Saturday @ 11 am: An NRI returned to India, Mrs. X: “How does eve teasing scar your daughter or any girl in this country?”
Monday @ 9.30 am: My nanny, Pretty P: “Can I go home early today amma? My father kicked me in the chest and I can barely hold myself up.”
Previous Friday @ noon: Me: “Honey .. I don’t want to go via 12th main road (Bangalore). I hate that signal. Every time the car stops there’s a ton of men just frekkkin staring into the car indecently at me. It’s really indecent. I can’t even imagine what the bikers or girls in the bus go through. I’m not used to this. It’s just as bad at the coffee shop opposite our office, I don’t want to go there.”
All day everyday on the blogosphere: “I’m numb. A 5 yr old?” “How did I believe things would change? I signed so many petitions!”
This past week has been a rough ride in a completely different part of my world. Yes I’d literally just declared that I was done ranting and that my life was settling down and it is, in some ways. I never imagined myself blogging about anything but just my small little world here in my home, stories of how I’m settling down, stories of how I miss my Californian life, just small updates to my friends .. I never imagined that these following issues would come back into my life. I did not plan for these when I made my choice to return to India. And I blog about them now because I see they affect not just me, but a ton of folks around me. I blog about them because they affect all the women I will never meet or talk to during my lifetime, but wish to. I blog about it because it’s not just news anymore, it’s everyday life. This is an overload of similar endings. Different stories exposing the same underlining points. Some that hit home personally, some others that were so far away and so unreal … I had to read the news over and over again for the news of the 5 yr old to sink in. But it didn’t make me numb with pain, it drove me crazy. I did a few things I would have probably never done in another context, another world. I said things to people I never would have .. in another world. But I feel like a spanking new product from the US now, returning back after a decade, hopping mad with anger at the incidents everyday. My anger is not graceful and I don’t care for grace when I’m angry. I guess I’d forgotten what it felt like around here as a woman. Or even worse maybe I’ve never felt so much anger growing up because I was busy thinking of new strategies to keep myself safe on one hand, and constantly trying to escape from my parents’ safety net on the other. The struggle didn’t end until I left the country. It didn’t matter that we hung out in cliques even back then, a decade or more ago. We’d been cornered and bullied enough times … those scars remained despite the comfort and security of the clique. It took distance and another experience in another world to realize that I could be safe, I could walk the roads at night without looking back 10 times a minute, I could drive anywhere I wanted without morons staring at me indecently at every traffic signal. It took me a decade to get over the fear of the sun setting. I recalled all of this as this week went by and as the voices above on Saturday, Monday and Friday hit me. Hit me like a rock.
Standing in my living room with my 20 yr old nanny, hearing her story of how her dad beat her and her mom up for money, I almost called the police. Pretty P (the nanny) responded saying it was of no use. The entire village had had similar incidents and the women had all called several times with absolutely no response. So I found an organization online and asked her if I could call them. To which her mom replied No. Being one of the few progressive rural women out there in her part of the world (she’d married a Christian, been the sole breadwinner educating 2 of her 3 children through undergrad and not supplying any money to nurture the husband’s drinking and familial issues), she’d already made a plan. “We’re getting him admitted at a rehab nearby where he wouldn’t be allowed to leave until he’s over his addiction – to both drink and beat up the girls in his family”, she claimed. I settled hearing the plan. Funny I felt a deep sense of security in knowing the mom was around nearby. She sounded so strong, pretty P’s mom I mean. I’m still waiting to see the execution part. I teach pretty P English these days, cooking, and a few minutes of typing and surfing the internet. She’ll be independent. She’ll have enough power to kick her father’s behind should she need to. Her confidence, her strength, her courage .. we’re hoping we can focus on each bit and get it all built up. I do shudder though – when I hear her talking about fair and lovely and her wish to be ‘fair’, when I hear her talking about the boys she’d rather get married to than do anything else. She has a ton of work to do .. but so do I and most of us women out there but we’ll be there by her side and she’ll be there by ours. If only I can convince her mom to not marry her away for another 4 years, I might just stand a chance at helping her. Maybe she won’t need to be afraid of her father anymore. Maybe she won’t need my advils anymore. Maybe she won’t think her prince charming will come and all her life’s worries will disappear. Maybe she won’t be itching to go buy her next pack of fair and lovely. That day will come, I tell myself. But for the moment I continue to look for hope. The week has not been good on hope for women.
Friday, Saturday and Sunday – I indulged in an online forum for NRIs, arguing why eve teasing can be scarring to women. One woman insisted on arguing that ‘scarring’ is a very strong word to use and that girl children don’t get emotionally scarred because men stare at them indecently. She and everyone else honestly agreed to all the other points about teaching men to behave, punishment for sexual offenders and the general behavior of men on the roads in India but the effects of those ‘casual teasing’ incidents – they don’t scar, it was declared. I went on a rant. Or should I say rampage?! I pretty much offended half the folks in the forum including the moderator. Not sure if I’ll be allowed back in there. For me, it wasn’t about the fact that they agreed to most of the ongoing issues giving rise to the current sexual crime madness here in India. What they didn’t agree to, is where the key issues actually lie. At one point, most of the men indulging in big crimes against women .. at one point, they were boys, weren’t they? Boys that stared casually, that groped, that whistled or cat called. At all those points, the girls were taught to either hide and be safe, or be brave and ignore them, to not let them get to them. And that is precisely what my friends here detailed. “Oh ignore and walk away. Don’t let it bother you. Stares everyday can’t be crippling” they said. Our boys were never taught to not look at a girl indecently. I mean what kind of a parent from the previous generation had the guts to have that conversation with her son. What would they have said “Don’t look at boobs!!”?!? Unfortunately for me, I don’t think we had enough women or men in the previous generation telling their sons that. They should have. They should have said everything she said here. We should have, as a society. I’m not blaming them parents just yet .. I am just skeptical. Maybe they didn’t know enough. And it pains me to see another woman from my own generation, a highly educated doctor tell me how to keep myself safe and confident, instead of helping me think of how to fix the issue at hand. She went on to give me examples of her own daughter, biking safely to a friend’s 10 mins away during the day and how she’s not emotionally scarred just because a few men stare at her. Many insisted these things happen only to poor girls and not to well off upper middle class NRI returns. Oh the fury! If only they could have seen my face or been at arm’s reach. I gave up at the end of that argument. I had argued that misogyny, patriarchy and the way men are raised here, pretty much sum up 2 things: why men behave the way they do and even worse, why most women think the way they do. Brainwashed, conditioned and ironed out to ignore, to adapt, to adjust, to not be scarred in the name of courage. And here I was hearing the same thing from a fellow woman. Clearly she thinks she’s progressive.
I was accused of digressing with topics such as patriarchy and misogyny which were labeled random issues and not connected to this discussion. Please note these are all educated, upper class Indians exposed to life in ways most Indians are not. So pardon me if I don’t get how someone doesn’t understand that when you’re stared at indecently, even menacingly several times a day, you tend to cower. You wish you could disappear. Suddenly you start getting conscious of yourself. A little too much for your own good. It begins to affect the decisions you make, the choices you make, how you feel about yourself. Before long, you’re dressing up and behaving in ways to avoid any kind of weirdness. And I keep saying this – if it can happen to me, such a confident, loud-mouthed 31 year old, I can’t even imagine what the rest of the girls in our society go through. Daddy A’s contractor, a guy running a consulting firm doing a project for us, doesn’t send the girl that’s been put on the project, alone to our office. He always accompanies her. Apparently she’d requested for the same. A request to never send her alone to any client’s office. That girl can barely find her voice to talk to my husband. She can barely answer him leave alone challenge him. We need contractors and employees that can think for themselves and challenge us, not just take orders to execute them. He might be discontinuing the contract. Her work is pretty decent, he said but it makes me wonder about what she thinks of herself. Why she’s so scared? Or should I say why she’s so scarred?! I’m not suggesting that all shy, not so confident women have been scarred by men (maybe I should). But her attitude combined with her request to be accompanied, makes me wonder if she checks her brain out at the door when entering a client’s office. She’s here to write some code, make some money and move on. Maybe she thinks she’ll never have to go through this when she’s married one day. Maybe she can then just stay at home. Maybe she’ll convince herself that all coding jobs are boring and stupid. (I mean how many Indian women continue to work after they’ve been married or after having kids, when truly wanting to, that is). And be denied the opportunities she could have had, had her love for coding been nurtured in a harassment free environment. Maybe she could focus more on her work than who’s looking at her. And just like her, maybe I won’t hate it when our car stops at each traffic signal. Maybe I won’t be cursing myself for leaving that scarf on the shoe rack before I left home. Maybe I won’t grab daddy A’s hand like crazy when I walk to the small coffee shop opposite our office. Maybe I won’t beg him to go get me a coffee each day without dragging me along from our office .. if those men didn’t stare the way they did. And the part that drives me even more mad – is when they look up at me after realizing I’ve noticed them staring, with such arrogance – with that F(@#(@) question in their eyes – “what can you do?!?!” I can almost hear them say it. And those challenges are always accompanied with a smirk. I know they’re making fun of my anger. They continue to let their eyes wander to just make a point. So there – stares do scar. And by not accepting that they do or finding solutions for this, we’re just continuing to support the criminals, that are our men. Not just the ones that make the headlines, but more importantly, the ones that never make any headline or bring any attention to their everyday crimes. She laid that out in such anger here. I said before, a simple casual indecent stare has the potential to grow into a thirst for what most of them might not even consider a crime. Maybe most of them think it’s their privilege to do stare. We won’t solve any problem until we stop our boys and men from staring. It might be easier than getting them to do dishes or change diapers at home, I personally believe that. Really. And until we get there, there’s no changing the scene for the next generation. Because the boys that do that today and the girls that ignore that today … will be the criminals and victims of tomorrow.
Domestic violence, female infanticide, sexual harassment, lack of women friendly workplaces, staring .. yes even staring – they all grow out of the same root. The one that grows weeds. Weeds that grow without an iota of respect or acknowledgement of women as fellow humans. And I intend to help pluck each one out with a yank so hard, I can feel how it hurt it. Daddy A suggests I start with slapping every moron who stares at my indecently. ‘Be brave’ and I’ll be there by your side when you do it each time. I’m not sure I have the courage for that yet. I’ll start with hiring all women into my company I told him. And yes if you have half a brain, you can tell the difference between an indecent and decent stare. I intend to complain, to argue, to name call, to be known as misbehaving .. I will resort to as many offense and defense strategies in the book. I intend to help the ladies in my life. I’ll be by their side. I also intend to get help from them when I am in their condition. I will feel lost, scared, hurt and more .. but I pledge to do my bit .. for myself, for my daughter, for my nanny, and for the gazillion women out there subject to this every waking moment. Even if it is just a stare. EVEN IF IT IS JUST A FREKKKKKINNNN STARE!!!!