Friday, March 10, 2006

If, when... and until then

Yesterday, I was filled with a deep, deep sense of despair.
Never, in recent memory, have I felt this numb, this deflated. As I read, account after account, after abusive account - from women and men and the children we have been - I was engulfed by a frozen sort of exhaustion.

Account after abusive account on Blank Noise led to more windows opening up into my own memory - this happened to me too, at ages six, eight, nine, ten, eighteen, fifteen, twenty-five.... all of this and more. That man, that place...

Writing the last post, I had thought I was making the token gesture - how difficult could it be to speak up, anyway? If I can live it, I can talk about it.
Talk about something that's choking our gender-divisive culture, something that is making monsters of us when it comes to sexual attitudes and liberties.

When the comments started pouring in, I was a little overwhelmed. Then the downpour became a deluge, and now, I am very quiet, very sad.

Because... that these 'strategies' I had written of, in part-horror, part-rage, with a sense of bitter irony, should be taken as 100% serious advice.... could anything be sadder than that?

One part of me wants to un-read it all - all those hundreds of stories here, in the comments and those entries for the blog-a-thon. As if un-reading it, could undo it.

But for all that, I have more to say.

If we're going to build a serious debate around this issue of abuse (please let's give 'eve-teasing' a grand burial right now. This minute. The word has no significance, no relevance, no place in our experience), we need to talk beyond the rage, beyond the sharing, beyond the opinions.

Because if we stop here, then we might as well have never started.

The first thing we have to deal with is the definition and scope of 'harrassment'.

We may recognize that each individual has different needs for personal space and different perceptions of appropriate behaviour, BUT if we're going to take a legal stand, insist upon pan-Indian, or even global standard of behaviour as a norm, we're going to need specifics.

Is staring/ ogling/ checking out/ leching wrong?
I don't think so.

Does it make me uncomfortable?
A man leering at you through the evening can ruin your party. But I also recognize that this bothers me more in situations where I know the leer can easily turn into a grope.
Besides, there are many occassions on which I have 'checked out' members of the oposite sex (no pun intended, she says, biting down a smile). I want to continue to have the right to look at men, appreciatively or just to guage the attraction quotient. Men have the same rights, then.

Is whistling, passing comments, singing songs wrong?

Does it annoy me, as a woman?
But I recognize that the man is not phycially or psychologically damaging me in any way, and so he has a right to whistle, sing or comment.
EXCEPT when the words turn abusive or sexully violent. Verbal violence is punishable by law. Threats are punishable by law, and there is no reason a woman(or man) should have to hear any.

Is touching wrong?

When you touch a another person without his/her permission, you run the risk of violating the person. If you touch them in places that are - in normative terms - regarded as sexual areas, therefore off-limits for those who do not have sexual rights over you, this person will be perfectly justified in snarling, snapping, slapping or otherwise reacting violently to your gesture. You could also be punished for it legally, though we - as a society - must come to some sort of agreement about what punitive action is fair, or deterrant enough. (One blogger - I'm confused about who - suggested community service. Picking up trash. Scavenging. I think that's not a bad idea, actually.)

I also believe that we Indians already recognize this, cultural conditioning be damned!
That is why there are many more incidents of feeling up/groping/pinching in crowded places like buses, trains, bazaars, footpaths - where it would be hard to pin blame, where one can pretend it was all an accident. That is also why men will take fewer chances if a woman is accompanied by a man, but will grope and pinch with alacrity if they're in a big group themselves.

Is following/stalking wrong?

I have not figured out the precise definitions for this, but legally, at least, there is a precedent for disallowing stalking. (And we really must learn to use the word 'stalking' instead of 'following', which sounds like a benign sort of thing a cute puppy-dog might do, when he isn't nipping at your ankles.)

Is propositioning wrong?

I don't know.
We are swimming in slightly murky waters here. Almost all relationships begin with a proposition of some sort. (This, incidentally, is the same line adopted by every single stranger who has come up to me with a proposition for 'friendship') Almost all of us have accepted some propositions at least partially, tentatively, from some trusted people.

I personally do not blame the stranger who walks up to me, saying he wants to have sex, or offers to 'buy' me. He is only asking me a question. I find it offensive - but I think we, as women, must also learn to question the reasons for our taking offense at such a question. Why are we so insulted if somebody equates us with, or treats us like, a prostitute?

(Speaking for myself, I find it equally offensive when I am asked my religion while entering a temple or a mosque, or filling up a government form. In all honesty, I think the latter is a far more dangerous question).

But when I have said 'no', and this stranger persists in making his offer, it does amount to harrassment. Then, I have the right to tell him to get lost. If he doesn't listen, I have the right to drag him to the law enforcement authority.

Which brings us to the cops.

The police is known to be unsympathetic. I think we should lobby for the police to be especially trained in dealing with instances of harrassment and I also think that the women's cell of the police should be prepared for complaints against their colleagues who fail to treat a victim of sexual harrassment as they should. The battle will be uphill at first, but a few prosecutions should set a precedent. Precedents are good weapons.

And yes, I believe training and counselling does help.
I have been to a police station alone in Delhi - fighting off my own instinctive misgivings - and have found at least one bunch of officials to be polite and non-lecherous, even though they may not have been as quick and efficient as I want them to be. I was later told that some sections of Delhi police have been slowly workshopped into behaving with a modicum of courtesy. If this is true, bless the workshoppers.

Some people have spoken of clothes and the impact they have on harrassment.

From personal experience, I know there is no direct correlation.
The first incident I mentioned, when I was 13, occurred when I was in frilly frocks and still had ribbons in my hair. Almost all later incidents have happened when I have been in shalwaars and full-sleeved kameezes.

Strangely, the rare times when I have stepped out wearing short skirts and tank tops, men have kept a slight distance. I fail to understand this paradox. But I do have a hypothesis -
When I am wearing a short skirt in public, I give out a signal. That I am not meek. I'm not your regular bhartiya naari and that you cannot count on my being a placid, accepting victim.
Many more men stare at bare shoulders, bare legs... many more women stare too. But, in my limited experience, few men dare to touch a woman they're shocked by.

And yet, knowing this, I find myself hesitating. Worrying.

I bring out my short, revealing clothes every week, try them on and put them back in the cupboard. This is not because I will attract potential molesters. This is because I know that IF there is an attempt, I will be held responsible. I will hear 'but look at what she's wearing'.
I do this because my own women-friends come up with quasi-insulting statements like 'you don't like clothes, do you?'. Because I've been told that there's a time and place for every dress; high heels and bare shoulders are only okay if you're at a private party, amongst friends and are getting picked up and dropped off in a private car.
I've been told and I cannot shake off the fear that IF something goes wrong, I will be humiliated even further by allegations that I was 'asking for it'.

THIS fear is what we have to counter.

We begin by watching our own tongues. When we see a girl in a mini-skirt in the train or in the vegetable market, we stop saying 'ohmygod! what's wrong with her?'. We have to stop telling each other 'your bra strap is showing'. (It's only an effing strap! Give me one good reason why it should not show?)

Sure, the change will take time. But the change must come from us. From everybody who believes that a person has the right to not be molested, whatever the circumstances.

Some other men mentioned feeling ashamed. They are angry that all women view them with suspicion, contempt and fear.

All I can say, is - the burnt child dreads the fire.
Or like we say, doodh ka jalaa chhaas ko bhi phook-phoonk ke peeta hai.

Besides, the nice men are in a bit of a minority. I can recount more than ten incidents of harrassment, right now, without having to dig into the darker recesses of memory. Listening to other women, I'd say that ratio is fairly average. If there are ten wrong-doers for every one victim.... you do the math.

Can you imagine the scale of this gender's collective fear? Where is the room for rational behaviour, or trust?

Yes, this too can change.
For every man that tries to grope me, if there are five men stopping him, it will change.
For every small gang that roams the streets looking for somebody to harrass, if there are two small gangs on the lookout to protect, it will change.
For every woman in an oversize t-shirt, walking with a file across her chest, if there are a hundred who refuse to cover up, refuse to de-sex their persona, refuse to slouch, it will change.
For every family that tells a daughter 'don't go out alone at night', if there are fifty families who send their girls out at night, armed with the determination to have fun and the confidence that they're not going to be the only women out alone, it will change.
For every woman who scurries past, head bowed, if there are ten who strut, and smile at nothing and everything, it will change.

When we have men and women talking to each other without being censured for it,
when boys in school are taught to take permission before touching women,
when girls in school are taught that it is okay to give this permission, if they want to,
when both genders can interact without fear of ostracism or moral policing,
it will change.

Until then, I leave you with these lines by Dushyant Kumar :

"sirf hangama khadaa karna meraa maqsad nahin
meri koshish ye hai, ki ye surat badalani chahiye.
mere seene me.n nahin to tere seene me.n sahi
ho kahin bhi aag, lekin aag jalni chaahiye"

[My purpose is not to simply create a furor
this attempt is to try and change our situation.
And if not in my breast, then let it be in yours -
it doesn't matter where, but the fire must burn]

Let's keep this fire burning.


Pri said...

hats off yet again to ur powerful writin...

hav become ur fan officially now...:)
n yeah ! u r hell right...!! We should change ourselves before expectin society to ...

Anonymous said...

Dear Annie,

Expressions - of rage or rationality - from deep within, powerfully affect. A great post. Glad to see a very sensitive and rational post with some truly valuable insights. It is a mark of strength to be so honest with ones own self especially after receiving abuse and almost continuously, as a woman. The last two paragraphs excellently focus and summarise. The best of the wishes that a fellow human stranger can have go from me to you. You rise up to be a human being from being just a woman. I hope people respond to this blog as much as they did for the other one, and measure for measure.

The Man.

Aishwarya said...

Thanks, that needed to be said.

Deepa said...

One of the best posts I have read on this topic...let us keep the fire burning.

Anonymous said...

Mercy! Thank you for that post!

Vidya said...

I do agree with you, but...

For me, as a woman, it feels like the message that is sent out when someone dresses the way you described is that they DO want men to look (and maybe appreciate). It seems like that woman would WANT the advancement of those who appreciate...or else, why dress in skimpy clothes if not to be complimented?

Maybe my thinking's skewed; but I would assume that it is how a certain man passing by might approach the subject.

No woman asks to be raped...I don't blame any woman for getting hurt. It also has to do with how conservative India is versus other countries. More western countries don't give a thought to a woman wearing a short skirt or a tank top--some girls in my school wear far, far worse things!

About the bra strap: There's nothing wrong with it, for me it's just tacky. -_-

Gamesmaster G9 said...

Regarding propositioning - I have attended a sexual harassment workshop (I didn't choose the name), where we were told what the University's policy was on propositioning. It was something like this.

1) If you ask once and are turned down, you may ask again if you believe that the person has changed his/her mind. A third time counts as harassment.

2) If the person is married/seeing someone and makes it clear, then more than once is harassment.

3) If there is a sufficient time gap (more than 6 months) between propositions, it doesn't count as harassment.

A bit arbitrary, to be sure, but all laws are. Otherwise, this seems to be a perfectly servicable definition.

Camphor said...

Wow, lady... thank you. :)
You write powerfully, and this... gives one hope... after a day of reading blank noise posts... it does give a lot of hope.

If I may, I'd like to reply to just one comment, if you do not mind.
bliss ~ why dress in skimpy clothes if not to be complimented? you ask? (Yes, a passing man might look at it that way, but i'll still try to answer the question.)

Becuase it's HOT. Where I come from, temperatures go up to 45 deg celsius, and I HAVE to wear one bra, one slip, one salwar-kameez, and one dupatta, and woe is me if one of those is missing.

In the hostel, I would be comfortable in the tank tops and the shorts, but outside?

It's more the principle of being able to wear what you like than the idea of 'flaunting' anything.

If I really want to flaunt it - well, why on earth not? I wouldn't, though, simply because it will attract far more than appreciation and admiration.

Dreamcatcher said...

This was a wonderful, wonderful post. And to merely repeat what has already been said, hats off to you for digging deep, putting these words down on a blank screen and sharing it.

Anand said...

just brilliant, dude

Anonymous said...

As always, (or almost always), agree with u.

FifthBeatle said...

awesome post... totally agree with most of the opinions.. though when *i* say a lot of what you've just said i get beaten down for being an MCP... damn!

mcx said...

Your voice speaks well but the message still far from fair. You speak in words that often ring true but there is something amiss, precious little of what you have said can any sane person deny but there is something still amiss. In this post of yours the only thing I shall object to and perhaps even take offence of is this para below.

“Besides, the nice men are in a bit of a minority. I can recount more than ten incidents of harassment, right now, without having to dig into the darker recesses of memory. Listening to other women, I'd say that ratio is fairly average. If there are ten wrong-doers for every one victim.... you do the math.”

You are an anomaly, I say this with outmost respect and mind you I believe myself to be one too. We all are, that is those of us who have suffered abuse, no matter how much we may like to believe that this happens to everyone everywhere it doesn’t and that’s part of what makes it so difficult to come to terms with it. When I refer to abuse mind you I keep aside a hormonal teenagers pitiful antics or the leering or lurching of sad and pathetic men (not that this itself does not cause undue duress or leave scars of its own but this can be dealt with separately using advice that you yourself have stated), I speak here of physical and physiological abuse that scare a person beyond recognition.

We anger, we guilt and we often hate but as I have said our reality was altered long ago we exist on a parallel plane our senses heightened, our minds suspicious. We hate the world around us for not understanding, we hate them for looking at us different and we believe that ours is the only true eye that ours is the only voice of truth. This is the error we commit, the world is not totally devoid of good, even “good men” still breathe and they are most definitely not as rare as you may think. Even if this were not to be true honestly your argument of a “Few good men” is by far the weakest of the history of “there are no good men” arguments, it is both unfair and illogical. You speak of an opinion as a fact, an error most common but something less forgiven when made by someone as seeming intelligent as you.

I have had my troubles with the opposite sex, my heart has been scorched and I have been bled to the bone of my emotions but I do not proclaim nor do I preach that all women are heartless or cruel beasts. Men in their millions given a voice will recount absolute horrors that women in their lives have committed against them but all of those voices no matter how many or how frequent cannot possible mean that there are no “good women” can they?

Minus the self interest I have in defending my sex I speak this with utmost heartfelt understanding, general agreement and absolute adoration for your courage and your words, men are not the evil that we should fight, if anything we should stand together to battle this rampant unaccountability that exists in our society today.

I ask myself is the reason for someone to believe that he can get away with beating up another man senseless any different from why he feels secure in molesting a teenage girl. Or what of when a dying man breaths his last sprawled across the pavement as passers by watch in amused horror? We as the audience feel secure in believing that we are not responsible that we did not commit these crimes and so why should we intervene? This is the reason why these acts of abuse continue it is not the non existence of laws or the lack of support from the police or even the absence of civilized culture or the freedom of speech. Silence, turning a blind eye or even the faith that we are safe for we do not commit these crimes should be made equally punishable as the crimes themselves and then we should be proactive enough to hold ourselves and those around us to these laws and this understanding.

Your words have helped me find my voice and my thoughts but I pray look back upon all that has been said and honestly answer me this is there fairness in holding only men responsible for this continued abuse? We agree on the cause and even on the remedy but I will still disagree with that finger you point at my chest or my sex because it is simply rage not reason that speaks in those words.

Luv Mcx

sou said...

Hmm.. I too have read and read enough.. I wish and long for ignorance and innocence... however, if me raising my voice now can help or even hope to help the next gen of women be less afraid and more respected then I don't mind torturing myself with many more stories..

I agree that we need to keep the fire burning.. token gestures are not enough .. to start a change in attitudes we need constant expressions and actions.

I am soo glad you have made the "what is ok..what is not" distinctions.. thank you so much!

Madhat said...

Because... that these 'strategies' I had written of, in part-horror, part-rage, with a sense of bitter irony, should be taken as 100% serious advice.... could anything be sadder than that?

The seriousness of your post made them look like genuine advice.

Taking this a step further is the hardest thing and you are breaking the stone. The question is what (exactly, concretely, strategically) to do next?

Sunil said...

superbly written.

and all this will happen some day........soon, i hope.

sou said...

@mcx - no she is not an anomaly.

yeah you are correct when you say it is not only men who abuse there ofcourse women who abuse.. but consider the context. We are talking about harassment on the streets (for a start) where i'm sure you will have to agree that men are the perpetrators.. no ambiguity there rite? Why are you bringing in evil in general in human beings? We are not talking about that (yet).. we are trying to start a change on the streets where women should be given the basic respect every human being deserves.

"is there fairness in holding only men responsible for this continued abuse?" The answer is a resounding YES!

We do need to educate boys as they are growing up .. we need to educate parents to bring their sons up, sensitizing them to these issues.. so the society does share a lot of the responsibility.. but ultimately when it comes to making the decision, whether or not to disgrace another human being just so you can get a kick out of it, it is solely the individual's (the man's) fault.

PS - no i am not a man-hater..

Sue said...

Am linking to your site, hope you don't mind.

mcx said...

Hi Sou,

You missed the point of my whole argument. I am not trying to shift blame rather I only wish to point out the simplest fact. First blatant male bashing is not only illogical but also passé in the current social context; do you have proof that most men are vile despicable creatures? Do you have proof that all men try and fondle or abuse women? There are no figures there are no proofs yet so easily is a judgment passed. I don’t think such a ridiculous statement as this is forgivable when it comes from someone as intelligent as Annie. (I consider her more intelligent perhaps even more than me and I honestly believe that she is not a man hater but such a statement just leads to a lot angry nods by other angry women and then it becomes this pitch forked rally that just boils and boils and resents all things male to the extent of even a boy) my second point tries to address the larger issue as to why this continues to occur and it is here that I say it is not only men that are to be held responsible.

The state, society or the community is formed of both men and women, it is collectively that we take ownership of this imposed prison, for we believe in it we will be the safest and allowed to flourish to the max of our self interest. It does not offer everyone everything rather aims at providing a minimum for all; Law and order are merely chains that we willing tie upon our feet for we feel threatened by chaos. None of us truly believe that we will survive if it were to be the rule of the fittest it is in this self interest that we set out to invest in a social order in our primordial days. I refer to this fundamental idea, we as the members of this statehood are incompetent we merely seek to exist without being accountable to the maintenance of the state.

This is not merely an issue of the harassment of women on the public transports it is blatant proof that with in the prison some inmates seek to have greater control; they wish to be predators with in the zoo. If we don’t intervene we willing relinquish the power the stare has vested in us. It is here that I say we are all responsible. I for one believe that on an average our culture provides a fair bed of values and morals, sure it is restrictive and orthodox but on the whole it tries to tell us at least what is right and what is wrong. I agree with you that there should be far greater explanations and increased understanding imparted to a growing child about the sexes but to single out boys and look upon them as dormant evil or even possible predators and try and rehabilitate them to mend their inert nature just goes to show how much faith some people have in men and how ridiculous people can get when their emotions are stirred. I am not defending the evil that my sex commits I believe Annie and many other provide some sane advice as to how that should be dealt with, I simply wish to call for a higher resolve.


Annie Zaidi said...

thanks again, everybody, for the compliments... and thanks for the, er, gratitude.
gamesmaster: those suggestions make complete sense to me. I think they're very implementable.
bliss: i've said it before but will say it again - i may dress skimpy to be looked at, i may want to be looked at... that has nothing whatsoever to do with harrassment or molestation.
mcx: I agree with some stuff you've said but that doen't really solve the problem we have on our hands - which is essentially that of sexual harrassment, mostly by men (if women do attempt it, I've yet to hear a man complain). And WHERE in my post have I accused EVERY man of abuse? Many, yes. Most, maybe. But not all.
As far as heartbreak is concerned... one could go on and on about that too, but no, I don't blame men any more than I blame women. We are all sinners in the eden of love.
Sue: of course. I'd be only too pleased.

mcx said...

"And WHERE in my post have I accused EVERY man of abuse? Many, yes. Most, maybe. But not all." I only object to the most part : )

ether said...

Superb. Kudos to you.

wake said...

it's fair,rational and SUPERB
well done:)

SaidBack said...

This is the best post on the topic yet. You have a very rational viewpoint on the issue.

Anonymous said...

Dear Annie,


Just felt like voicing out again :(.

I believe that rage and emotions help to bring out an issue, but not address it. It is precisely because the scale of the collective fear
is so high, that we must seek solutions rationally. I agree with the essential points of MCX. I actually see your post and his post as complementary - and complimentary. While you, and a few others, propose definite steps to take, he is trying to evolve a guiding framework and cautioning against the errors that we make in a fit of rage.

Emotions and rage stir a furor and we react. But if we are to act, we need to be rational to focus, and think over the issues to find the root causes. To act to take the next step, or to react - the choice is for each of us to make.

My immense respect and best wishes for you, (response #2) remain fresh as before.

Sou: If the answer to "is there fairness in holding only men responsible for this continued abuse?" is a resounding YES, then we will find it difficult to actually alleviate the pain women go through! The crime of men who harass is harassment and not their gender. They can use sexuality as a tool because we see women as sexually vulnerable and weak. Unless that perception is addressed little will be achieved. As long as women see themselves so, they will react to relieve the rage by engaging in men bashing - natural given the scale of the fear. But that does not free them from the perception that they are vulnerable and weak! That is why men bashing will not help. But refusing to cover up, to de-sex themselves, to slouch, or in general, to feel vulnerable, will! In fact, targetting men is worse because it will satisfy the rage and stop.

Take care,

- Abhijat (The Man)

mcx said...

Hi Man (Abhijeet),

Thanks for the nod and the voice : )


Anonymous said...


J said...

dear annie

do keep writing, raising questions.

are you based in mumbai? would you like to meet up?

looking forward


Indian Home Maker said...

"Yesterday, I was filled with a deep, deep sense of despair.
Never, in recent memory, have I felt this numb, this deflated."

That's exactly how I have been feeling since this Mangalore attack on girls in a pub. Everything is wrong - the attack, the hypocrisy, the politics behind it, and the way nothing is being done about it.

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