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“Tere Sath Nai Hua Na, Shaant Reh“, And Other Things I Hear When I Talk About Rape

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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.

Representational image.

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.

Representational image.

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.

Representational image.

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.

Representational image.

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.

Featured image for representation only.
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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