I was at a guy-friend’s place in New Delhi, with his friends, when the paranoia first hit me. We were metaphorically high on good stuff and it was new for me to be an outsider in the company of unknown people in that state. My entire trip was a roller coaster of anxiety, and then I thought I heard someone say, “Man she’s got a rape-face!” as he looked at me, amused. A casual statement like that triggered in me a paranoia that knocked my breath out and left me feeling like I was going to be preyed upon by the men there. That’s what I remember from that day – a sense of humiliation at being seen terrified of something that does terrify me to no end – the imminent, omnipresent threat of physical, sexual violence in its crudest form.
My first and the most hard-hitting thoughts during a trip would generally revolve around being irrationally uncertain of the intentions of the men I happened to be getting baked with, however familiar I was with them – quite natural, considering the brutally misogynistic space we live in. But the paranoia got worse. I remember freaking out, while tripping with my boyfriend once, when I heard some footsteps stop outside the door, followed by the sounds of pictures being taken on a mobile phone. This anxiety eventually seeped into my daily life.
Consequently, I would feel acutely aware of the threat of violence and hatred in the most ordinary of things. While visiting my partner’s place, I noticed a perceptible shift in the gaze and the mannerisms of his neighbours over a period of a few months – whether it was a group of men whispering in Hindi, “It’s the bed mate!” or the nearby chemist once smirking and asking if I needed the i-pill that day. I remember breaking down and wanting to leave everything behind in Delhi at that point of time.
Talking to my flatmate, I realised I am not alone in this. It’s the paranoia that haunts us after having seen two of our close friends go through shocking instances of sexual harassment in the lanes of Vijay Nagar, the part of Delhi I live in. My flatmate and I would wake up with terrible nightmares around that time, but I never had to ask her what it was she had dreamt; there was a silent acceptance of the terror we were both dealing with. Any sound or stray footsteps outside our flat, and we would both sit up, having already talked about the objects we would use to hit an intruder if we had to. Yet another night, while talking of getting a lock for the fence outside our door was when I could finally validate this paranoia, in her presence.
I live in a perpetual fear of something terrible happening, whether it’s the fear of being targeted with water balloons during the festival of Holi, or the fear of being raped or killed, when outside after the evening hours. There’s a fear of walking on the streets and being noticed by men as I adjust the neckline of my clothes. There is a fear of abortion of a foetus conceived without consent that wakes me up from my sleep in cold sweat. But there is so much more that cannot be written down. And I know that most women have felt this fear, in one form or the other.
We live such gendered lives! So much of what I live through, experience, think, and want is, in direct as well as in very complex, intricate ways, dictated to me by my gender AND my sex. I face the consequences of being a woman AND having a female’s body every living second, and how! I have been living like this for so long, but only after experiencing that paranoia, could I begin to comprehend how exhausting it is to live with this gender, despite the privileges I enjoy. Being a cisgender woman, I cannot even begin to imagine the kind of fears and anxieties that people of trans-gender or non-binary identities must have to face!
It is so important to raise our voices against this discrimination. It is important to talk about the intensity of what women feel because of certain gestures that some people find insignificant or funny. A lot of general anxiety that the individuals of under-privileged genders suffer from is often triggered by the inherent violence and the sense of entitlement that some men exhibit and possess over the women’s bodies, which many a times dictates a huge chunk of women’s quality of living. Our mental health, to a huge extent, is defined by our genders, and the way the external world wants to claim and threaten our bodies.
These fears have been voiced by many before me. The threat of violation is very real for many women, and those in privileged positions need to know this. Many women are afraid of men, and are being called hysterical for it, and that is extremely problematic. Men need to recognise the privilege they have over women, and people need to understand how such dynamics work across class, caste, race and gender.
It is the invisible, insignificant, every-day problems and disparities that make up the lived experience of one half of the people of the world. Wouldn’t it be wise to understand these signs and work at effectively addressing this issue with as much detail as we can?