Say NO Sexual Harassment

Warning: Long post.

As Rahul and Reshma walked down the crowded road, Rahul caught a pick-pocket red-handed. He and a few onlookers beat him black and blue.
A while later Reshma was grabbed from behind. She spun around slapped the culprit. Later Rahul said – “You shouldn’t have over-reacted, he wasn’t going to rape you.”

This is my first attempt at a 55-er.

That said, this post is not about the 55-er but the issue of sexual harassment (SH) that goes on in our daily lives. Someone stealing a material possession is considered a far more serious offense than someone trying to invade one’s personal space – be it emotionally or physically or anything else. People have a notion that anything that is not rape is not SH. If you are thinking that, then sorry to say, YOU ARE WRONG. Rape is the highest degree of SH and the most brutal form of invading/exploiting one’s personal space. There are other forms of SH in varying degrees. SH today is so common and is treated so “normally” that some people do not know what SH is and what is not. And sometimes even the most obvious SH cases are ignored. Ignoring it is not going to make the situation better. A fact does not cease to exist just because you choose to be blind to it. Sexual harassment is a serious offense and we need to accept that. And admit, that ignoring it only going to make it bigger/worse.

Below are a few very obvious sexual harassment – some common, some not so common but all of them very true…and they happened to me.

My first encounter with SH was when I was 10 years old. I did not know what it was then but I had enough sense to know that it was not right. I was walking in Mangalore’s market road with my dad. The road was particularly crowded that day, people were colliding with one another…and we were hurrying to get home. And in between all this I felt a man coming in the opposite direction pinch my breast. I was shocked. I was sure I wasn’t imagining it but then, why would someone pinch another person just like that? Maybe it was really my imagination, I tried to tell myself. And I tried to forget to incident as a one-time thing. How wrong I was.

When I was in 10th standard, our Kannada teacher told us of an incident where her friend was molested in a bus. Her friend got so angry that she unpinned her dupatta and pricked the molester with the safety pin. This story somehow stuck with me. I had no idea how far this one story would inspire me later in my life.

Years later when I had joined college and had to travel by crowded buses, there was always one or the other moron, aged between 19 and 70, whose hands had to find “the” place on a female body. These men used to take advantage of unsuspecting girls who found seats next to them, their elbows somehow caressing the chest area from the side on the pretext of holding the rod of the seat in the front. If not that, there would be someone who stared at your body parts for so long that you would want to poke their eyes blind. Initially when this happened to me there was this huge embarrassment, the shame… Was I thinking too much? Was it really happening or was I thinking it up? Was I the only one finding all this uncomfortable? Then one day I mentioned it to a friend and she said that she too encountered these things and found it deeply uncomfortable. I spoke to a lot many girls after this and realized that it was as common as dirt. Of course after the first time, after giving them sufficient benefit of doubt, I found tricks to counter them. Sometimes when they did so, I would look at them straight in the eye and smile, leaving them completely shocked and alarmed – they would never imagine someone to smile when they were playing something so sick. They backed away after that. Sometimes a stare would do. Sometimes you had to be vocal and request them to move a bit. And sometimes it went a little further like stamping their feet hard. After a while you learn to differentiate who to smile at, whom to stare at, whom to request and whom to attack. When I came to Bangalore about 5 years back I had no idea that what happened in my college days was just a “trailer”. What used to be like once a week over there, it happened everyday here and to a higher degree. The stares were a little lesser, the groping was a little higher. Even though the buses in Bangalore had the rule that men have to climb from the back door and women from the front, no one really followed it. The crowd was ten times worse, you can’t move, you are stuck in one place for the whole duration of your journey and your shortest journey is at least half an hour. And this is exactly the kind of situation the men take advantage of and enjoy. As days passed I had to resort to attacks after my requests to back away were ignored.

What happened in the bus did not shake me as much as the following two incidents did.

When I first came to Bangalore my housemates (3 girls) had to go to work on Saturdays as well. They left by 8:30 and after they left I went back to sleep till 10 or so. On one such Saturday, after my housemates left, I went outside to get the clothes from outside which were put for drying the previous day. Just as I was getting back in the house a salesman showed up and started to tell about the watches he had and some launch offer on them. I refused and told him to leave. He kept on pestering even after repeatedly telling him that I did not want the watch and I walked back inside. I was about to close the door when he put his hand on the door and started to plead some more. I sternly said, “I said NO. You are pestering me as if you are giving the watch for free.” And he said, “Of course I am giving the watch for free.” and handed me a watch. I took it and said “OK, so I have taken it. Happy? Now please leave.” Then he said, “So where shall we do it madam? This room or inside?” It took a while for me to realize what he was saying. I realized in a flash that he was already inside the room. I don’t know what came over me. The broom was the only thing I saw there. I took it, turned it on him, threw his watch outside and shouted at him. I was trembling with rage. I walked back a few paces to the kitchen without removing my eyes off him, reached for the place where the knife is kept and advanced towards him, broom in one hand, the knife in the other, shouting at him all the while. He had the sense to leave the house. I don’t know what would have happened otherwise. Locking the door securely behind me, I fell back on the bed, trembling, crying for god knows how long. I felt dirty. That was the time I really understood how a sexually harassed person felt, how the rape victims felt, how a person forced to sell their bodies felt.

Another incident that happened much later. I was returning home from office at 9:30 or so. I was already in my building’s parking area, getting off my scooter came when a biker followed me to the parking lot. He was wearing the full helmet (the one with the chin cover and the visor covering his face. He put off the engine and was looking around as if thinking where to park the bike. I thought he should be one of the people from our building and did not notice much else. I put my helmet in the box just as he put on his engine again. As I passed him, he put his hand out and tried to grope you-know-where and within the next second he was out of the place and my own voice echoing ‘Hey’. I had not even realized I had shouted, I was a little disoriented with shock. I stood there a second longer trying to get my senses back and then ran up to my house, locked the door and went to bed where I lay trembling for maybe after midnight.

There was a time when I was followed by a guy on a moped for the whole of 80 feet road. He wasn’t exactly following me – he was not allowing me to overtake and he was riding almost next to me and looking at me (yup, I am not making it up. He was looking sideways and riding). If I overtook him he somehow overtook me again. If I slowed down allowing him to speed up and get ahead he would slow down too until I caught up with him. With the traffic and the signals at intervals I could not speed up more than I already was. I somehow managed to put him off by taking a side road (near Ejipura), stop there a while to confirm he was really gone and took the longest distance home after confirming he wasn’t following – I was not going to show him the directions to my house.

About a year back, on the way to office on my cycle, I found myself on the right side of the road after a busy signal and had no opportunity to get to the left side for at least a 100 meters. During these 100 meters a truck driver came so close to me on my left side and started hurling insults at me- Bere ellu jaaga sikkilva ninge.. ellellinda barthare… illi bandu nam jeevna kashta madsodikke… blah blah blah (translation: you did not find any other place to cycle, eh? Don’t know where you people land here from.. making our life hell). Perhaps he thought I was a north Indian like so many other people (more on this in some other post). When I retorted in perfect Kannada with enough disgust thrown in for effect he could not stand it and blew smoke on me from his truck’s silencer all the while staring at me in his rearview mirror and me returning them right back.

While cycling, there have been times when men from inside the bus/auto or those walking on the road passed obscene comments everyday which I mostly ignored. Being commented on is nothing new for me. Being one of the first girls to be cycling in my hometown I have been at the receiving end of a lot of comments and laughter. Those were harmless comments (I am not saying this is ok) and I knew these guys and I completely ignored them like always. Cut to present, days later after the previous incident, just as I was nearing my house someone shouted a name at me in the crowded market loud enough for anyone within a 100 meter radius to hear. And I replied right back with a ‘AYE’ and just as loud. I did not care who heard or what they said. The guy who had called the name jumped on his bike and ran off and I kept cycling not slowing down even for a bit. And this time I was not trembling nor did I feel any shock or embarrassment. In fact I loved the power I felt.

Each of these incidents taught me that I have to take it into my own hands to look after myself and I tell you the same too. Do not always expect for your fathers, uncles, brothers, friends, husbands or anyone else to come to your rescue. It is your comfort that matters. Men in your life will probably not realize when you say you feel uncomfortable or threatened by someone’s presence but do talk to them about it; try and make them understand. If you have kids teach them how to tackle unpleasant/uncomfortable situations. Those who indulge in sexual harassment will not care who you are, who you think you are, or who your daddy is. They will not care how you look, they will not care what parts of your body are covered or uncovered. Remember that SH can happen anywhere – during your commute, in your workplace, in your house. Do not feel victimized; it is not your mistake if someone behaves badly with you but it is if you do nothing about it. Trust your intuition and your gut – they will never lie. No one can make you feel threatened or belittled except yourself. Stand up for yourself. Say NO to sexual harassment.

On a related note, do check out The Blank Noise Project who are fighting to curb eve-teasing.