Saturday, October 07, 2006

Empower, unpower, empower

For a minute there, I felt powerful. For a minute, I thought, it would get sorted now.

Now that I am involved, have learnt to speak up, and have discovered a few tools that can out-intimidate the intimidators, I thought I was just about done with street sexual harassment.

I should have known better... All it takes is five seconds of letting your guard down.

Five seconds, when I step inside the kirane ki dukaan near my house, to buy milk. A man follows me into the shop, and pretends to be just another customer, looking for Archies' greeting cards (in a kirana shop!). I leave, and as I open the gate to my place, the man stops me. Offers to 'make friendship'.

I have heard this so many times, and have responded to it in so many ways that I would have laughed outright. If it was not for the fact that I was suddenly frightened. By the knowledge that the man had probably been following me for some time without my noticing, that he now knew where I lived and that I was alone at home.

I say 'no thank you'.

He does not leave. He says 'don't misunderstand... genuine friendship, I promise'.

I tell him that I have many genuine friends and don't want any more. I ask him to leave. I say 'please'.

He does not leave.

I am reluctant to climb the stairs and open the lock until he has left.

He tries to give me a phone number.

I do not take it. He does not leave.

Finally, I have to turn away, run upstairs and lock all three doors behind me until I reach the top and can peer down to ensure that he has left.

Five seconds on the bus, when I am on the phone with my mother, and thus, have forgotten to stay alert and look aggressive.

The man sitting next to me has placed his hand on my thigh. At first, so lightly that I don't notice. When I do, I turn to look at him, aghast. I am so surprised, that for a full five seconds, I cannot find my voice.

And then, all I can think of saying is - "Ye kya kar rahe ho?" (What are you doing?)

He withdraws his hand with a sudden, quick movement and looks out of the window.

The rage is slow to arrive, for some reason. But while I get steadily angrier by the fractioned second, I notice what a pitiful picture the man cuts - he is a mouse of a man; a trapped rat of a man... if I wanted to, this minute, I could beat him up. Not because I am stronger, but because he is such a coward and I am so angry. All I can feel is contempt.

I say "Get up and get out. Right now!"

He gets up immediately, mumbles something about having to get off anyway, and gets off at the next stop.

The humiliation is his, but minutes afterwards, I continue to simmer. Others have noticed this little exchange of words and some men are turning to stare at me. I stare back at them and they quickly look away.

When I get home, I catch myself wanting to take a bath... And yet, something has changed. This time, my reaction is different from what it would have been two years ago. I did not hit the man. I did not scream. I did not panic. I did not feel the need to create a big scene. I was surprised, felt contempt and anger - I did not feel fear.

This, I realise now, is because of blank noise, partly. I have gotten used to dealing with the problem, talking about it, taking it to the very streets where we endure it... So used to it, that it seems incredible that somebody should actually dare to go on harassing me. A corner of my brain was wondering - 'What? Don't they know?'

And that is why getting involved was good for me.
Blank Noise is not just about getting men to lay off. It is also about empowering women to deal with men who will not keep their unwelcome hands off you. It is as much about dealing with women's fear of public spaces and strangers, as it is about dealing with sexually abusive/intimidating strangers

Which is why I encourage every woman I meet, especially college girls and young professionals, to get involved.

It is hard to get involved, I know. It is hard to make time for a battle that's everybody's battle; there are too many personal ones to fight. But hard though it is, it makes sense. For my own sake, for my sisters and for the women we will bring up, some day.

To show up, to do something - anything! - against sexual harassment in public spaces. Because these are my spaces too; and I can't let somebody alienate me from my own spaces simply because intimidating shit happens out there.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

You might be a little tired of my saying "I like this piece" since I like most of the pieces I comment on (on this blog) but anyway...

Anonymous said...

Hats off to you, Annie. Your writing is truly from the heart.

WillOTheWisp said...

From the sixteen odd years spent based in UP and Delhi, I have been led to believe that the only true deterrent is ONE TIGHT SLAP in the face ( in full face of a crowd, if possible and available ), followed by LOUD chastisement in CHOICE language.
People tend to, somehow, 'respect' women who do that ... and the molestors get a lynching.

It has a psychological effect as well - once you have done something like this, your body language alters subtly enough thereafter. Men tend to sense this and stay away...

jbird said...

Hi Annie,

I found your blog today, and have been quite fascinated by your entries. I have added it to my list of links because I think you have great insight about your country.

I am an American, and I am concerned about our reputation in the world. Our country is a puzzle in the world, and I am often disturbed as I travel around various places around the world why so many people hate Americans. I am not saying that you do, only that in one of your posts you describe your feelings about America during the Tsunami and the help that India would not receive from other countries. We are, I guess, considered a rich country. In a post you had, you posited a question about why India is a poor country. Granted, we did invent many horrendous weapons of war. But, we have invented many things that people around the world have benefited from.
An Example:
Light bulb
Sewing Machine
Cotton Gin\
Coffee Pot
Power Tools
Ether Anesthesia
False Teeth
Oil Well
Roller Skates
Pneumatic Subway
Electric fan
Space Shuttle
Artificial Heart
Video Games
Blood Bank
Traffic Signals
Hearing aid
Kodak camera
Air conditioning
Heart-Lung Machine
Polio vaccine

I think what makes Americans different, and what makes our country strong despite our internal issues, is the fact that we are very curious about everything. Further, we want to make life better for ourselves. We don’t accept status quo regarding anything really. We in this country are having an internal debate of astounding proportions regarding our place in the world. George Bush is brash, loud, not sophisticated. But he believes that there are areas in the world that are in need of change. That women, in countries with no rights, deserve to have them. I have read with great interest your posts regarding sexual harassment on the streets in India. In my mind, I have never thought of myself as less just because I am a woman. The voice in my head is mine. Not a woman, not a man, just me. This country, with all of its faults, encourages me to be myself. And to revel in the fact that I am unique, and that my voice matters. We, as Americans, shoulder the responsibility alone of making sure that many countries don’t have to pay for their defense. Instead, they can use their money to provide social programs for their elderly, ect. In times of defense of many European countries, we are there with our men, our money and our support. We abhor war. We are not war mongers. But, we do believe ideals are worth defending, fighting for and protecting against those that would like to see otherwise. We have done more good in the world than bad. I wish people that live in houses with air conditioning, phones, computers, television, and use airplanes and automobiles would remember from time to time, that Americans ingenuity and curiosity led them to discover common items that do make the individuals life better.

Anonymous said...

You go girl!! Hope you manage to stay alert and evict some more asses!!

Y? said...

yeah! i completely agree with you. After being involved with blank noise its now more anger than that terrible fear i was so used to and shut up about!
and blank noise means more confidence! on the roads , each time! I am not sure what blank noise has done to people on the streets who've watched the interventions ; am sure its done something - but it has empowered all of us! !

El enigma said...

kudos to ur words and efforts, annie..I like where u said, it is hard to make time for a battle that's everyone's, there r too many personal ones to fight...but hard tho it is, it makes sense..hope it makes sense to others too, and empowers them to make a their own lives and maybe in someone else's too..because our personal spaces are ours alone and no one ever has a right to intrude onto them or violate them..


Annie Zaidi said...

anirudh: thanks. and no, nobody gets tired of people saying nice things about their work.
altaf: thanks
willothewisp: i don't know if the change is dramatic enough to keep harrassment at bay, but it is enough to teach you that you don't have to take it silently.
bluespriite: :)
y?: true.
el enigma: am hoping it will encourage others.

Annie Zaidi said...

stacie: a whole comment to deal with yours, because it is going to be long.
am not sure which of my posts triggered off your response, but I'd like to clarify that i don't have a set attitude to the USA in general. i have a few american friends and I know how bitterly they resent your leader.
while on the subject of leaders, it might help to know (since you're puzzled about why people hate the USA) that your leader is not just viewed as unsophisticated. he is thought to be a dangerous mix of stupidity, greed and viciousness. there are people in the world who believe he is a war criminal and should be tried as one. this is way, way beyond 'brash and loud'.
about the wonderful things america gave the world, my lovely, it is best not to go down that route.
because you and i are using computers (which use the binary system) and india gave the world 'zero'. india and other asian countries also gave you pepper and many spices which render food edible. the greeks gave us many mathematical theorums. in fact, where do you think the word (and the concept) 'democracy' came from? italy told us that the earth was round. and Africa... why, it just might have given the world the first human being!
does it follow, then, that we condone what is happening in Sudan, because this is the rough region where humanity reared its hairless face?

and for the record, in my mind, i have not thought of myself as anything other than an individual, either. for all the harassment and rape and abuse out there, i have never, ever, for a moment doubted my worth as individual, because i am a woman. in fact, the voice in my head is a woman's voice, but it has no problems being a woman's voice. whether this voice matters or not is not for me to decide. i will use it, even if it does not matter.

I do not want to get into a debate about what the US really stands for, and whether or not it wants peace. however, if you truly want to understand some things, do read this article titled 'anatomy of collateral damage' -

J said...

Cheers for that! This fact pisses me off, really! I've seen it happening to thers, but often I feel I don't find a voice to protest. But when I see the woman fighting it out, I feel better. Its sick and pathetic. I'm proud, really I am.

editor said...

Kudos Annie. I understand the extreme revulsion at such behaviour. And want to write a lot but feel reluctant. Actually I have often travelled in North Indian cities and have quite an experience of such behaviour.

Have you thought how these rat-like creatures even dare to touch a woman sexually? In school days I heard a lot about touches and all these things and often boys said that girls also liked that. I never believed that and was disgusted hearing such things. Having observed these nasty things...often girls shouting, often somehow enduring as they are scared of tamasha....

But there is a section, it may be a very micro-minuscule one, of women also who are not only involved in these things but also initiate. And such experiences in buses, trains, tempos and other places give these sort of chaps the 'courage' to do all such activities.

I was on way to Lucknow in a train, a middle-aged married sophisticated-looking woman covering self with shawl kept pressing her shoulders to me, inched towards me and did quite a lot of activities. I felt so awkward. I have had 5-6 other experiences and all of them were middle-class women in 30s or 40s. And believe me you can't tell anybody. As you would be mocked. Who will believe?

There is so much perversion amongst males in our society. I know. Some women also perhaps imbibe it, they are as much humans. May be they are just 5% compared to men. I just informed you that there is this possibility also that such incidents tempt the molestors. I don't want it a Male Vs Female debate at all and I shared it with you on your blog because I feel you would take it in right spirit. This might help you in understanding another aspect. Though generalising is bad, perversion amongst semi-rural woman is no less than rural women when it comes to bawdy jokes, touches and similar activities specially with minor boys.

I know its the worst feeling in the world to get sexually touched by somebody. Such guys need to be publicly humiliated. And of course there are girls who have the guts to hit and slap them. That's the way one should act.

Anonymous said...

Very, very good.

Anonymous said...


Kudos for talking about this. It is indeed creepy.

India does not have many public places where you can go and spend some quality time with family and friends. No town squares, riverfronts, beach boardwalks, you name it. It doesnt exist.

For a young woman it is a traumatic experience as you point out. Day in and day out - being exposed to uncouth strangers in a public setting is *not* fun.

While your goal is worthy, take care of your safety. Carry a mace (pepper spray) or equivalent with you at all times.

If a country is not yet ready, then sometimes it is prudent to just back off a bit. Move into an area or building where there are more people like yourself. Minimize usage public transport if that makes you feel safer. I know is sounds stand-off ish, but you got to do what you got to do !

You are obviously a talented girl and I think you should try to maximize your potential in your lifetime. You cant continuously put yourself in situations that make you angry and furious.

Sorry for the preachy tone.

smriti said...

babe, was reading your response to stacy's comment and when i reached the word "sweety" i said ouch.
But lord, that was one infuriating comment and what an excuse to use it!

1conoclast said...

Wholeheartedly agree with rc! Very mature, judicious comment.

1conoclast said...

Stacie, my thoughts on what you're saying...

I am a great fan of the American people. I think most of them are forward looking, which explains the innovations; & are excellent at implementation, which explains the infrastructure. As opposed to us, who're saddled with 4000 years of civilization & regional culture. But you have your problems as well.
No one hates the American people. I remember being asked that by a Sioux Falls cabbie. I'll tell you what I told him. What the rest of the world hates is your foriegn policy. This desire to dominate. If it isn't controlled, you run the risk of having a modern history akin to that of Germany.
Your Governments are by & large run by unscrouplous people.

As for George Bush, he deserves every bit of criticism that he gets. He'll get what he deserves. After all Israel got Adolf Eichmann when he was 80, hiding in Argentina; and tried & executed the bastard!

All the civilized world needs to do is wait.

Anonymous said...

The Blank Noise project is an amazing and one well worth the effort. I only wish I was in a place where I could attend and contribute.

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