When I was around eleven or twelve, I was new to the experience of commuting via the public transport system. I had never traveled to the city alone by bus, and on the rare occasion that I did, it was usually with either or both of my elder sisters. One such occasion stands out unpleasantly in my memory. On the evening of the incident I’m about to narrate, I asked my sister if I could accompany her to the library in town. In those days, she would take a bus at around 5 o’ clock every other evening and return home when it was just starting to get dark. My sister agreed to let me come with her, and so, at a little after 5 o’clock, we set out to catch a bus to the city. When we got to the library, my sister returned the book she’d previously borrowed, paid the rental fee and selected another book to take home with her that evening. We then walked back to the bus stop.
Let me just slightly digress from the story at this point, and give you an idea of what I was like as a 11/12 year old girl. I hit puberty long before most girls in my class even understood what it really meant, and so I always felt awkward about my body. I used to be too tall, too chesty (which is hilarious, because now I complain endlessly about how I’m not chesty enough), and I had to start waxing much before the girls my age did. Looking back, this was all just a part of a “phase that every girl goes through”. But at the time, I was in a perpetual state of embarrassment about the way I looked. I hid behind sexless jeans and t-shirts. My gawky looks and the fact that I was in an all girls convent school made it pretty easy for boys to not notice me in, you know, that way. I think I would’ve been suspicious of the attention in any case.
So imagine my complete mortification when two boys on a scooter rode up to where my sister and I were sitting, waiting for our bus, and said, “Hey baby, what’s your name? Can I have your number?” They looked pretty uncouth (Isn’t using ‘hey, baby’ as an opening line evidence enough?), and I was immediately frightened by the way they leered at us. I’d heard about these things happening to people, but I had no idea what was to be done in a situation like this. I looked to my sister for help. She told me to ignore them. But they were only amused by that, and pressed on, saying things like, “Hey baby, can I have your number?” or “Why aren’t you talking to us, baby?” My sister was getting livid. She’s always had this instinct to protect, and I could tell it was all she could do to not slap them across the face. We tried moving away, but that didn’t work either. Finally, a bus came along. It wasn’t even a bus that took us all the way home, only three fourths the distance, but at that point all we wanted to do was get away from the creeps. We got on, and we were almost about to sigh in relief, when we noticed that the same guys were tailing our bus. They caught up to our window and started yelling lewd comments at us, much to our chagrin. They were laughing so hard I thought their heads would fall off. I hoped they would. By this point I was shaking with terror, and my sister was shaking with anger. It was starting to get dark, and neither my sister nor I had a cell phone with us to contact our parents. My mind flashed back to all the awful stories I’d heard about the terrible things that happened to girls after dark. I’d heard about guys just like these, too. I think I was about to cry, but my sister assured me that she wouldn’t let anything happen to me, and in that moment, I believed her. Well, I guess the eve-teasers got tired of the chase after a while, because they finally left us alone, and my sister and I got home okay. But I was pretty freaked out after that, and something in my world had changed. I knew I looked much older than I actually was, but I never was afraid because of it. Until then, I’d never been aware of boys noticing me, and the way it happened for the first time, I wished they wouldn’t ever.
As I grew older, that incident just became one among the many instances where I had been harassed on account of being a girl travelling in the city by myself. On so many bus journeys home, while sitting on the outer seat, an older man standing, facing my seat has purposely rubbed his crotch up against my shoulder, or a man sitting next to me has crossed his hands over his chest and touched my breast on the sly. I could never really tell them off, or complain, because they’d make out as if it happened by accident, when the bus went over a particularly nasty pothole. I believe that accidents happen, yes. But no one’s hand/ crotch can possibly land in the same place ten times. After using the local buses to travel to my tuition classes and back for several years, I’ve become used to the occasional pervert having his way with young female commuters on the sly. What’s morbid is that these things happen often enough for people to “get used to them”, and shudder them off as “things that happen to everyone” because some Indian men do not know how to respect women enough to allow them to use the public transport system without apprehension or fear.
The recent gang- rape and mutilation of a young female commuter in Delhi that has created such a media hype, forces us to ask ourselves some very important questions as a nation, regarding the laws that protect citizens and punish the guilty, the current state of the local police all over the country (the supposed vigilantes of the people, the perpetrators of justice) and more crucially, the way we as an Indian society function. Stricter laws, capital punishment and policemen doing their jobs for a change are all solutions to the problem, no doubt. But we will not see the eradication of crimes against women unless we change the way our society thinks. And for that, we need to change the way we as individuals think.
We need to stop blaming women for “provoking men with their indecent clothing”, we need to stop the hypocrisy of casting women in “Item numbers” acting like nothing less than strippers, falling all over the dashing hero, who has all the swag of a bloody prince, then being offended that the woman who sits next to you on the bus won’t react in the same way. We need to stop this whole portrayal of the “Indian woman” as someone who earns a cute little salary, has a cute little college degree, and of course we don’t mind if she has a couple of cute little “adventures” with her friends in her college days, but everyone knows that soon she’ll have to assume the role of someone’s dutiful wife, churn out the babies (and yes, she will be blamed if the child is defected in any way or gasp! turns out to be a girl) and do all the chores with a song on her lips and a prayer in her heart. And if anything untoward happens to her while she’s out in society, why, sweetheart, anyone wearing a dress with such a low neckline is only asking for trouble. And a nightclub is no place for a young woman, even if she’s only there because she loves to dance. Such dancing is too provocative for a lady of society. Really, you can’t expect the men not to behave so lewdly when you act so scandalously, dear. We need to stop saying things like, “men will be men” and we need to stop being OK with sexual harassment, even if it is of the relatively “mild” variety.
In a conservative society like India, coming to terms with your sexuality can be very difficult. It is especially difficult for girls, who have been conditioned to think that the very body parts that deem them women are something to be embarrassed about, that the pleasure of a man always comes before their own, and that masturbating is the biggest sacrilege that can be committed. I cannot even begin to imagine the repercussion that a victim of rape has to face, day in and day out, and how bad the emotional and psychological trauma is for her. Surely, it will be infinitely more difficult for her to see sex as an act of pleasure, or men as people and not monsters. And even if the victim does make a total recovery, what about the millions of women hearing about her story? Won’t they become more afraid of their sexuality and that of others? Won’t it affect the way look at all the men in their lives? It certainly will.
I’m not a feminist. At least, not society’s version of your typical feminist. I don’t believe in feminism without a cause either. I don’t abhor acts of chivalry. I even think men sometimes need to feel like they have the upper hand; it’s good for their egos once in a while. But I will never, ever stay quiet when I know that someone is being treated unfairly because of their gender. And it just so happens that in India today, women are the mistreated sex. This needs to change. And now.
And if it takes a feminist’s voice to bring about that change, then I’m all for it.