By Saumya Sunder:
Editor’s note: Over 92% of women in India experience some form of harassment, yet, we hesitate to speak up. To help create safe spaces for conversations around these experiences, Youth Ki Awaaz and Breakthrough India have come together to encourage more individuals to speak out and support one another. The piece below is a part of this collaboration. We ask people everywhere to come, #StandWithMe.
A young colleague of mine, Rahul (name changed), said to me one day with excitement, “You know she smiles at me when she sees me. She likes me.” I realised he was talking about this girl in our office. I first broke it to him (with some funny banter) that she was ‘taken’. But that did not seem to deter his impressions of her ‘liking’ for him.
Feeling a bit unsettled at his perception of an innocent smile, I asked him how exactly does a girl smiling at you, translates into her having feelings for you? I also broke it to him that, I, as a lady smile at men in my office, too. But it’s not an invitation. Just a simple gesture, the equivalent of a non-verbal “Hey, how are you doing today?”. Rahul’s answer shattered my sense of logic. “No, you get to know as a man that a smile is a liking for you,” he said.
Post my conversation with Rahul, I headed back home to what felt like a long journey. I avoided eye contact with strangers in supermarkets, buses, everywhere. I hesitated to smile because it worried me that they, too, will perceive it as “line maar rahi hai” (she’s hitting on me).
It reminded me of this time when a boy in my school spread a rumour that I had a crush on him because I would smile whenever I saw his face. I was so embarrassed to hear of it from my friends and felt so angry for being stuck with this “swooning” 14-year-old girl label, just for smiling at a friendly face!
It was after that incident, that I first stopped smiling back at people. My male friends used to call me “khadoos” because I wouldn’t return their smiles. Why would I, when I know that my smile could be misunderstood?
A couple of days back I was horrified to read about the rape of a woman who had a speech and hearing impairment. The offender claimed that she would smile at him whenever he went to the biometric machine. According to him, this was a “sign”. How on earth can anyone mistake a smile for an invitation to love, stalk or rape, still beats my understanding? I don’t know if this requires women to walk like the living dead with no rights to emotive expressions whatsoever!
As I sat in my auto, I wondered, what’s with this primitive judgemental thinking? I shudder at the thought that as a girl smiles innocently, the beholder of that smile is hatching an evil plan in their minds, to harm her! Why is a girl’s smile perceived as having sexual undertones by some? Why do they fail to understand that a girl’s smile is non-verbal communication, meaning “Hello” or “Hey, I am having a good day today”.
I think it is necessary to educate the society, in general, about the fact that a woman’s smile is just that, a smile. Making this shift doesn’t start elsewhere but from one’s home. Maybe then, smiles in the future will translate to “Hasi toh, zaroori nahi ki phasi!” (if she smiles, it does not mean she has fallen for you).
If you’d like to share your own experiences – from dealing with everyday sexism and gender stereotyping, to period shaming, harassment and abuse , do share your stories using #StandWithMe, and help take this important conversation forward.