By Veda Nadendla:
I don’t feel safe walking by myself on the streets even in broad daylight. Sometimes it’s catcalling and sometimes groping – street harassment is an everyday intruder in my life and in the lives of millions of women in India. It’s the same story everywhere. Walking home from work, a group of young boys approaches, calling out perverse names and whistling. All we do is turn our gaze to the ground, bow our heads and continue to walk. We tell ourselves, ‘I’m going to avoid that street from now’.
How many streets will we avoid? When we are unable to acknowledge, much less speak up about being harassed, how can we expect change?
Just when I was getting restless to open up about my daily devils, but losing hope in ever finding support from the people around me, a golden opportunity presented itself. A workshop conducted by Chennai based organization Schools of Equality in partnership with Stop Street Harassment from Virginia, USA which calls out to people to share their experiences and raise their voice against street harassment. I was excited, for I would finally have the opportunity to talk about my bitter experiences on the streets of Chennai and Delhi. About how no one ever came to help, or even turned around when I raised my voice in rage. I was looking forward to meeting like-minded people who had the desire for change.
Eager and excited, I walked into the workshop, only to find myself alone with the organizers. For half an hour we waited, and wondered, just the three of us – where were the other like-minded individuals? Baffled at the sheer lack of interest in the everyday disrespect for personal space that puts all of us at risk when we set foot outside home; we decided, if it’s people we need then people we will find.
With posters in hand and determined to conquer, we went out onto the streets of Chennai asking people to join us in our quest to stop street harassment. As soon as we set foot outside our venue, irony met us in the form of two men in a jeep, ogling and making lewd gestures. When we asked them to join the workshop, they made an excuse and hastily drove away. All we had to do was raise our voices in unison and the oppression could be stopped; this we realized is the power of conversations for change. Now even more pumped, we recruited four youngsters on their way somewhere, to join us instead. With eight of us joined by two facilitators, the workshop was the best I have attended this past year.
Schools of Equality is a Chennai-based organization that works to inculcate human rights and gender sensitivity in school children through their curriculum and helps enable open discussions in the classroom on such issues. “Infringement on human rights starts so early, education about it should start young as well.” Says Gulika Reddy, Human Rights lawyer and Founder of Schools of Equality. With classrooms spanning multiple age groups, it was observed over seven months of classes that the younger and older children have developed a sense of mutual respect and understanding, allowing more participation and expression. They are compelling children to think for themselves and for humanity.
During the workshop, I myself was able to put myself in the shoes of the harassed and the harasser, in the position of my parents, worried sick for my safety in a world where even taking a cab is not safe anymore. I asked myself, every time someone has touched me or made lewd gestures at me, why didn’t I do anything? I realized that I suffered silently because I assumed no one would stand up for me. Then, I asked myself, would I stand up for someone?
We all blame society for being a bystander, failing to recognize that we too have been a part of that society.
Harassment on the streets will not stop, whether I am wearing a kurta or a tanktop, whether I am on a bike or in a car. But I choose to be a voice for change, not a silent spectator. If there is a visible and pervasive culture of harassment and disrespect towards women, you can create your own visible and pervasive culture of respect. Just speak up.