I was 10 when while waiting for the school-bus outside school, a man walked up to me and showed me his exposed penis. I ran from him, climbed up a tree, and stayed there till the school-bus driver came looking for me.
I was 12 when it became a routine for my school-bus driver to make me sit back in my seat next to him, while he extended his hand to open the door to let a new kid in at every stop, and calculatingly brush his hands against my budding breasts. It took me a week to muster up the courage to complain to my father.
I was 14 when one day, I shaved my legs and threaded my eye-brows for the first time, and suddenly everyone in school noticed the unknown girl in the short skirt of the uniform. Embarrassed by the whispers around me, I pretended to be sick and went home after the first hour.
I was 16 when on a winter’s night, an auto-driver responded to my request to return the change by placing a 5-rupee coin on his penis and saying, ‘Tago’ (take it). Without saying a word to him, I walked away.
I was 18 when I got dumped by my boyfriend of three years whom I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with. I got called a slut by his friends for getting into a rebound relationship within a month. Without protesting against it, I moved on.
I was 19 when I was not allowed to attend a lecture and was sent home from college for wearing a deep necked kurta (traditional knee-length top) as it might have distracted the boys in class, therefore placing more importance over a boy’s education than my own. I said okay and began wearing round-necked kurtas to college.
I was 20 when on the way home one night in the rain, an auto-driver took a turn into a deserted road with dim lighting, stopped the vehicle, turned around in his seat, and grabbed hold of my hand. After a tearful struggle, I managed to push him off and run into a nearby shop. I felt too embarrassed to tell my parents or my friends, I didn’t go to the police, and made a mental note to buy a pepper spray.
I was 21 when one day past midnight, I was smoking with my friends on the porch, and felt like going out for a stroll to enjoy the night breeze. When I suggested the idea, my friends said that they wouldn’t come with me because I might get raped. I locked myself up in a room and cried.
Looking back now, I wish I had fought back every single one of those times. But I know why I didn’t – it is hard. It is hard to complain. It is scary to stand up to a harasser. It is scarier to stand up to your friends. It is terrifying to think of facing people when they don’t believe you, or dismiss your complaints as trivial.
It is a daily struggle. My Facebook pictures with scant clothing get more likes than those of me in fuller clothing. I get calls and messages from unknown numbers with lewd remarks. Though I am average looking at best, every day when I walk down the streets, groups of men turn around and stare at me. Everywhere I go – streets, buses, eateries, shops – I see pairs of eyes following me, making me feel naked under my clothes. Some go as far as to whistle at me, and call me names. “Hey baby!” they shout out while some of them zoom past me on their bikes. Some pretend to have lost their way, and stop over to ask for directions, the whole time staring at my chest while I give them directions from my word place. When I’m walking on a crowded street, men pinch my ass and walk away quietly. When I get onto a crowded, shaky bus, some men try rubbing themselves against me. When I take an auto rickshaw, drivers adjust their rear-view mirrors and look into it every time the vehicle goes over a speed-breaker, devouring how it makes my chest heave up and down. I hold my breath and try not to breathe. Being haunted by strangers’ eyes, hands, and penises on a daily basis is suffocating in the literal sense of the word.
Big-screen cinema encourages it. In Bollywood, sex is taboo, but sexual harassment is not. In Hindi movies, intertwined feet indicate sexual intercourse, but sexual harassment is portrayed wholly, using it as a tool for flirting. These films not only tend to “eroticize” sexual violence but often legitimize such violence by showing heroes who use milder forms of sexual violence to gain the affection of heroines.
But that’s not even the worst part. The worst part is that we’ve become accustomed to such behavior. The picture above contains screenshots of messages I’ve received from unknown men on Facebook – a surprisingly common experience for most women who have Facebook accounts, as my friends corroborate. Most women don’t speak out because they say it isn’t a big enough problem worthy of talking about. A few months ago, I reported a sexist photo on Facebook (asking men to put women where they belong by raping them), and Facebook didn’t remove it because it apparently did not violate its community standards. How the hell did we get to this stage?
How did we turn into a society that is no longer shocked by sexual harassment, and that is content with eating popcorn while an actor harasses an actress on the screen? It is scary to think of how normalized and apathetic we have become. Our empathy for fellow human beings and desire to see a reduction of their suffering is one of the most powerful moral tools at our disposal. Rape still shocks us; what happened in the case of sexual harassment? Did the violence of Jyothi Singh’s gang-rape suddenly set a very high bar for what should shock us? Did it suddenly feel trivial to complain about gropes and stares when women were being molested? The experiences of a rape victim do not delegitimize the struggles of other women. The first effect of being constantly exposed to a system of increasing atrocities is that we adjust our view of what is normal. After that is irreversibly done, anyone who speaks up is labelled a femi-nazi – yes, because not wanting to get molested is exactly like invading Poland.
Speaking of which, calling it ‘sexual harassment’ is so yesterday. Didn’t you hear? We call it ‘eve-teasing’ now. Smoothly done, patriarchy. Eve-teasing; Eve. Like Eve who tempted Adam to stray from the path of righteousness by eating the apple. Eve-teasing; teasing. The Oxford English Dictionary definition for ‘teasing’ is ‘to tempt someone sexually with no intention of satisfying the desire aroused.’ Both parts of the term blame the woman; she is the temptress who isn’t providing something she has aroused. It is hence completely understandable that the man can then take what is not being provided forcibly. Sounds familiar? “She was tempting me with her clothes, she was asking for it”.
Eve-tease – yes, it’s a nice term. Just like ‘cat-call’. That’s another lovely word. ‘Cat-call’. It’s almost as acceptable as ‘eve-tease’. Or if we’re feeling slightly more adventurous to go up the scale, we have ‘attack’. Our politicians and journalists love to say ‘attack’. ‘Woman attacked by mob in broad daylight.’ Attack’s a nice word—our soldiers attack, for example. ‘Soldiers launch deadly attack against invading troops’. Soldiers are good; soldiers protect us. Doctor attack diseases. Doctors are good; doctors treat us. Attack’s a good word. Much better than, say, sexual harassment, which is ugly. Which is what happens to me every single goddamn day.
And now, after years of men looking at my breasts instead of my eyes, pinching my ass instead of shaking my hand, and adjusting their rear-view mirrors to look at my frontal-view with lust-filled, cheap appreciation, I’ve had enough. Gone are the days when I’d walk down the summer streets with a sweater covering my arms, when I’d ride those speed breakers in the auto by holding my breath so my proud chest stays stiff, and when I’d put on a bra to hide my nipples just to stand out in my balcony. And if you think you can take advantage of that because I was asking for it, think again – last I checked, dead men can’t ‘eve-tease’.