I moved to Pune as a 25-year-old in July 2013. Being born and brought up in Delhi, Pune was the first city outside of Delhi I was going to call home for the next two years. So, when I landed, I was nervous, scared, excited, and I wanted to socialise. Talk to almost everyone I’d meet, even if they spoke only Marathi and no Hindi or English. A regular conversation in the first few days would sound something like this:
“So you are new in Pune. Where are you from?”
“Delhi!,” I would reply with an enthusiasm.
“Delhi. Oh, Delhi is so unsafe for women. Should be named rape-capital instead of national capital after the Nirbhaya case.”
I would do my best to defend stating Delhi is safe, my family and friends live there, and it’s just a myth propagated by media. However, instead, I’d suddenly feel stereotyped – as someone who smokes, drinks alcohol often, and is abusive and disrespectful towards women. A potential rapist, perhaps. Exactly seven months before, a young woman (referred to as Nirbhaya) on the night of December 16, 2012, was beaten, gang-raped, tortured to the limits of atrocity. To the extent that when she was taken to the hospital, her intestines were hanging out of her vagina. She died a painful death eleven days later, and the whole nation was outraged with protests and demand for women’s rights and safety in the nation’s capital. One convict died and four were sentenced to death five years later. A juvenile, the sixth participant, was set free in 2015 after a three-year sentence.
As an adult male, who probably doesn’t groom himself as per societal standards and is pretty shy and timid by nature, I’ve had a hard time since then. Suddenly, the energy of the public transport system changed, women were on high alert, and I knew I was seen as a prospective rapist when I walk out on streets with my messy hair and an unkempt beard. The rules of society had changed overnight, and for me, it was like walking in a jungle with bears. Bears are scared of humans thinking that they may harm them. Humans are scared of bears, what if they attack?
It has been a pretty similar scenario. Where women, in general, were apprehensive of possible sexual misconduct, I was equally traumatised by the thought of an accidental encounter where I would be wrongly convicted of sexual harassment. Decisions in current times are not made in courts, but on TVs, newspaper and social media. I stayed in a hostel in Pune and used to work late at a lab three-kilometres away. I would often walk back to the hostel at two or three in the night. Many times, I was offered a lift on scooter by vehicles passing by. I began to feel safe again in Pune when I saw a young woman providing a lift to a stranger like me at that hour. That restored faith in society to a certain extent that there is a place where girls move about fearlessly and trust men. But, that didn’t last long enough when I returned home.
This fear had its roots. My cousin, who I grew up with and respected, was accused of molestation with false charges on my return with a demand for money in exchange. He owns a store with fragile Chinese products for children that often come with no warranty. This woman wanted to exchange a damaged toy after months of purchase, that had no warranty liabilities. As per the policy, the claim was denied but, only after a heated argument. Later that night, my cousin was arrested on charges of sexual misconduct with that woman. What was surprising in this case, her husband, family and children were the witnesses. In an offline conversation, they demanded two million rupees to rollback the complaint, which was later settled at a million.
His fault? He is a man, comes from a respected family, owns a business that primarily runs on the goodwill that his father had earned over four decades. He was alone in the store with no one to speak in his defence. But, that’s just my story. I’m scared of doing anything which might offend anyone and stay alert to protect myself from any false accusations. However, in the current wave of neo-feminism, I confess I feel threatened when I walk on streets. So, that makes me contemplate is there a place safe for anyone? For men, women or other genders to just be?
Home, yes that’s the safest place. But, no said my friend Supreet Dhiman. In her research, she questioned, “Is your home safe from abuse?” Sadly, NO was the answer. In so-called Indian-values ridden society, it’s almost a crime to talk about incest, but somehow it seems okay when it happens to someone in a family. Since sexual contact in such a case is often achieved without overt physical force, there may be no obvious signs of physical harm.
Whether or not the signs of abuse are physically visible, sexual abuse in a family can have lifelong consequences. I did hear some horrifying tales from Supreet when she mentioned, “The silence around incest is the key to its existence. A few months ago a 47-year-old son was booked for raping his 70-year-old widowed mother in Punjab. In another case, a 10-year-old girl gave birth after being raped by not one, but two of her maternal Uncles in Chandigarh.”
I’m baffled on how to fix this problem. Some might call #MeToo campaign a tremendous success when it successfully generated millions of tweets across the world within a few weeks showcasing the unity of men and women joining hands and voicing some of the most horrifying incidents of their lives. Many (including me) questioned the impact that this might bring to create a social change and reduce sexual abuse. Talking about victimization doesn’t remove victimisation from our society. Some even called it another western keyboard activism that will eventually meet the fate of a balloon.
Five years after Nirbhaya case, how much has the nation progressed? Reported cases in Delhi pertaining to “assault on a woman with intent to outrage her modesty” (under Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code) have increased by 473% from 727 in 2012 to 4,165 in 2016, said a news report. Because of our blatant tendency for victim-blaming, I believe that a vast majority of cases still go unreported. So, unfortunately, it won’t be shocking if the real statistics for 2016 climb to over 50,000 just for Delhi. So many versions of the Nirbhaya case have been repeated against women across age groups in different geographical locations in the past five years that it has made me really heartbroken.
Recently, a Delhi University student was sexually harassed by a 50-year-old man in a moving bus, a few kilometres away from where Nirbhaya was brutally assaulted, half-a-decade ago. In the middle of the day, this man had no fear in exposing his junk under a school bag, touch the girl inappropriately with his elbow and masturbate in a moving bus, with dozens of other passengers around him. What gave him so much confidence that he was sure he could easily get away with it?
She was brave enough to voice herself, but became yet another voice that was left unheard. Rather, as per her statement, she was repeatedly asked by the offender that if she had a problem, she could leave the bus. She did capture the disgusting act on mobile camera and made it public later, but failed to receive any support from co-passengers or even the police, who took seven hours to file an FIR. Is sexual harassment so normalised? This man is probably still out there moving around freely, probably attempting to harass someone else.
When I keep my anger, sadness and empathy aside, and look at all of these events with a perspective of logic, social reasoning and psychology, a part of me argues that we live in a society where relations are often established online by a right swipe on a mobile app. Love and compassion are losing the meaning. Is society evolving faster than we imagined? So much so that we are failing to keep up the pace, and mutual sexual harassment is just okay and in vogue? Sexual encounters while being intoxicated (a state when no consent could possibly be given) is another behaviour that is slowly getting normalised. However, I feel, the roots lie deep in one’s childhood, upbringing, family, friends and first contacts.
My first introduction to sex was through no sex education class, but by landing on a pornographic website with a Google search term “snow aurora USA” and autocomplete on a public computer in an internet cafe. There began a dark exploration of what pornographic images and videos have showcase about male dominance, outrageous exploitation of female bodies with so much of gore and violence that I was scared to visit the website again, but somehow I did out of curiosity. I thought that was real. That’s what the society was based on, like masculine dominance, seeking pleasure from exercising their power on someone, torturing others, being strong and abusive.
At that time, I thought, I would never be able to achieve that being 4 feet and a couple of inches tall, and barely weighing 45 kg. But, that’s what I saw in my family and neighbourhood. I had more privilege than my sister about what I could do, wear, or where I could visit without permission. I had seen or at least heard of my distant relatives or their friends been scolded or beaten up for petty reasons by their drunk husbands. I always questioned myself, was that okay? As a 14-year-old I had enough sense to know, NO IT WAS NOT! But, I would always wonder – why was no one talking about it? In those conversations I would promise myself, I will never be like those men.
Truth is, we are all potential sex offenders. The only difference between you or me and an actual sex offender is our value systems – our childhood, our fantasies, our realisation of self, and knowing what’s right. Sex offenders are not born. They are created, nurtured and eventually brought into existence by the society. Whether it’s India or elsewhere the primary construct of society is power. Since birth, we are witness to silent examples of exercising power, a dominance that our brain learns subconsciously every day. Most importantly during childhood.
The power of the husband over wife, mother over the child, mother-in-law over the mother, uncles over their spouses (or vice versa), brother over sister, grandparents over grandchildren and so on. The brain is programmed to seek and exercise power wherever possible, as probably that is the whole aim of existence. Then we grow a little older and suddenly come to the most baffling realisation that our bodies are different from each other that, comes to play. A primary deciding factor in the role men and women play in the society.
A boy playing with a girl suddenly becomes a laughing matter, and the two sexes are divided into larger groups that seldom truly interact healthily. Since they do not communicate at a more profound compassionate level, there is no mutual sense of respect. Then we enter teenage where again no one teaches us the importance of consent. To end our inquisition, we reach out to the most accessible thing – the internet and eventually the fascinating world of pornography. We learn and subconsciously weave stories in our heads, which is actually far from the truth.
We all love villains in movies, don’t we? We are often floored by a strong antagonist character in movies because they are strong, charismatic, cool and can do whatever they can with their life. Our hero is always the man of struggle, miseries, losses – all that is the actual living out of that screen. When these strong fantasies overpower our conscience, and brain feels the time is right, we surrender to those anxieties and desires and commit the act of sexual assault to seek that pleasure of exercising power only to realise; it was not real.
This brings us to the million dollar question – who is actually responsible for the sexual offence in the first place? The girl who was just being herself, wearing what she likes, doing what she would love to do at any given time of a day and probably minding her own business. Or is it a man who in his own way has been a victim of the society for the longest time. After all, we do expect men to be the providers of the family, strong, unemotional, powerful at all times.
No amount of strict punishment has helped in combatting the endemic problem of sexual assault because it is so ingrained in the fabric of our society. That a man can get what he wants and a woman isn’t allowed to say no.
Parenting has to evolve; relationships have to evolve, our method of communication has to evolve, education has to evolve. Importantly, the structure of society has to evolve. This is a complicated feedback process and not a pipeline circuit with individual valves. If we keep on repairing the final valve, expecting clean drinking water while the inlet of the repaired valve is damaged, we’ll never get clean water. Everything is interconnected, nothing works in isolation.
I do realise, being a male I was provided undue privileges that I never asked for, however, I am equally vulnerable to some of the same things women are discriminated against. But at a different level and extent which often is colder and more subtle. After all that, I am here to say that I am a man. But, I am not a rapist.