I know how you feel. The denial and the acceptance are never two distinct phases when you’re abused, they overlap one another relentlessly in your mind. And no, society will not shun you to the magnitude that you have imagined in your mind. You will be overwhelmed at the amount of support you receive as opposed to those who look down upon you. I don’t care if you were wearing a bikini or an abhaya; it is never your fault. I don’t care if you went for the midnight movie show, you have every right to, and it still doesn’t become your fault. I just want to ask you to speak up. Don’t wait for three weeks to tell your family or your best friend. If they still don’t understand, somebody will. Don’t be frightened to run behind the man as he calmly moved away like he was finished with his daily wage job. Don’t be scared to look him in the eye, and maybe, kick him in the balls if you’d like. He deserves it, you know he does.
But whatever you do, don’t feel bad for yourself. Don’t drown yourself in pity and think it is the end of the world because it is not. Someday, this experience will mould you into a stronger and wiser woman. I know you’ll feel ugly and used for a very long time, but believe me, you are the farthest thing from either of that. Victimizing yourself is the worst thing you could probably do after experiencing something so grave. Buckle up, and take control of your life. No matter how many people you cry about it to and no matter how many nights you spend wishing it never happened, the stark truth is that it did indeed happen. I promise you, you will become a better person if you start accepting yourself first. Learn yourself, love yourself. Sure, you can give yourself ample time to grieve. Cry if you have to, smash a vase, and yell into open space, whatever makes you feel better! But do not play the part of the whimpering, wounded puppy because you are so much more than that.
My friend went on to tell me about the ridiculous and heart-breaking way the people around her reacted. Girls, if somebody makes a joke about rape or sexual abuse, let them know they shouldn’t be joking. If they ask you why you care so much, don’t feel obliged to tell them. You do not owe an explanation to anybody but yourself. If it feels wrong, it IS wrong, remember? If on some future date, your boyfriend forces you into physical intimacy that you’re uncomfortable with, let him know that you are. If he doesn’t understand, he isn’t worth it. If your friends and family accuse you of overdramatizing and living in the past, tell them with a brave face that it is a part of who you are and standing up for yourself isn’t overreaction. Don’t be a man hater, not all men in the world will take advantage of you. It is illogical to blame the male species for what happened to you. But be proud of being a feminist, you deserve all the rights that you fight for. But don’t use your experiences as a pity bait. Trust yourself for being good at what you do.
To my dear teenage girls, you do not have to be in physical contact with your abuser for it to tantamount to sexual abuse. If a boy texts you demandingly and sends you inappropriate texts and threatens you into complying with his orders, it is considered harassment. It is YOUR body and YOU own it. You do not owe anybody any part of it. Ever. Any time that you feel insecure and impended on, tell someone about it. Talk to people you trust, because there is always a way out. There is always a decision that you can make and be contented with at the same time.
Just promise me that the next time you’re whistled at on the streets, you’ll set that bastard right. The next time a man squishes next to you on the bus, don’t apologise for not moving. If you ever feel that your integrity has been stripped and you have been reduced to a dirty being, just know that only you can wash away the pain and the debris and rise stronger from the ashes.
My lovely ladies, you are all forest fires. You can either let ruthless men douse your flame or you can show them the intensity of your blaze. The choice is up to you.