February 2007: A battle cry for feminists.
I am not good looking—at least no more than averagely so. I am 5 feet 9 inches tall; have a short crop of hair that’s growing out of being bald; am fairer than I’d like to be; have a pretty but acne-scarred face; and am busty but overweight. Oh, I pray for better looks—for a skin that is chocolate brown like my mother’s, and blemish free; to be many, many kgs lighter than I am; for a toned belly; etc. I pray for better looks almost always—there are two exceptions. One, when I remind myself of Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth (then I feel silly and gullible to media imaging of women—I really have nothing wrong with me!) and two, when I am in too-crowded or too-lonely a place (then I’d rather look absolutely terrible).
Everyone I know—women of all ages and shapes and sizes and stages—have been 'eve teased' or more all over the country. Delhi is particularly bad, Mumbai is okay, but no place is really safe. Getting harassed, flashed, felt-up or molested is a rather common phenomenon. And perhaps my looking terrible won’t solve the problem—the only criterion seems to be being a woman.
The sexual incidents are vivid memories. I was in Mumbai, about 10 years old. I got flashed in a bus by an old man seated next to me. My mum was in the seat ahead. Again, I was about 12, boarding a bus, still uncomfortable about my budding breasts, when a man squeezed them, hard and painfully—the first time I realised what a problem they’d be! Since then, it’s been series of incidents in crowded places, lonely places, all places!
I had the misfortune of going to school and college in Delhi. Everyday, I’d come back from school traumatised because something or the other would have happened to me on the way back. Everyday, I, arguably not feeble looking, not even overtly good looking, would come back from college angry because I would invariably get felt up in the bus.
But there was an incident that changed my perspective on things. You see, realistically, being flashed, for example, is not bad in itself. Really, you’ve seen one cock, you’ve seen them all—no offence meant! It’s the fear, and the intrusion: the lack of choice. Anyway, here’s what happened. My 12th boards were around the corner, and classes were out. I had gone to school to get some doubts clarified. Walking back, I peered into my classmate’s driveway, in the hope of seeing her and saying hi. I saw her father get into his car—I recognised him from photos she had brought to school. I walked on—only to find, much to my shock and disgust, that her father was driving by and harassing me.
A few weeks later, there was a post-boards party at this classmate’s house. The fear on her father’s face, when he recognised me (with some urging on my part) as the person he had harassed, changed my life. He, the perpetrator, was afraid, not I. This was when I decided that I would fight back whenever I could. I’ve done some pretty pro-actively aggressive things. I guess it helps that I’m not small built, and can get aggressive. I wear these solid silver rings—one, an elevated Nandi bull, is a deadly weapon. I have used this to hit someone who was sticking his erection into my thigh on a Mumbai train.
I have used the knife that I used to carry to college—no, not to kill anyone! A man who saw me walking a lonely stretch promptly got off his scooter and went behind a fence to flash at me. He watched as I opened my knife with relish and ripped the seats of his scooter apart.
At a rock show, it gave me great pleasure to hit the guy who squeezed my boob in the crowd and scream, "I’ll cut your balls off, you bastard," before any of my male friends could react!
And this is it. All the incidents, every one of them, where I did not retaliate, have left me with a sense of violation, these many, many years later. I am still haunted by them. I seethe with anger at the man who got away with flashing at me, feeling me, using his sexual power against me. I have felt victimised. But each and every time I’ve fought back, and hurt or humiliated the aggressor, I’ve felt whole and complete. Perhaps, on a small scale, it is my sense of justice, my closure.
And it’s not only me. My aunt was in a girl’s hostel during her college years. Men would come and masturbate against the boundary wall, despite repeated complaints to the police, leaving the girls feeling sick and powerless. Until they filled buckets with urine (patiently, over three days each) and flung the contents at the men on the wall. The incidents stopped. This was a practical solution—making those men realise that they couldn’t really get away with everything in a lawless land. It was also a solution that empowered the women against the few powers that men can still wield against us—the sexual and the physical.
For those of you who watch Frasier Crane, remember the episode where he uses force (against a rude guy in a coffee shop), leading to his listeners using his example as a license to get unnecessarily and disproportionately violent? I sincerely hope that is not what happens here, even though this article reads like it belongs to the feminist version of the legendary Al Qaeda Handbook. My perspective is this (for men as well as women)—seek justice for wrongs done to you. Get closure—legally, or in the most practically harmless way possible.
For, as much as I appreciate Gandhiji, and am glad for this new surge of Gandhi-giri that has come about, sometimes, I believe Gandhi-ism is not the answer. If I turned the other cheek, they’d both be pinched.
An edited version of this article appeared in Tehelka in February 2007.