Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Blank Noise Project

I have terrible posture. That's what I discover in every exercise-dance class that I attend. Movements that should look graceful with the right posture look awkward, my shoulders droop. Did I never learn to walk with my head high in air, shoulders thrown back, breasts thrust up and with the confidence of being secure in the space around me? Actually, in my first gawky teenage moments, horrified by the first signs of a sexual persona in the form of growing breasts, I closed in my body to obliterate this shame of mine. And thus I walked home from school, fearful that my transition to womanhood would attract more of the sort of groping and pinching that had sporadically occured even when I was a child.

Yes, even at age 7. By a man who had kindly offered to seat me, the little kid, in his lap in a crowded bus. And then proceeded to grope me under my dress. I was puzzled, terrified, and never mentioned one word to my beloved uncle who had seated me on the monster's lap to save me from being choked by the crowded bus. In later years, I had the relative security of a school bus full of fellow students for most of my commutes, but the rare bus ride would be full of dread and anxiety, and as I grew up, I created a mental force field around myself, and became preternaturally aware of any clammy hand that tried to violate my physical space.

However, unsavoury incidents occured frequently. I told a male friend that I had been harassed twice by bastards who had been trying to press their obviously erect organs agains my shoulder as I sat in a bus. He was incredulous, he couldn't believe that there could be such lewd public behaviour in a country that can't seem to shut up about morality. A few weeks later, he called me, shocked, and told me that he had indeed seen a man on the bus he travelled in, with a very public erection, trying to thrust it against an unsuspecting seated woman. I wore, loose, ill-fitting clothing in the hope that it would make the harassers forget about my gender. Regardless, men even when they couldn't touch my skin, would try and tug at my clothes.

A friend of mine got her breasts groped in a crowded bus while her father was next to her. For months, she walked around morose, afraid of the dreadful incident being mentioned in her presence. Another friend had a man ambush her from behind and brush his lips against her cheek. She felt so violated that she burned the skin on that spot with a hot spoon. Sometimes, mentally I pummell and beat the crap out of every man who had ever sexually harassed me, and I had not retaliated then, because I was too afraid, too embarassed, too concerned with propriety. Yet, the one time I did complain to a police officer standing nearby that I was being harasssed, I stopped the officer from thrashing the guy and insisted that we take the man to a police station for due procedure to be followed. You see, I don't really believe in vendetta, I believe the effective implementation of existing laws is the best deterrent against harassment of women.

At times, Suze and I talk about our experiences growing up, and wonder why we aren't all cynical and jaded and hateful of Indian men. The fact is that for every asshole who's sexually harassed us, we've found countless other men who've been strong, supportive, and empathetic. Some of them have horror stories of their own, of being sexually harassed by other men, stories that meet with far more incredulous responses than women's sexual harassment accounts. A friend had to endure sexual predators who were his male teachers at a religious seminary he attended, till he couldn't fend them off any more and ran away.

Of course, we are the world champions of sexual hypocrisy. Suze called me one day, fuming, saying she had read about a 5 year old child getting raped by her grandfather in India, and legislators yak on endlessly about how Western influence is finishing off our civilization. We hear non-stop sermonizing over the relationship between revealing attire and harassment, and yet, in all my months of working in poor settlements, I heard conservatively dressed women, the sari draped over their heads, frequently express fear of harassment in public spaces. We are obsessed with keeping appearances, and denial of uncomfortable truths.

Though I think the worst problem is not denial that sexual harassment takes place at all, but to not think of it as a serious issue that restricts a woman's ability to make use of public spaces and amenities and live a life equal to a man. Years ago, the journal that I was the editorial assistant for had carried a superb piece by the Pakistani journalist Imran Aslam, where he had detailed his traumatic experiences of taking a bus in Karachi covered up in a burqa which hid the fact that he was in fact male. He was stunned at the level of harassment he had to endure, given the fact that not a single curve was to be discerned within the shapeless burqa. Perhaps that is indeed the solution, to make all the academicians, politicians, religious leaders, saviours of society at large to don a burqa and travel in a public bus all day. Then we can get them to shut up about how revealing clothing provokes harassment and take proactive measures to address harassment of women.

Please support the Blank Noise Project


Blogger IndCoup said...

great post.

I love the story about the guy who wore the burka on the bus.

Personally, I think that in sexually repressed societies there is more chance of this sort of thing taking place than in countries that are "sexually open minded".

Would you agree?

2:15 AM  
Anonymous Sanity Starved said...

Thanks, Swati :)

3:55 AM  
Blogger Essar said...

Yeah, sexual repression is the problem really. This is the same society that looks upon pre marital sex as a crime and homosexuality - ah well we actually have a section 377 designating it as illegal. The scary thing though, is that we're regressing. All the progress made by the feminist movement has been nullified coz we're back to viewing women the way we used to in the 50s. I just wonder how worse it can get.

11:20 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Indcoup, thank you. Glad you liked Imran's story, I wish I had a copy of it so I could excerpt some in my post.

I agree with you in principle, however I've been told that sexual harassment is near absent in Iran, but that's not because of any sexual openmindedness, but fear of the Republican Guards and their moral policing.

So we should not merely ensure that harassment doesn't take place but also create a climate of open engagement between the sexes without fear of either harassment or state repression. Scandinavian countries are the ideal to aspire for.

Pidus, I was very apprehensive when I wrote this that I might be perceived as embittered towards Indian men, which I am absolutely not, and I count many of them as my dearest family and friends. So your thumbs up means a lot. Thank you.

Essar, the Khushbu case did seem very regressive, but it seems to me that every progressive moment in our society invites a backlash. So it is entirely possible that we hear these regressive voices even more because society is changing more rapidly than ever. Which is a good thing.

1:14 PM  
Blogger Adagio For Strings said...

Its hopeless! There will always be pervs and while one cant ensure that this sort of stuff will not happen again one can exact revenge on the that specific one who did try to violate one. If I were you I would have thrown in a kick or two instead of stopping the cop. (In response to the vendetta part of the entry)...(In reality I probably would have done the same hting you did but I just feel a lot of hate for these ppl at this point in time...or at any point I am "reminded" of them)...

1:30 AM  
Blogger shubhaprada said...

Well there are instances of family members sexually abusing the younger kids or sometimes cousins doin that with sisters younger than them. I know someone who has gone thru that and in situations like this its difficult to tell parents or the relatives it cos its either blamed on the girl or silenced off cos it wud destroy family ties. Its just so disgusting

4:58 AM  
Blogger Deaths Head Roy said...

A good thing that the BlankNoiseProject has done is to make many people realise as to how rampant this evil is in society....i for one, never knew how much widespread this filth is.....i appreciate the courage you have had in talking about it...to think that there are many thousands, why even millions who have not talked about it....
yes, for a country that talks so much about morality and the "western influence" - pathetic...

5:37 AM  
Blogger aparna said...

A very very good post. I, like many other indian women identify with things mentioned here, having gone through such horrid experiences. In crowded buses, as a preteen (i must have been 11/12 then). The reason men and social watchdogs give - revealing clothes etc is all bullshit. You just need to be a woman. However, I havent come across any cases of men being harrassed by other men, but i am sure it must be equally traumatic.

I think posts like this will shut up people who are utterly irresponsible about this whole issue, many of whom conveniently play the revealing clothes and you throw me the bait, i will take it reasoning...

8:06 AM  
Blogger anthony said...

It was a nice post Thalassa.. It must be horrible for you.. that sicko prick on the bus. You mentioned men, and to think of it, I remember that my english teacher used to embrace me a lot.. I still don't know if it was normal. Fuck, i could break his neck in a snap now.

9:59 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Adagio, I cannot begin to describe the wave of disgust that runs through my body when I remember these perverts, and yet, somewhere deep down, I guess I have too much faith in democratic institutions. The best way to ensure that this sort of thing does not happen is make our society more gender-sensitive and ensure that the fear of legal action acts as an effective deterrent.

Shubha, from what I've seen of such cases, even though most parents are too scared to take up the matter for fear of destroying family ties, they usually ensure that the daughter is not put in a situation of vulnerability with the abuser. So your acquaintance should definitely tell her parents.

Roy, thank you for the supportive words. I'm always very appreciative of men (I assume you are) who vocally express their opposition to sexual harassment.

Thanks,Aparna. Yes, I too have been amazed by how widespread the problem is in metropolitan India. Our cities are extremely women-unfriendly, and we don't seem to be doing anything about it, except blaming the victim from time to time.

Tony, there are just too many such sicko pricks, just read all the posts most talk about being assaulted first at a pre-puberty age. And it takes much, much more courage for men to talk about sexual abuse, so I really admire that.

12:31 PM  
Blogger Adagio For Strings said...


I was working in the lab right now and I had to resurface for a breath of fresh air because of your comment about faith in democratic institutions. There is no reason to really. There is no immutable physical law that says democracy is best form of governance. I cant say I know of a good replacement. But democracy is what has given one the South Dakota ani-abortion bill (how about that...near women's day to...thats what I call sticking it) and section 377 of IPC. So why is it that people have such faith in democracy? (10 marks) :) (See this is why you should come down to Pasadena for coffee :D. I will probably get an inadequate couple of liner for this rather seemingly rhetorical question when you probably know so much more about this topic than I do)

5:55 PM  
Blogger Patient Portnoy said...

The "shapeless burqa" point was a brilliant one... Thanks for that.

To be used against those silly meyedero-dosh-aachhe arguments that make you burn from head to foot.

Is there anyway I get to read Imran Aslam's story?

3:03 AM  
Blogger Cynthia Antoinette said...

Dear Thalassa:

What a powerful post. So many can relate. Thank you for your courage to post it. Additionally, I'm writing to ask your permission to post an excerpt with links to your post. If you'd rather I didn't please write me at the email provided on my blog. Sincerely, Cynthia Antoinette

link: http://ca-online.blogspot.com/2006/03/blank-noise-by-cyborg.html

3:17 PM  
Blogger Dewaker Basnet said...

great post:)

10:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post. I can identify with what you went through - riding public transportation in India. I use to just hit guys or yell at them in the bus.

8:21 PM  
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9:46 PM  
Anonymous Hajara said...

Great post Thalassa.

True, only the stringent enforcement of the existing laws against sexual harassment and other crimes, will bring fear into the heart of the harassers/offenders and put an end to such practices. On that note, i really like governments like Saudi Arabia, that follow the law enforcement to the core, which does show the positive results of low crime rate.

5:00 AM  

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