Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Pledge in the new year

We sent wishes. Didn't we?

May the moon charm you and the sun warm you. May your lips be assaulted by laughter. May the year bring health. Jobs. May you... may you... may the new year bring....

And the new year brought.

The news that even before the sun had a chance to dawn upon the first day of the new year, that two women - escorted by men - were molested by a mob of about seventy men.

Exhibit 1 of the year. Mumbai must be reeling. It reels rather regularly, this safe city of ours, no? Especially over the last few years, when photographers have been around to record her shame. The pictures have ensured front page fear where the news would otherwise have been a 'briefs' item or a single column somewhere.

I've kept that article open on a different window all day. Returned to it several times, trying to understand.

Is there a language with which one discusses this sort of problem? Some anthropological jargon? Some special gendered lens through which one can peer and begin to develop a perspective?

Where do I begin? With this, that I've never much been taken in by the 'safe city' bilge? With reminding myself of myself in Mumbai, of my friends there?

Or do I conjure up a remembered image of the Gateway of India?

That time I'd walked there with a male friend and he'd been sitting right beside me and how, within minutes, a bunch of men had begun to appear all around, to my right and left, and behind, crowding us in, and how their hands had begun to touch and I could only feel appalled that it should happen in a male friend's presence in broad daylight! And the fear of what it would be like if I had been sitting there alone. And how I have never, since that day, sat down to just look at the sea at the Gateway of India.

Perhaps, I should begin differently. Perhaps, I should talk of class, instead, and lifestyle divisions.

That there are people who stand outside... outside... looking in. That there are five-star hotels and parties and tickets that the average citizen cannot afford. That they stand out there, looking in, waiting, and when the party-goers step out, as they must at some point, then... then what?

What shall I say about this, then?

Shall we try to look at this as a migrants problem, then? As a problem of single men, throbbing with sexual desire and unable to touch the beautiful rich women they do desire?

Shall we try to look at this as a cultural problem, then? As a problem of men who have never partied with single women, never sat down and had a drink with them, never danced with them, never picked them up from their homes and safely dropped them off, never ever seen them up close - the sort of women who wear slinky, western clothes and go partying at night?

Shall we try to look at this as a western influence problem, then? As a problem of women who go out partying with men, drink with them, dance with them, step out into the fresh air at night?

Ah! It's beginning to sound easy, isn't it? It is beginning to sound like something we know, have heard, can believe. We know this beast.

This beast does not seem to understand that sex is a two-way street. It seems to think that the female of the species does not have a will of its own, does not deserve one. This beast is not empathetic. It only knows what it is, and it is not a woman.

This beast... how well I know it.

This beast says, don't. Don't, if you want to live. Don't, if you want to be safe. This beast stands breathing hard over our heads while we live fractured, fractioned lives wherein we build ourselves smaller and smaller cages to curl up and die in, unmolested.

And the thing is, that it really is a battle between us and the beast. At least, for me, it is. It is us or the beast. So, in a way - a rude, blistering, numbing way - it is time to pick up the cudgels and renew the pledge.

Because I had a nice new year's eve, you see. I had a nice time sitting at home with a few old friends, laughing and gossiping about the old times. Unafraid young women because they were home, locked in from the big, bad world. Women who kept glancing at the clock after eleven at night, and rushed home soon after midnight hugs and wishes, because they would not risk driving by themselves any later than that. Women who spent twice as much as they needed to - taking taxis instead of autos, because that's the price you pay for wanting to be out in the evening. Women who were clothed head to foot twice over since it is a cold winter night, but would have worried nevertheless.

And today, I renew my commitment to Blank Noise.

Because I will not expect it, and will not accept it.

I will not stop buying 'provocative' clothes. I will not be modest. I will not behave. I will not treat the night as a na-mehram I cannot be seen with. I will not change my stride to side-step the maps of our molestation. I will not call a violation by any other name. I will not make unwanted rules for myself.

I will crush the beast where I see it. With a stare, with a slur, with a scream, with a camera, with an alphabet at a crossing, with a pamphlet, with a map, with a voice, with a can of paint, with anything that comes to hand.

I will take the sun AND the moon, the day AND the night, the sky AND the sea, the daily grind AND the parties. I will take my rights as a citizen and nothing less.

Dear Stranger,

Will you help?


Anonymous said...

Fantastic.. gave me goose bumps and yes makes me want to commit to Blank Noise because Mumbai obviously needs a more active chapter..

Ashish Gorde said...

Well said. More power to you and all other women who decide to step out and regain that space.

I was in Mumbai last month - after a gap of six years - and couldn't help notice the repressed anger that was so palpable. Hence, I'm not altogether surprised by the news event you mentioned here... very sad though.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for being blunt in this comment but I have to write out my view without trying to be artificially polite (thanks so much if you read the full comment!).

1. Has Blank noise ever consider trying to affect the alcohol policy effective in various parts of India till date. My gut feeling is that a large number of molesters are under the influence of alcohol or some other drug. Alcohol can and do severely affects decision-making. One may keep harping that 'No, if a person is good deep within their heart they would never hurt someone else physically or mentally'. I won't have anything to say on that except that there is empirical evidence that denying alcohol to party-goers can help reduce such crimes. For example, if legal age in Mumbai is x, one should strive to make it x+2, *irrespective* of the value x. Alternatively, make such a rule exclusive to gatherings such as parties. (I am a boy of 25 and am scared of people moving in a mob who seem drunk from a distance.)

2. What about some kind of code developed and circulated by Blank Noise to handle such crimes where a mob is involved collectively. I would be inclined to say that at any such crime-event there would be people present very near who would like to take proactive action to stop the crime but won't do so simply because of the concern of their own safety. One may mock their 'cowardliness' but why not simply accept the fact that it is human to be scared of taking on a mob as an *individual* and then start from there? One thing that could be done is to develop some kind of universal code by which people who want to take up against such crime right there can communicate so that each individual feel more courageous to go ahead and get it stopped finally culminating in getting the culprits arrested etc. (by code I mean some kind of hand signal but not necessarily).

Was (obviously) too disturbed by the news. So many other things to write but would stop here given that this comment is already too long.

May new year give more power to wise and more wisdom to strong. Happy new year!

Madhat said...

great pledge!
I like the way you say so much with so little words...

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post. Disturbing post. Depressing post.
Can feel the frustration in my heart.
Thank you for voicing out so many of our own fears deep down.
Thank you for introducing me to Blank Noise.

Sunil D'Monte said...

The "incident" left me feeling disgusted and depressed, at a time in my life when I need some good news something like this just makes life ten times worse. And this morning's paper describes the men as "the gropers". Jesus. Amid all the talk of security and police complaints, they don't seem to be asking the crucial question you rasise - WHAT'S WRONG WITH THESE MEN?

Comment to 25-year old male above - I'm 34 and male. I too have been heinously drunk before, and have exhibited lack of judgement and loud pack behaviour in public. It didn't make me sexually assault a woman though. No amount of alcohol could do that to me. There *is* something in deep down that is involved, the alcohol and the crowd perhaps brings it to the surface more quickly. And you know, it's not like these men are pro-feminist when they're sobre.

Deepak Srivastava said...

Its a shame when one cannot live the way one intends to live and i do not believe that people misbehave becuase you are not suitably dressed. I think its a disease which is much bigger than what people comprehend, its not just a casual teasing that went rough. Its like aids if not prevented will leave us with irrecoverable situations. and i think one of the ways of trying to solve it is to support the movement of blank noise and like we do with criminals treat these people as unfits for living in the society. i am willing to do my bit in taking steps towards making a better world. All of us have to make our contribution for the human race. I just started a advertising agency in Mumbai and i will be more than willing to do my contribution. Just a question why doesnt blank noise come into media attention, i might be able to help.

Anonymous said...

the police commissioner's comments on this were both telling and appalling...
The fact that a lot of men think of women as sexual objects and can move in a lusty pact to pounce on them ... in a public place... in a 'safe' city.... under the gaze of the press, the police and hotel staff ... is scary..
good anthem.....

Anonymous said...

@sunil: Please re-read my comment above. I didn't say that 1) there is nothing 'deep down' 2) I didn't say that *everyone* who is drinking will behave like an animal.

I just said that "that denying alcohol to (young) party-goers can help reduce such crimes." That is all and I stand by my statement.

If you prod me more I will be willing to say that yes, there is probably something 'deep down' but creating a change in society on that level *may* take a very long time (and I applaud efforts like Blank Noise for that). So, ok, in the meantime lets take society as a 'black box' and take certain actions that have helped in other places in similar situations.

Anonymous said...

perhaps a less incoherent comment (by me) here:

posted as anonymous (the first two comments).

Anonymous said...

Thank you Annie for this post. You've said all the things that I've wanted to say. During incidents like these, most of the times I'm lost for words. I have been trying to wonder what prompts men to do things like this....80 men groping 2 women.....But I don't get it. I don't think I ever will. I don't think I'll ever realise what makes people inflict such cruelty on others. Meanwhile, I'm gonna implement your wonderful pledge :) I'll take all MY rights as a citizen... Thanks again :)

1conoclast said...

As appalled as you are. More because I took pride in what once was Bombay.
Have linked to your post. My 2 visitors should be on your post & on to Blank Noise soon.
Can you help me understand how I can help wrt Blank Noise? I took the link, but couldn't figure out how I can contribute.

I've recently begun to wonder if Prohibition can contribute. And I don't think desire is to blame. It is the repressed anger that mixes with desire that needs to be tackled somehow.

Have tagged you for something as well. Pass it on if you can.

dipali said...

Is this our much touted 'Bhartiya Sanskriti', the land where 'devis' are worshipped? Why are women perceived as 'the other', an object to be either deified or humiliated, as chosen by the mob? No easy answers.
The scenario is sickening and frightening, but being fearful will not help. More outrage, more awareness, more projects like Blank
Noise are needed. I don't really know if alcohol is a factor or not.
Given that so many occurrences take place in broad daylight and mid-morning, perhaps not.
Self-defence, martial arts, pepper-spray: useful, but not really desirable in the sense that they force one to do some kind of violence on another, when all you want to do is mind your own business and lead life on your own terms.
Awareness at all levels. And no more of the idiotic forms of eve-teasing that have been propagated by several Hindi films.
How do we get rid of the notion that the educated/well to do appearing women are THE ENEMY to be humiliated/hurt in public spaces?

I love your pledge, Annie.

(On the Blank Noise walk in Kolkata,it was amazing- we looked straight into the eyes of the strangers on the road, and they couldn't hold our gaze at all).

Anonymous said...

I haven't been reading newspapers for more than a year now. I had no idea something like this had happened in Bombay. If THAT is Bombay, then Delhi is safer. And no arrests?!?!??????

There are photographs for Christ's sake! With faces of those men who should be publicly castrated!!

Lesley E said...

i couldnt read the news for a while because this was the top item on google news and that too accompanied by these horrific photos. in the bombay i grew up in, me and my friend could fall asleep at 3 am on the parapets of the gateway and this kind of horror was beyond imagination. i walked through twilight and darkness from rafi marg to safdarjung's tomb on new years day in delhi without any degree of concern, beyond being shat upon by the hundreds of parrots on motilal nehru marg. i was aware as i walked that when i first came here 9 years ago, i feared being out alone on delhi's streets in the evening. i still feel stress when my girlfriend walks alone in our colony park after dark. and i grieved for my own city, where the worst seemed to have happened. then i finally read the news. and you know what, as awful and abominable as it was, the bombay i knew did come through on the night. bystanders refused to remain bystanders, and they broke the crowd up pretty quickly. we havent reached the end of the road just as yet

AlmostGrownUp said...

i am speechless, annie. beautifully said. hats off.

Anonymous said...

What has happened is sad and highly deplorable. Your pledge that you will not curl up makes great copy, but do remember: if you get into risky situations because it is courageous (some may call it foolhardy, but that you may say is just the opinion of the unread ir the coward.)and you want to stand by what are your convictions, be sure that you can handle it. That you should not get into risky situations which you can't handle is a judicious call irrespective of your gender or class. You should not get into them hoping that good samaritans/strangers will be hanging around to help you if you get into trouble, just because you are rush into spots where angels fear to read. If they do, count it as a bonus and thank your stars. To all those who bemoan how Bombay has fallen, they miss the point that we increasingly enjoy walking on the edge, (be it risky driving/sexual behaviour/commercial enterprises, whatever) and if you do that we should be prepared for an occasional fall.

AlmostGrownUp said...

one more moron letting us know that bad things happen to girls who "walk the edge", indulge in "sexual behavior" and "go where angels fear to tread". just wat the world needs!

Anonymous said...

And I will not shed blood to defend a girl who does not seem to bother about her responsibility in the society.I wont shed blood to defend a girl who raises testosterone level in men to an extent whereby he looses control over himself.I wont shed blood for a girl who expects saintly behavior from men.I wont shed blood for a girl who is so unrealistic.I will shed blood to defend those girls who play their part in the creation for a better and realistic society.I will shed blood for those girls who are forced by their parents,husbands etc to dress up in provocative and revealing dress.And yes I will have to shed my blood for my sisters no matter how they dress.

1conoclast said...

and another scaredy-cat hiding behind the veil of anonymity...

Anonymous said...

Wow! I've never really lived in Bombay but have several friends from Bombay. I was pleasantly surprised by the people I had met and they all spoke very highly of the culture in Bombay being more liberal than Delhi. It comes as a shock to see these pictures published on the front page of HT, and that no action has been taken against these men.

Irrespective of the devil within or your choice to indulge in alcohol beyond what you can handle. These are grown men who chose to behave this way and they should be suitably punished! Last time I checked India is a democracy where we have equal rights. Women have a right to express themselves whatever way they wish as do men, but in the end risky behavior has attached consequences for both men and women! This is a legal issue people, these men should be punished!!

sridevi nair said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sridevi nair said...

The best defense is offense. Don’t just react to big events. But start with the small:
1. If a guy pushes you in a crowd push him back
2. if he tries to touch/fondle caress hit him hard where it hurts, even his stomach is a good bet
3. If he pinches your butt, kick him in the shins
4. If he makes rude comments, don’t just hear it, scream back and embarrass him
5. If he flashes, walk upto him and slap him hard
6. If he falls on you and blames the crowd, lash out and apologise in equal measure
7. If you see other women being harassed gang up and beat the shit out of them

Do anything - hit, slap, abuse, the list is endless…
If you nip the bud in everyday life, it will gradually instil a feeling of empowerment for women and help stop this perversity from spreading.
Sridevi Nair

KingSlayer said...

Inspiring article. Disgusting event. I came to the comments page to elaborate further on these points. But some of the comments above just go to show that its not just the uneducated, sexually frustrated, possibly 'migrant' men on the streets of Mumbai who have the mental framework which allows them to think and act in this way.

To the anonymous hero of all womenfolk - with all your promises about protecting this woman but not that one -

You are not the one who decides the responsibility of women in this world.
You are not the one who has the right to make judgement about a person on the basis of how she dresses.
And from your demeanor its pretty much certain no one can expect saintly behaviour from you. Not the kind of saints I have heard about any way.

Its not just the women though, Annie. Its hard to express the feelings of a man anxious to ensure the safety of his girlfriend/wife from such a situation. And since I cant express it, what more do I add?

Anonymous said...

Painful Honesty:

Been thinking hard abt this and find that I am not comfortable with the combination of: women dressing provocatively, drinking and staying outdoors late in 'unsafe' areas.

... but I've never been under the impression that anybody has to do anything in alignment with my wishes/ comforts or what I judge to be 'risky' or 'safe' behavior. They should go with theirs.

What this comes down to is that if they want protection from ppl like me, that's probably not going to happen since we are indoors and mindful of our own safety avoiding such situations.

From the safety of my rather less-than-brave refuge, I do wish Annie success in pushing this envelope.


Anonymous said...

Another perspective on this, since I am still trying to understand why such a thing did happen.
Here in Dilip's article is the reason I think why..
It ends with Dilip asking us to think about it when we hear of crimes committed by young men. I am thinking...

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