“Akeli na bazaar jaya karo, nazar lag jayegi! (Do not go out alone, or you will be met with evil stares and a bad fortune!)”
A popular Bollywood song of the late 90s depicts how the mainstream rationale of our common consciousness paints a woman and her mobility with blatant misogyny, and a proud exhibition of patriarchy which is often termed as ‘protection’.
Recently, a post of Shubh Laxmi, an activist with the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), narrating her daily life of fear and insecurity, and the irresponsible response from a BJP minister (where the political affiliation of the victim is used for blaming her), went viral and raised questions not only about India’s much cherished idea of ‘women empowerment’, but also on the basic sensitivity that people expect from their elected representatives. In her Facebook post, the Jorhat girl gave a chilling commentary on how she was molested on a public road by some local hooligans and the victim’s helplessness. The familiarity of such an incident among the citizens of Assam created a massive outrage across Assam. Not only SFI, common students and intellectuals with or without banners also came down to the streets demanding an institutional mechanism and sensitisation to stop sexual harassment.
The incident which Shubh Laxmi posted is not something really unusual for me. She wrote:
“They come under the cover of darkness, their faces hidden behind their masks. They come in bikes, at immense pace, I try to move to the side of road but they follow me, they fondle my breasts and drive away. I freeze and stand blank out there thinking what happened just now. It feels like the sting of a caterpillar. I return to my room. They come under the cover of darkness, their faces hidden behind their masks. I try to move to the side of the road but they follow me. This time I wear the bag in front instead of the back. They come closer to me and pressed my butt. I again freeze and stand blank out there thinking what happened just now. It pricks like the thorns. This time I don’t wait for darkness to prevail. I return without completing my work. I come by 4 P.M. I feel like, “someone please save me”. They have come today also. Someone speaks in my ear, ” will… you. Will… you. Till… widens”. Today I try to rip them off. But in seconds, they disappear. I puked today. My room is in DCB Road, Jorhat. I walk by this road. I am sexually and mentally harassed to such an extent that I feel like locking myself in the room. I am totally irritated. Till now, this type of incident has happened to me about four times. Not only me, most of the girls who pass by this road are harassed. No girl travels alone by this road, after 6 P.M. I know I can do nothing by posting this on Facebook. But after whatever happened today, I feel very much insecure. I am terribly angry and on the other hand, I am scared. I fear, will they tear me apart someday??”
For women who come out of their homes for education or employment, women who travel in public transport, women who live away from their families, these incidents are routine. Yes, such events happen to us everyday! Men of different ages coming uncomfortably close trying to see as much as possible between the little gap of your clothes and skin, making gestures, touching our body-parts, passing lurid comments are occurrences that are common enough. Furthermore, if given a chance, we invite the risk of suffering the most horrific behaviour imaginable from such men.
A recent survey by Action Aid UK shows that four out of five girls get sexually harassed in our country. The total count can be bigger than the data available with the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), as many cases of molestation and sexual harassment in our county go unreported for different reasons.
One of these reasons, definitely, is the social pressure or the ‘log kya kahenge (what will people say)’ syndrome. In this syndrome, more than the crime, the idea that ‘victimhood’ will bring shame to you and your family often restrict girls from coming out with complaints. The remarks of the minister, where he asked Shubh Laxmi to file a complaint with the police and also criticised her public post, hence show the discomfort that most men in general, and especially ‘ultra-nationalist’ men believing in something akin to the Sangh Parivar ideology, feel when woman come out and speak against patriarchal oppression.
I am not questioning the need for a police complaint which the minister suggested. However, I want to point out the greater necessity of reclaiming and restructuring the public spaces – spaces that either remain silent or are excessively prone to slut-shaming in these cases. Like period-blood and sex, molestation too remains a close secret that is meant to be kept inside. Even if you share it with your closest family member, the discussion has to be a ‘private’ one. Besides, the immediate suggestion that will generally be made is to forget the incident and not speak about it to anyone else.
As a child I was abused, but it took me five years to realise this. I also gathered the courage to speak to my mom. I used to think that I was the only one who went through such an experience – the only one whose innocent body was violated repeatedly by lusty men. I thought I was alone, as nobody ever spoke about such incidents – definitely not my friends, or my sisters, younger or elder. Naturally, I also never opened up. This was mainly due to the fear that I would be bringing ‘disgrace’ upon myself and my body if I spoke up – a sentiment which I later realised is shared by so many others.
This feeling of individual ‘disgrace’ is further compounded by the fact that often we feel that it is a ‘fault’ in our bodies or within ‘ourselves’ that has led to this ‘disgrace’. This also leads to a deep sense of helplessness. In Shubh Laxmi’s narration too, we see the same traits – those of helplessness and defeat.
But as I grew older, and come to know more and more women of my age. I also realised that I had not met a single woman so far who hasn’t been molested, or gone through an experience of harassment either in the public sphere or in their intimate relationships. No, it was not ‘only me’! It was ‘all of us’!
When it comes to harassers, the range is really wide. They maybe strangers, passers-by, commuters, shopkeepers, teachers, friends, a friend’s boyfriend, boyfriends, uncles, brothers even fathers. All of them have different degrees of intervention in your personal space. Yet, all of them share a similar perception about a woman’s body. The first section of the list see women stepping out as ‘easy targets’ or ‘more accessible’ ones. People who comment in busses and metros – “take a cab, if you are so troubled” – should not forget that we all belong to the same tribe.
The mobility of women outside their domestic boundaries threatens their ‘pre-occupied’ social space of men. The idea of equality makes harassers more vindictive. Thus they justify their actions as women having to pay the ‘price’ for the freedom that they enjoy – “Bus me chaloge to itna to hoga hi (If you are travelling by bus, you are expected to suffer this much!)”.
The latter section on the other hand, are a byproduct of the feudal structure. This section believes that by virtue of the fact of being a man in the house, the woman will always be subservient to him. Old novels depicting that era openly describe stories of young widows who were molested, raped and even killed by the older men of the family. With the long legacy of classical patriarchy, men see women inside their households to be labour and reproductive units. They will provide domestic services, sexual pleasures and children according to the choices of men.
When I say all this, I am not trying to pit men ‘against’ women. Practically speaking, women also played an important role in retaining the rotten patriarchal structure by oppressing their own gender. Many customs that are meant to keep the male dominance intact are aggressively preached by women themselves – in the name of honour, protection, and sometimes, in the name of safety. Our parents tell us (if you are girl) about maintaining a ‘certain distance’ while mingling with people. The logic is that if you want to be ‘safe’, it’s better that you get the ‘least exposure’. This thought-process has become so naturalised that we think that we are accountable every time we step out into the open. Society will not take responsibility for any eventualities – as if it is my breast which is the source of the problem and not the mentality of the offender!
Today, when girls like Shubh Laxmi show courage in speaking out in public which has led to a spontaneous support from young girls, who took to the streets in her support – it is interesting to see the reactions of the political class. Mr. Patowadi is not a lone example. Earlier too, different politicians publicly blamed woman for ‘inviting’ assaults on themselves, and derogatory comments were passed. An example would be the recent incident of the Bengaluru mass molestation, where a MP from the Samajwadi Party said, “shakkar giri to chitiya ayegi hi (If there is sugar, ants will inevitably gather)”. So women like sugar should be put inside boxes, or, like a friend of his spoke – “should be parked inside the house like cars to avoid molestation!”
The first woman Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banarjee, is also not far behind. She alleged that the Park Street rape survivor was putting a false charge of rape to ‘malign’ the current government. An MP from the same party, Tapas Pal, threatened that he would send men for raping in the houses of members of the Opposition. All of them, even though belonging to different political parties, represent the same patriarchal mindset, and display the same deeply grown misogyny.
Today, as a woman political activist, I feel that the gender discourse inside the mainstream political arena has remained extremely narrow and conservative, where women’s issues are treated only from the perspectives of reservation, hygiene and sanitation and safety. Making ‘girls’ toilets’ in schools alone does not cure the problem of hygiene, unless she stops considering herself ‘impure’ during her menstrual days. Employing security forces or CCTVs alone does not help, until the police stop judging a girl for her ‘late night movements’ or her ‘western clothes’. A reservation that only measures the numerical percentage and does not ensure the participation of women in decision making, is not going to change the scary picture that we see all around.
The political class of our country has to learn their lessons from the century-old Nangeli, a Dalit woman who cut off her breasts in protest of the reactionary ‘breast tax’ that was imposed against Dalit women in Travancore. We should not forget that there are martyrs like Pritilata Waddedar who fought the British along with Masterda Surya Sen in the hills of Chittagaon, Captain Laxmi Sahgal who stood tall as a leader of the Azad Hind Fauz along with Subhash Chandra Bose, and Matangini Hajra who took the bullet on her chest while fighting the imperialist forces.
The lives of Rosa Luxemburg and Klara Zetkin taught us to see things in their ‘dependency’. Liberation for women has to be achieved along with the liberation from the capitalist and feudal forces, as these ideologies in their different forms had appropriated the female body, enslaved them and in the end, turned it into a ‘profitable commodity’. The slogans of gender justice will fall hollow if we do not address the intricate class and caste questions, where the ‘immediate identities’ of backward women make the possibility of a life of dignity even harder. Mere representation will give us nothing in return – if we do not ponder upon the ideologies and politics that the individual or the group stands for.
The battle that Shubh Laxmi has taken up by speaking up, the justice that is yet to be given to Jisha, Delta, Dika, Suzette and millions of those whose names we do not know – these struggles will only get their victories when we break our shackles inside, irrespective of our gender. Also, we must stand by what the truth is, and only then will the existing hierarchy of power fall from inside. Only then can we hope that a future of mutual respect and equal rights will emerge!