I write this knowing that my experiences and my rant aren’t unique, and they don’t add anything new to the conversation. However, given that the #MeToo stories are all too reminiscent of our daily horrors, I decided to write down my experiences too — something I have often thought of doing, but perhaps lacked the courage to, for fear of the way I will be perceived.
When the stories started doing the rounds, I could imagine the amount of horror and familiarity they would evoke. This is something most women live with everyday. How many of us haven’t been groped, catcalled, or ogled at in a way that makes you want to gouge out the eyes of those men? All my ideas of wanting to reclaim my space sound like bluster when I cross the road to the wrong side and choose to face the oncoming traffic, rather than brave being groped or eyed greedily, as if I were a piece of meat. I go walking on my small terrace after work because I don’t trust the shadows that lurk in poorly-lit streets.
I know that men have been unfairly targeted too, that many of them also suffer abuse, and that not all men are rapists/molesters. But when you go through years of encounters that you pretend were accidental to comfort yourself, you become wary. Your confidence takes a hit and you devise ways to carry out even mundane conversations, worrying in retrospect if your friendliness might have been misconstrued.
I am very suspicious of all men — I can’t help it — when I walk on any public road, clutching my heavy handbag tightly, ready to use it as a weapon. I mentally map the road ahead, deciding on the best ways to protect myself if someone should lay a finger on me. I glare back at men who stare at me till they avert their eyes, or just look down at the earth when I have no energy left in me. And then there are days when I can’t be bothered to care and go where I want to, whenever I want to, come what may.
They tell us that we are women, and that we must learn restraint. We should not dress provocatively — never mind that we can be covered from head to toe, and we would still be treated the same way. We must know how to conduct ourselves in public. We must be decent and accept that we are the guilty party — simply by virtue of being women.
I was 11 when I was targeted on the street for the first time. I was with my mother, fully covered, not giving anyone a come-hither look. I was just there, walking, and therefore a target. My friend was walking to school when a man masturbated at her. She came to me, trembling and crying. We didn’t know if it was okay to tell our mothers, though we finally did. Let’s not talk about this in public, we decided, because we know what the implications will be. Why did you go out alone? Why didn’t you ask one of the men to go along? How could you let yourself be sullied like this? But nobody asked how many girls we could have saved if we had prepared them for the worst, or how many boys could have been taught to treat women with respect.
The patriarchal notion of modesty makes us silence ourselves. Isn’t that how incidents of molestation and sexual assault are described by Indian law — “outrage the modesty” of a woman? We have been conditioned into believing that certain characteristics define our femininity, and modesty, which can be applied to everything from your clothes to your morals, is uppermost among them. Fighting against norms is an uphill task, and we cannot succeed at all aspects of it, but we do what we can, whenever we can.
The conversation ripples on. High-profile incidents lead to a surge in the volume and create wide-ranging discussions on visible channels, but there is never silence. When I don’t blog about this, I talk to my husband or my mother or my friends, but I obviously cannot ignore or forget something I live with day in, day out. At this point, I really don’t care if this movement is being used for brownie points of some kind. Anything that helps create awareness, allowing women to speak up, seems like a blessing.
Fighting drains us and we constantly need to replenish our reserves. Take hope in the articulate words of Virginia Woolf. Remember that even if life got too much for her in the end, she left us with ideas to think about, to help us. Read strong women and listen to them. Things don’t change for the better overnight, but they can’t remain the same for very long.