Not very often do we encounter things that are both heartbreaking yet heartwarming at the same time. Today was surprisingly one such day.
With posts pouring in from all over with the now trending hashtag #MeToo, most of us are in awe of the wonderful strength that people, irrespective of their gender, are displaying by speaking up about the assault that they have faced. It was endearing to read posts by some of my male friends who acknowledged that they too have faced sexual harassment. I have a brother, so I know how difficult it is for men to speak up about this.
I didn’t know why but I was thanking each one of them while reading their posts. Some of my friends also accepted how knowingly or unknowingly, they have been enablers or a part of the harassment caused to someone, by simply keeping quiet, for having endorsed ‘socially engineered’ gender roles or for laughing at rape/ misogynist/ homophobic jokes, etc.
I have been an enabler myself. I remember having forwarded misogynist jokes that objectify women or men. I remember laughing at a rape joke back when I was in the first year of my college. I remember not speaking up when a sexist comment was passed by one of my friends. I was suddenly so ashamed of myself. These posts made me see myself in a new light. They made me agree that I have been a part of the problem too.
While constantly relating to the ‘enabler’ posts, I was trying very hard to avoid the other aspect of the posts – the fact that people were accepting how they were sexually assaulted at some point in life. Maybe because that reminded me of events in the past that I pretend to not remember or maybe I was influenced by the status updates of some women on my friend list, who stated that saying ‘me too’ would make no sense if the person saying it has been an enabler as well.
I realized that both the things (being harassed and being the harasser) are products of patriarchy. Finally, I knew that the posts not only made me meet the harasser in me, but also the part of me that was harassed. After reading what so many wonderful people were and are sharing, I got the courage to say ‘Me Too’, too.
I took to Facebook and posted this-
“At the age of seven and when I was barely eleven
Also, as a teenager.
At buses and trains.
At footpaths and lanes
Even after adulthood came
Knocking at my gates
Things didn’t change.
Sometimes mammary glands or sometimes clothes or sometimes smile or sometimes gender or even manicured nails
Yes, they’ve all faced the blame!
To anyone who doesn’t belong to this gender binary game.
Irrespective of sexuality
Irrespective of age
Irrespective of the fact that you may belong to the same family name
It’s scary yet true.
After pressing enter, I felt so brave that I decided I wasn’t ready to see what people would say so I turned off my laptop and went to sleep. But I woke up to immense love and appreciation. The internet can sometimes be the most loving place! But suddenly it dawned on me that I had not changed my privacy settings which meant that my parents must have read my post too.
Usually, I don’t hide anything I share on social media from them. Yet, I felt the urgent need to not let them read it. I was uncomfortable with the idea of them finding out that their daughter, who they have for the longest time tried to protect has faced sexual assault too. But it was too late to change my privacy settings.
My mother walked in. I knew she had tears in her eyes. I somehow didn’t make any eye contact with her. She asked me what happened at the age of seven. I tried to avoid looking at her. I smiled. Looked away. But she kept staring at me.
I narrated the incident that happened when I was probably in class 1 or class 2 and we were travelling by the Rajdhani Express to New Delhi from Guwahati. There was a very friendly attendant who was being very nice to us. Sometime during the day, my mother had asked me to go call the attendant for something that I don’t remember now, and I went to him, and right before I turned, this very friendly attendant who I called ‘Bhaiya’ throughout (before and after the incident) pressed my chest – or to put it correctly, my ‘non-existent’ breast. It hurt. I didn’t understand what happened then. I came back and perhaps slept it off.
There was an unnerving silence in my room. After a pause, my mother asked me about what happened when I was eleven. I told her, “Oh I was trying to rhyme eleven with seven, nothing happened.” But she insisted. So I told her something that happened when I was probably in class 5 or class 6 when she and I went somewhere in a crowded bus.
She got a seat in the front, and I was standing. There were a lot of people between us, suddenly the conductor, or maybe one of the passengers, pressed my ‘still getting formed’ breast and I think also pinched my butt. Before I could make sense of what happened, my mother found a seat for me next to her and asked me to sit. I kept quiet. Ever since that day I feared getting on the bus, to the point that my mother would scream at me and call me a spoiled kid.
As I finished narrating this, I told her, “this is the reason why I always hated to take the bus, not because I was snobbish.” I could see tears form in her eyes. She asked me why did I not tell her about both the incidents when they happened. I told her that I didn’t know what had happened. I found out years later. She said I should have told her and she would have slapped that man, whoever he was.
Suddenly that statement made me feel so good. But I could still see she was sad. Maybe she was disappointed with me for not having confided in her all these years. I knew it was something bigger than that. She perhaps felt disappointed that both the incidents happened in her presence. I wanted to tell her that she needn’t feel sorry, that she is not to be blamed. That she has been an excellent parent. But we don’t share the culture of talking about all this at home.
She went back to her room after running her hand over my head. After she left, I asked myself, why did I never go and tell her what the attendant or the conductor did? I knew the answer. That is because my intuition at both the instances told me that what happened is ‘wrong’ but my parents never spoke to my brother and me about this ‘wrong’ thing.
As far as I remember, none of my teachers in school ever talked about it as well. I studied in a reputed convent in Guwahati, known for its brilliance! Yet instead of talking about sex education, the ‘reproduction’ chapter was conveniently ignored and focus was and still is on the length of our skirts and socks, often making the girls feel that the length of their school skirt defines their sense of decency and shame. My school didn’t even have a single class on sex education of any kind, not even the one where they teach kids what is a ‘good touch’ and what is a ‘bad touch’.
To make it worse, my mother never told me that either. So when these incidents took place when I was a child, I didn’t know how my parents would react because they never discussed it or said something like, “Hey if someone touches you in a wrong way, we will slap them, ok? Tell us if that happens, we are with you and we will together teach that person a lesson!”
As much as I didn’t want to blame my mother, I knew I was blaming her. But then I realised that it wasn’t her fault either! Even she didn’t grow up in a family where parents were open about sex education or where parents or teachers spoke about ‘good or bad touch’. Long ago, my mother told me how when she was in school she went to an old teacher for tuition and that teacher kissed her on her cheek one day and after that, she never went to him. She told me this when I was in class 8 or class 9 and I didn’t understand why she was telling me that but today I know the answer.
She told me this because she assumed I wouldn’t understand (which I didn’t), but she wanted to share it with someone, even if it meant sharing it after almost 20 years. Even she did not grow up in a culture where she could have gone to her mother and shared this. So even if she wanted to, she didn’t know how to do that with her children. So I knew she is not to be blamed, at all. Mummy, I hope when you read this, you know you have been the best mother and what your teacher did to you was wrong.
I am sure that had I told my mother what happened to me, she wouldn’t have remained silent and would have surely helped me. I know that the fact that I know this, matters. I should mention here how once when my brother was in primary school, he came home and complained about how his bench-mate touched his private parts in class.
There was a confusion in the way he spoke about it because he didn’t really understand what had happened. My mother went to his school the following day and complained about it and the mother of that classmate of his was called. She apologised for her son’s actions and blamed her husband for it, while casually mentioning that he did this to his son quite often, so the son must have been influenced by his father. The mother made it sound like a ‘normal’ thing for a father to do.
Later this matter ended, my brother’s seat was changed and nobody really spoke about it in our house. My brother and I talk about it sometimes, but more than often, we laugh it off. Another instance is when I told my brother how a man tried to grope me at Bandra Station last year (2016), he told my mother about it. She called me and told me that I should have made a huge scene and shouted at the man. She said, “These men get scared if you make their actions public.” I felt a sense of relief when I heard my mother say that to me.
There is a tendency in parents to assume that their children cannot be sexually harassed, it is always someone else’s child, not theirs. They think they are protecting them enough. But not talking about sex and sexual harassment isn’t protecting your child. It is only making it worse for them to come up to you and talk about something that they or their friends must have faced.
It is severely wrong for schools to not have a class on sex-education or for making it look like a huge deal. Sex isn’t discussed as a normal topic, so even when we do have a class on that (which I did when I was in class 12, in a different school), we laugh and giggle, stare at each other or ask irrelevant questions – mostly take it as a joke. We did all of the above because let’s be real by the time we are in class 12, most of us almost know about it. I am still grateful that we had a session on this since ‘protected sex’ was talked about but nobody spoke about sexual harassment.
If I look back, I wish the teacher/ counselor had spoken about it and it would have been so comforting and helpful if they added- “Hey if ever you are sexually assaulted, come to us, we are with you, we will support you, we will help you, we will stand by you because you are not at fault. The person doing it is wrong and we will make sure she/ he is punished.” Alas! That never really happened.
So as I continue reading all the ‘MeToo’ posts, and I see how brave my fellow humans are. I hope, teachers and parents talk about it. I hope when a seven-year-old is being sexually harassed, she can go up to her mother and tell her what happened. Or an eleven-year-old could go to her teacher and share what the conductor did to her. Or even better, can have the knowledge that they can stand up to their abuser and slap them right there, fearlessly. Because abusers know that kids wouldn’t know what they are doing to them is wrong and they take advantage of that.
I am glad I took up social sciences and got to study gender in college because of which throughout my teenage life and even beyond, whenever I was catcalled, eve-teased, touched in a wrong manner, I stood up and didn’t remain silent about it. Knowledge of the matter gave me power, made me fearless. I had professors who told us we could go to them whenever we face any harassment and that gave me strength.
Why have Committee Against Sexual Harassment (CASH) only in colleges? We need that in schools too, I know a few schools already have it and I wish the schools I studied in consider having one as well. Above all, I wish sex education becomes a part of our school curriculums, and no not only in high school but also in primary schools. We can always start by teaching our kids what a bad touch is! And parents, please talk to your kids about it as well, so they don’t need a ‘MeToo’ campaign to open up.