Blank Noise Project
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.
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