It happened when I was 10 or maybe 12. If I knew the day and year would have to be consistently recalled for the rest of my life, I might have kept a note somewhere.
Mom had sent me to the market to buy some stuff for home. It is a 3-4 minute walk from my place and I have lived in that area all my life. I bought what I needed, and left for home, with the shopping bag in my right hand and the wallet in my left. I used to go to the market using the main road and come back via the inner lane, much like completing a square. The street was familiar, and it was 6 pm on a summer evening. A bike passed by, the boys on it said something that I did not catch and before I could react, they smacked my butt, laughed in unison and sped away. I stood there, stunned.
It was the early 2000s and I was rather alien to the concept of sexual harassment (unlike kids these days who are way more aware of these realities of life). I did not expect this to happen to me even in the wildest of my dreams. I remember feeling violated, disgusted, angry, ashamed, scared and more. I remember breaking down, crying profusely and running all the way home. I remember narrating the incident to my mother. I remember her comforting arms consoling me, and gradually getting prepared for life as a woman, from that day onward.
Now, I am sure you have questions. And even though I am not obligated to answer any of them or explain myself, I will. You want to ask me why I chose to go back via the inner lane. That is because my school was on the way. As a kid, it was a weird yet fun feeling to pass by my school in the evening. There was a school on that road. There were eateries on that road. There were so many houses on both sides of that road. People were walking their dogs, children were out playing on that very street, friends were taking a stroll, and some were enjoying hanging out at local food joints. It was a normal, busy road on a summer evening.
I was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, I guess. My clothes were not revealing. I was not asking for it. In spite of all this, it happened. It is like there is a check-list of things that have to be in place for a girl, to lower the risk of getting harassed in public. I fulfilled all the criteria in that checklist and was still treated like flesh by two males on a bike in broad daylight. What do you have to say about this? Who will you blame this on? More importantly, why do these questions matter in the first place? Why are girls/women appraised and assessed if they actually qualify as a victim of abuse or if they deserved the inevitable?
This was my first experience of sexual harassment and since then, I have had many more. I am amazed at my inability to express shock at what I write. Maybe because this is what women have to just deal with, in their own ways, if they have to survive. Some retaliate (and usually face dangerous consequences), some ignore and let it go, some others share it with their mothers/sisters/friends and realize they are not alone, while some struggle all by themselves because they are not fortunate enough to live among people who’d understand.
Women worry that their freedom might be snatched, their daily activities curtailed or their independence capped. We all have our own apprehensions and challenges to manage, while we devise mechanisms to live a life where crimes against women are normalized. And honestly, we are complicit in this process. But can you hold us responsible? If we don’t accept it as a part of our lives, some girls will lose out on basic education, some will be married off and transferred to a man as a liability, some may not get a chance to take up their dream job.
In extreme cases, some will be quietened through acid attacks, rapes, social boycott and more. We know we cannot depend on the law for justice. We know our society harbour perpetrates and reinstates regressive stereotypes that label us as the weaker gender. We know patriarchy, sexism, misogyny are not just fancy words but foundation stones of our rather imperfect worlds. Would you expect every single one of us to put our lives, our bodies, our careers at stake by objecting to this normalization? Is this entitlement justified on your part? From a very tender age, girls are taught to “learn to live with it”. We have to learn to live with whatever happens with us every single day.
From eve-teasing and inappropriate gestures in schools, colleges and public spaces, to sexual harassment at the workplace, to sexist jokes by male friends, to beating marks by the husband, to acid burns, to rapes by men who couldn’t handle rejection, to dowry deaths, we are asked to learn to live with it all. Because this is how society is. Because our mothers, grandmothers, and great grandmothers also lived with it. Because you know what? Boys will be boys.
Yesterday, I came across a tweet by an apparently highly educated PhD from a university of repute (going by his Twitter and LinkedIn bios) that said that while men should not objectify women, women should also not objectify themselves and provoke men by being half-naked or dressing provocatively, and women need to stop complaining about crimes they actually cause.
Let’s call this guy Dr D. With one toxic tweet, he represented the very society we live in. I considered having an argument with him, hoping that he might understand. But when I called him out on his deplorable views, Dr D compared me to Shurpnakha and Tadka, and lamented over the fact that I wasn’t more like Sita, Mandodari or Kunti, clarifying how there are both good and bad women and since I fell in the latter category, he had to point it out.
He then went on to tell me how I am a disgrace to my culture while justifying his stance of men having no choice but to get seduced if women wear inappropriate clothing or post revealing pictures on the internet. I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation with a man of his credentials, in 2020. It is men like him who enable crimes against women and get away with it. Our society has for ages, coddled such ideologies and nurtured the concept of victim-blaming, telling us that we won’t be protected if we “ask for it”.
You cannot ask for accountability from a woman who did not report a gang rape years ago when the first person you blame for being harassed at school for the length of her skirt is the girl herself. You cannot accuse a #MeTooSurvivor for not speaking out at the right time when all you do after hearing her story is look for reasons to ridicule her and question her integrity. How do you expect women to trust society when you have miserably failed to provide them with a safe space to even speak, share, express? This is what rape culture is. This is how it begins.
When you objectify women in your jokes, discuss their physical attributes under the garb of humour and call it harmless fun, you encourage those young boys observing you, to follow suit. You tell them it is alright to treat women as entities born to serve humankind. Those boys go on to pass lewd remarks at girls in their class, indulge in body shaming and exhibit toxic masculinity disguising it all as harmless fun. This is what leads to discussions about female bodies, sharing of pictures without consent, and formation of communities like the “boys locker room”.
The locker room talk and culture you often dismiss as “harmless fun” is rape culture. You promote it when you question a girl’s attire and not a guy’s lustful glare. You promote it when you question a girl’s choice of being at a particular place but not the guy’s shameless behaviour. You promote it when you teach your daughters to ignore it while telling your sons to be a man. You promote it when you reinforce gender inequalities in the name of discipline, in educational institutions. You promote it when you blame girls for having male friends but encourage boys to pursue the girls they like till they give in. You promote the rape culture is everywhere, in homes, schools and colleges or workplaces.
However, you cannot use ignorance as an excuse anymore. If you don’t understand this, go read. Demand for reforms in the archaic education system. Unlearn what you have been taught all these years. And no, please do not do it because you have a mother, a wife, a sister or a daughter. Women do not deserve dignity and respect because of their identities and the roles they play in your life. That is insane, pathetic and a gross human rights violation. Women deserve dignity and respect because they are human beings.
Why is this so tough to understand? Why do you need reasons to think about this? Why am I expected to bombard you with statistics on crimes against women and the unfortunate state of affairs we are in, to convince you that we need feminism? Feminism demands equality across genders. It is a movement for all those who identify as women, for the sole reason that men have been given a position of privilege in society since the beginning of time. They are considered to be superior beings and enjoy the advantage of being the preferred gender. Feminism is a movement aimed at reclaiming the gender space and shifting the narrative towards equity. Since it is women who largely face discrimination of all kinds, the movement is women-centric. Why does this bother you? Do you have the guts to ask yourself these questions?
Every time we come across violence against women, we have men singing the “#NotAllMen” song. This one hashtag immediately invalidates the ordeal faced by those women, belittles their experience and takes away their agency. It is critical to understand that what women live with, is about them, and not the men. It is their story not that of men who were directly or indirectly complicit in the act, or of men who were innocent but served no other purpose except being bystanders, watching things unfold from a safe distance.
And it is not like the “NotAllMen” brigade can walk out of the conversation, scot-free. You are quick to defend your innocence and brag about your inherent goodness without realizing that decent behaviour is not worthy of appreciation. It is something that should come naturally to everyone, even though it doesn’t. Civility does not make you a hero. And this certainly doesn’t absolve you of your general disregard for the plight of women in our society. You may not be an attacker, a predator, a harasser, an abuser or a rapist. But you go about your daily life without so much as batting an eyelid to what happens around you.
Stories of crimes against women are just current affair issues you can read about while munching on your favourite cookies while you sip your morning tea or scroll through news channels or surf the internet. You are okay with it as long as the women in your life are an embodiment of selflessness, sacrifice and femininity. Your nonchalance makes you a part of the problem. So, to break your bubble here, #YesAllMen.
You may not have indulged in a crime, but you have indulged in casual sexism. You have expected your daughters and wives to be “good”. You have perpetually doubted the veracity of almost every harrowing experience a woman has spoken against. You have drooled over women on TV and insulted them for their professions. You have enjoyed using cuss words that are created for the sole purpose of degrading women and sexualizing their very existence. You have rubbished even the mere idea of consent, choice and autonomy in the name of love. Sit back and recall every aspect of the belief system you have grown up with and values you have held on to at the expense of making this society unsafe for 50% of its population.
You know what? We were taught to learn to live with it but not anymore. It is time to change. It is time to call a spade a spade and acknowledge the hypocrisy in the system. It is time to recognize the biases and make amends. It is time to stand with women and demand for a world that thrives on equity. It is time to embrace feminism. This is a test of your actual strength, one that lies in mindsets and not the biceps. Boys will be boys unless you do something about it! And it’s time you do.