Six years ago, an incident woke India up to the sudden realization of the never-ending violence and brutality against women. It was the 16th December gangrape which made the country erupt, evoking a sense of poignancy in one and all. As the immediate aftermath, India saw a marked rise in the reporting of sexual violence. Later on, bills were passed, aimed at lessening the loopholes through which predators escaped the system, or, more often than not, never actually entered.
But honestly, has anything changed? I don’t think so. Not really.
I wasn’t in Delhi when I heard about the Nirbhaya case, nor was I there when all the protests began, and the protesters were laathi-charged at. I was desperate to be a part of them, fight for women and survivors everywhere. But I was also highly triggered. Reading about Nirbhaya, seeing the outcry everywhere unblocked some memories of my own abuse. I remember sitting on a stairwell, crying because that was the moment I had realised that my ex wasn’t the only one who abused me sexually, that there were two other men too. I remember being almost catatonic for a few hours afterwards, trying to associate myself with the victim of gangrape. Even six years later, when I try to come to terms with the fact that I was gang-raped too, I start shaking. My fingers are trembling as I write this.
How many women across the country had a similar reaction? How many women went and hid the way I did, to make sure that no one saw how affected they were with the incident and the subsequent outrage? How many women channelled their terror to anger for the sake of Nirbhaya? The gangrape was about her, and I don’t want to take that away. But the aftermath of that heinous act, brought the country with it, the impact resounding everywhere. The country’s reaction was split between anger, triggered, defensiveness and ambivalence. What’s worse, I wonder: defensiveness or ambivalence? Do you know what’s one of the things I heard WAY TOO OFTEN after Nirbhaya died in the hospital? That it’s good she did not survive, because what life would she have had after being raped?
Amidst the outcry, there were also so many people saying the usual ‘boys will be boys’, and ‘why was she out late at night, especially with a boy’ and all those words we’ve heard all too often. And I was triggered. All my other friends who are survivors were triggered too. Six years later, has anything changed? I really don’t think so.
Earlier this year, I realised that India does not give women the space to be vulnerable. Ever. Some of us are lucky enough to have safe spaces around our friends or family, but none of us can afford to feel completely safe in public and not have that moment taken advantage of. I’ve developed this resting bitch face in life, and when I walk in public spaces, my demeanour says, “I’ll get through whatever comes my way, but not change my gait”. I’ve never had another choice. I either walk by catcalls (read: sexual harassment) without a glance or a couple of middle fingers. It helps that I’m not a short, petite woman. And honestly, I think all of that protects me on the streets because I look like I will fight to defend myself. But every time the guard has dropped, every single time, without fail, there would be a man or men who tried to molest, or follow or, on my lucky days, just cat-call me. I remember one time I was mind-numbingly exhausted as I was leaving a shady metro station, and I was too tired to even pretend to be vigilant. The next thing I know, I was dragged to a dark underpass by two men. It took me a moment to unfreeze, and in that moment, they had my sweater pulled up with their hands down my pants. I let myself be exhausted one day, and I was almost raped. Sure, I unfroze and screamed, fought and eventually scared them off saving myself, but what does that incident and the thousands of similar ones say about our city, our country? What about all the women who aren’t as lucky as I was that night? Six years later, can women be emotional or exhausted or anything but defensive on the streets? Six years later, do you think the mentality of the country has changed? Sometimes I think it has, but for the worse.
The 2012 gangrape incited unending discourse around women’s safety, some of which is still doing the rounds. I’ve had a chance to talk to a lot of men about violence against women in one of my jobs, and every single time I heard the same jargon around ‘western’ clothes, going out late at night, the terrible influence of the internet (mostly on women, though sometimes on men as well), the education system, and the failing law and order system we have. Yes, things like that are extremely commonly still said and worse, believed. Look at what is not mentioned– MEN and gender inequality.
On a positive note, my job also allowed me to help change some mindsets, and I did see some men consider that maybe, just maybe, it was time to look at the commonality of perpetrators, rather than that of victims and survivors. I even saw some of them change not just their beliefs, but also their actions. So maybe a teeny tiny number of people are ready to change. I interacted with hundreds of men, most of whom had extremely limited education and financial resources. These are the men which those with privilege would believe are the most resistant to change, most defensive about their position, and the most to blame for the circumstances. And some of them definitely were defensive and resistant. However, most of the men I spoke to were willing to consider different points of views, happy to be educated about something which could improve the lives of everyone, including them. I can’t say the same about the privileged men I’ve spoken to about similar topics. The problem is that I got to speak to them for a few hours of their lives. I challenged their thoughts for a few hours and then they went back to a lifetime of societal norms and gendered ideas. Maybe for a few weeks or months, they thought about what I had said. But they aren’t social justice warriors. Could I even expect a few hours to turn them into that, and have them argue with every single person who told them to marry their daughter off? To let their daughter be out till whatever time they let their son be out? Could I ask them to be change agents when they are still a minority even willing to consider it? And six years later, is a few hours of gender education enough to tackle the issues which have plagued our society for centuries? Or are we just looking at raindrops and deluding ourselves to believe that they are diamonds?
I’ve also seen governments pointedly ignore violence against women, especially against those who belong to the minority groups. I’ve seen men accused of rape and other gender-based violence take high positions of power in the country, and I’ve heard other men look up to those men as idols, which says a lot about their behaviour. As far as I know, there hasn’t been an obvious support for perpetrators from the ruling government, but the air has changed and the momentum which the country had gained after Nirbhaya is certainly lost. It’s more than clear how little ruling parties care about women, especially survivors. They’re not going to advocate for us, or change things to make our lives slightly less horrifying. And honestly, the movement to make India safer for women has reduced, partially because there are so many issues to raise with these political ‘leaders’.
So six years later, has anything really changed for the better? I’m going with a resounding NOPE. What about six years from now? Six years from now, would we be able to find just one woman in our lives who doesn’t bear the scars of harassment? Six years from now, would it be possible for women to have a moment of vulnerability on the street and not have men look at her as their chance to exert their power? Honestly, I’m not optimistic!
Yet there are some groups, people and organizations across the country which give me a sliver of hope. The momentum from the outcry after 2012 led to multiple gender-sensitisation programs being instituted across the country, and though the government may have stalled that momentum, the youth have kept it up. The last six years have seen a marked rise in projects, and organisations working towards women’s safety and gender equality. I have seen a lot more people, those who I knew as ambivalent before, wake up and try to see how they could be involved. I’ve seen more people apply for gender studies programs and psychology programs than ever before.
Ultimately, the only thing which I see as having long-term impact is gender sensitisation and comprehensive sexual education starting in schools. India doesn’t talk about sex and it doesn’t consider gender. Also, it is legitimately shocking how few of us have any idea about sexual health, consent, safe sex and so forth. It’s so easy for us to be ambivalent and oblivious. What needs to change is that ignorance and it needs to start from children. Schools need to be fighting against the taboo. I understand that expecting sex education might be asking too much of India as it is right now, but we need to start talking about gender with children at the earliest possible ages. I have had many privileges, starting with being exposed to gender conversations at a very early age, and a great education, some of which was international. We’ve brought it back home and engaged our parents, and other relatives in discussions, challenged some of their norms and I can say, without a shred of doubt, that they have all grown because of it. The best part? They’d agree with me too. This is what we need. We need to educate our children to know better so that that seeps into families and societies. Screw the top down approach; we need bottoms up.