Trigger Warning: Rape, sexual assault.
Every time a rape case shocks India, the #NotAllMen debate floods the internet. The more I talk to men regarding this, the more I realise they have absolutely no idea what it means to be a woman in this country (or just being a woman anywhere on the earth) and to try and also fail most of the times, to not get assaulted, catcalled, groped, or even mocked. So, here are some observations from day-to-day events in the life and mind of a woman in India (and now a different continent). And of course, you’re free to say “#NotAllMen“!
I choose not to walk on crowded streets. I choose not to take buses. Metro rides in the women’s compartment make me feel safe. The guy at the parking lot looks at me and judges me for being a ‘woman driver’ and is ‘impressed’ when I parallel park. I wonder if he ever gets impressed when a man does the same. Meanwhile, I look around the parking lot and I dare not step out if it’s empty, even if it’s peak noon. I just drive away. I’ll do that work later.
I go to an office in Noida to get a permit for my new apartment. The clerk at the information desk looks at me, scans me from head to toe, I wear a salwar kameez so as to not give him any reasons to judge me. I get into a cab, I check my bag for pepper spray, a sharp pen, and then call the first man in my speed dial, or at least pretend to be on call. I open my map and softly say a prayer. If I reach home safely, I’ll pray two ra’kahs (parts of Namaz) extra.
I get dressed to go to a club. Black dress? Too short. Oh, the red one I bought last month? Too revealing. What about the green skirt? Skirt…who am I kidding! I settle for a pair of ‘decent’ jeans. I get into an elevator and I see a man standing already. I measure his height, do the math in my mind. How much effort will it take me to take him down?
I’m dancing with my friends and I feel a hand caressing my back and groping my ass. I freeze. Tears stain my cheek. I don’t know what to do. I just move aside, daring not to look who. I hear a smirk, almost feel it on every part of my body. I try to forget the ‘incident’. I blame myself for being there and I move on.
I walk home from work. It’s a pleasant evening and a walk seems like a great idea. I can see my building and I’m happy I made it home without any ‘incident’ when I hear him. “Garam C**t” (not even going to translate it). The words reverberate in my head as I take quick steps to my gate. I dare not look to see who it is. I don’t want to look him in the eye, because who knows what will make him angry. I just run home.
Back home, I call a male friend who listens and says, “Ye saale mardon ko control nai rehta sundar ladkiyan dekh ke (these men can’t control themselves when they look at a pretty woman).” I want to shout and tell him it was too dark to figure out my face. But I’m emotionally exhausted and I agree. He thinks he gave me a ‘compliment’ on a bad day and feels great about himself. I let him. “Not all men,” he thinks and counts himself in.
I post something against the government on social media. “S**li Mulli R***d” he says. I write something in favour of JNU. “Tu bhi JNU me marwati hai kya?”, another man another message. I criticize police handling of a rape case. “Tere sath nai hua na, shaant reh“(it didn’t happen with you, be happy). I post a poem on one year of Kashmir lockdown. “Number de tujhe Azaad karte hain”. I ignored, blocked, deleted. Unsolicited compliments on how I turn them on and dick photos along with abuses are a daily affair. I don’t check messenger anymore.
Approximately 10,000 miles away currently, I still live with the same fear, but I tasted freedom for the first time in 26 years. I took an empty bus at night for the first time in my life and clicked pictures excitedly of that priceless moment. The driver was a woman. That was the safest I ever felt.
I absolutely avoid going to the alley to throw the garbage. I still take firm strides when walking back from work. Firm strides scare them away, they say. I dare not put my headphones while waiting for my bus unless there’s another woman waiting with me. Then the waiting seems safe and I don’t curse the CTA buses for always running late. I even put my headphones on and enjoy the music.
My job requires me to go to every school building in the campus. The guards and janitors in those empty buildings are mainly women and so is my colleague. I feel safe. I walked out in the middle of a date because the guy had right-wing conservative politics. I use the power of ‘No’ for the first time in my life. I feel empowered. I wish I had the same freedom back home without being scared of hurting the man’s ego.
A man with a hurt ego and easy access to dangerous things can prove fatal to me. Also, acid attacks are a common occurrence back home.
A cop slows his vehicle while I, a brown woman, walk to the train station. I make accidental eye contact. Relax, you’ve nothing to be scared of. Look stern. Don’t look so fucking terrified. A Black woman walks past me and asks me to keep walking. I walk with her till the station. Not a long, quick step walk but a relaxed, no-more-pretending-to-be-on-call walk. I hug her as I reach the station. I don’t care about the freaking pandemic. I’m safe and I owe it to another woman.
My thought goes to women back home walking late at night to the station. Do they? I didn’t.
I sit at home watching a movie made by apparently one of India’s most brilliant filmmakers. I watch a happy-go-lucky girl befriending a stranger on the train, being alone in a station, being ‘asked for sex’ by another stranger because he assumed she was a sex worker (if only we cared for their consent, there wouldn’t be flesh trafficking!), and then later eloping from her house and starting a new life in a new city altogether.
Nowhere in those 155 minutes did the girl feel scared to be alone at a station. Uncomfortable, yes. Terrified, no. And she runs from one stranger to another to ‘save’ herself. Nowhere did her body tightened, nowhere did she faced the fright or flight response, she trusted a stranger blindly and he turned out to be an angel. The only issue in her life seemed to be her pinning over a man, which was resolved once she fell in love with the ‘better man’. I was in a man’s head through his lens.
It seemed so fictitious and implausible, I shut my TV.
I read a novel written by a man. I read the description of the female character. “Blue eyes, Golden hair that fell on her face, her olive-coloured skin, white shirt that highlighted her cleavage, khaki shorts that revealed her toned thighs“. I don’t remember reading such an objectifying description of a man in any literature ever. The female protagonist was an Air Force pilot btw, but why would the reader care about the ‘What’ when we have the ‘How’.
I read non-fiction now.
The evening Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, I called my gynaecologist for an appointment and asked her to prescribe me my birth control pills till Christmas. I just want to be sure, if in case the election results go in favour of You-Know-Trump. Back home, I can’t even imagine the luxury of a non-judgemental gynaecologist or the privilege of being on a birth control option. Back home women — married or unmarried — hardly have any agency over their bodies. I feel liberated.
As I walked out of the clinic, a guy follows me to the bus. I get agitated, look at him in the eye feeling brave for the first time ever, and say, “Not today for fuck sake!” He looked angry. I ran to catch the bus. Oh, I’ve heard it’s easier for an angry man to get violent.
I don’t want to make a man angry.
Back in my apartment, I tell my flatmate, “It looks like I attract all these ‘incidents’ and trouble and weird men.” She looks at me, smiles silently, and says, “Me Too.”
I sit alone in my grad lounge at the school writing my paper on Georgia O’Keeffe at 3 am. She was here in 1905-06. This woman brought feminism in the world of paintings through her bold paintings of flowers representing women’s reproductive organs, thanks to her inspirations at the school.
A fellow night owl — another grad student— looks at me from across the hall, smiles, and mouthes, “I’m going to get coffee but you keep the doors closed. And stay near the Yellow button.” I look at the Yellow emergency button near me. It was inspired by one of O’Keefe’s flowers and has been built for such a purpose. In case, we have an intruder or assaulter. I wonder at the irony of it but I’ve heard those buttons haven’t been used yet. I pray I don’t get to use them too. I sit the rest of the night in the lounge near the yellow button that lay there dead quiet.
I can think of never experiencing this safety back home.