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Understanding Sexual Assault

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Using an old sketch to share a little of what abuse feels like

In the month of March, for the first time in my life, I had read about a case of sexual harassment at the workplace being blown up in social media. It was a first of a kind situation where the same social media that makes a few powerful also used the power of many in body, one in mind to bring justice in the case of grave misconduct by a man employing not one, but many women. There were many debates on it and a lot did happen since then but, I remember finding myself at crossroads.

I was angry and at the same time, there was a sense of helplessness and pessimism that such acts invite the ire of many but, seldom lead to any corrective action being taken against the act. Overwhelmed and charged with a lot of thoughts on the same – I had written a piece by the title above and instead of posting it here, I decided to write for Youth Ki Awaaz, with the hope that a greater number of people will read it and it did happen. The article got shared by numerous people – I am assuming that many understood and connected with my thoughts through my words. The article on the site can be found here.

Why I am sharing the same here (down below) is because I also want the original piece that I had written (minus the little editing that the people at YKA did to reach more people) to be shared with people – simply because the thoughts are worth sharing and also, some parts of the edit that are required with a bigger platform like YKA are not necessary for my blog. :)

Here it goes: 

As Indian women, or maybe in today’s world, as women in general, one psychological training that we get is “how to stay safe” or “how to not do things that we want but should avoid in order to protect ourselves”. It is a sad reality where women are subjected to abuse, especially at the hands of those who believe from their beings that the female sex is secondary. What made me think of all this was the recent furore over allegations of sexual harassment against the CEO of a certain (very) popular entertainment startup. While I do not want to and am not writing a response to the case here, I believe that the conversation is out there and hopefully, the truth will be upheld. My opinion on whether the allegations are true or not do not matter since, the deed of announcing to the world and the style of responses of the party have already dropped big hints.

Why I am writing this today is because I want to talk about the other side of the coin, vis-a-vis, reporting sexual assault. When I read tonnes of women responding to Indian Fowler on her post on medium.com, I found myself angry; angry with them for not standing up for themselves in time. “This is a typically patriarchal Indian thought,” you’d say? At least, that’s what I said to myself the very next moment. I delved more into the subject to really understand why I felt so. I realised that I was angry because in my head, I reasoned that when I faced sexual harassment and lecherous behaviour at an earlier workplace, I reported it and sorted it out, even if it took me some time. Basically, I was applying my general perspective on someone else’s specific situation.

I was thinking of all this and resigned myself to the fact that maybe, the women speaking up now were simply too young and too scared to report. I realised that all these girls who were coming ahead now were seemingly younger in age, were quite new to the city and also the industry. In such scenarios, it is definitely very hard for one to stand up, no matter how strong they may be. I also read a thread on Twitter, where the user shared how she had spoken up against harassment at her workplace following which she was threatened, her parents were harassed and she had to apologise (in writing!) to the person concerned! In that moment, I thanked my stars for working at a good place, that heard me out immediately. But then, as I read further, I started questioning everything again. Here is what happened:

I had been working in a big city in India and went to a smaller one for two days of work. The team there was all men and all fairly new while, I had spent a little more time in the organisation. Apart from the other regular things to be done, one of the tasks assigned to me was to train the new guys. Despite being drowsy from a very early flight, I was excited as it was my first time in that state.

Now the two new people (lets call them A and B) in the team were also the ones who were involved in an important but problematic assignment. Since they were new, and I was in charge of the assignment, I had been trying to teach them the ropes and guide them as best as I could over phone considering that they knew nothing and had no one to guide them. From the last time that I had spoken to them, it seemed to me that A, a young fresh graduate had become friendlier than necessary. Like most women, the red flag rose in my brain but, I let it pass and decided to not to be too polite to him anymore. Maybe a woman’s politeness in a workspace is always interpreted as an invitation to be friendly and personal.

Anyway, as I was going through the day in a car with the team, by instinct or going by the internalised “how to survive public spaces – for women” handbook, I stuffed my backpack right in between A and me so that our bodies did not touch in any way possible; even though, we were two people on a seat made for three. After half a day had passed, I noticed that A was manspreading and for some weakness of spine, kept on falling over the backpack, such that after a while the bag itself seemed half its size making his elbow too close to my arm.

Having internalised the need to not ‘create a scene’, time and again I pushed the bag towards him curtly asking him to sit up straight. He would oblige but, return to the same pose after a while. When we were outside the vehicle for a meeting, I noticed his eyes fixed on the area on my body where my breasts are – I was wearing a salwaar kurta, with a dupatta.

As the day went by, I found ways to take him to task since I was training him as well but, at the end of the day, I was livid with rage. I had never felt so angry. I felt violated and I kept on asking myself why since he had never touched me and I had, after all, found sly ways to set him right. Why was I still so angry? That’s when the reality of abuse hit home.

To those who might never understand what it feels to be at the receiving end of catcalls, dirty stares, grabs, molestation or any form of abuse, it feels like you do not have any right on your own self. It feels like your body is just a case in which you exist only to be used by those who feel entitled to their bodies and mine. That is what it felt like – as his work senior, I could set him right but, as a woman, I had failed to own my body. It was easier to stand up to a complete stranger – difficult to a colleague. I cannot imagine the plight of those who are abused by relatives, friends or even parents.

The next day I heaved a sigh of relief because A was nowhere to be seen. I was saved but, I forgot to tell you about B. B was this funny, talkative chap and from where he comes, I have seen this tendency in most people (men and women) and hence, I presumed he was being himself. This chap had added me on Facebook, like a lot of my other colleagues, and I had accepted the request (making only my public profile visible to him – sigh, the justifications!). Using Facebook for me has changed to sharing thoughts on the socio-political existence of the country and a little bit of my writing and illustrations. No harm in colleagues seeing that and even better if it leads to a good lunch time discussion next day?

Alas, I was wrong! It seemed that B presumed my acceptance of his friend request as an invitation to flirt and be in a strange non-professional space. I clearly remember accepting the friend request after checking his profile which said he was married. He had a lot of cute pictures of his wife.

Throughout the two days, B was friendly and kept on praising me. I was too focused on A on day one to notice what B was doing. The second day just opened my eyes. He found my name too unique and wanted to name his niece after me, he found my blog post very intriguing and he also felt his wife was not necessary to be spoken about. This made me unsure of what he was doing. When I went back to my city, I received a Facebook message from B asking if I had reached safely. I again, at that moment, presumed that he was just an obnoxiously talkative guy and maybe I was overthinking. How many times do we do that? How many times do we tell our gut, our instincts, to shut up and believe with a wide smile that “not all men” are lecherous and women need to “calm down”?

The next night (read: not day), he sent me a message on Facebook talking about work. We had email, phone, chat messages or SMS as modes of communication during the day but, no, he uses Facebook to discuss work after working hours. My gut laughed at that and just said, “I told you so”. I took screenshots of the message and blocked him. That was the end to my interaction with A and B, and I decided to forget about it all, shushing my rage that I had dealt with them and that was the end to it since the society is full of such people. Then, one day I saw two of my juniors, young girls who were perhaps a year or two younger than my 24-year-old self. My heart sank at the thought of either of them facing what I had and could no longer sit quietly. I could not bear to be in the know and not do anything about it. I decided to talk to someone.

I spoke to a lady who was in the HR department and she was appalled at the news. She noted it down and said that she would like to discuss it with the seniors. I asked her to go ahead and by the next day and for the next two months, I had become a sensation. At the end of it, A was let go and all women in the team were warned against B and that was that.

What stayed with me however, was a question that one of the seniors asked me, a gentleman I was never too fond of because of his subtle sexist attitude. He asked me if I said no to A. I understand that he was trying to be as objective as possible but, I was still taken aback. I was tired after a month of constant rechecking and hushed conversations about it. At the end of it, I trusted one of my seniors to do the right thing and stopped thinking about it, telling my colleagues about the incident one on one and warning the women.

A month after, things got sorted albeit in a slightly unappealing way, the hullabaloo died down and life was back to normal. My mother’s fears of A coming to my city and throwing acid in my face also died down. I still felt upset with no action being taken against B but, trusted a very senior associate’s word that this was the best one could do. I accepted that and moved on.

The Medium post and that Twitter thread have shaken the beehive again. I still have questions. I don’t have anything against my employers per se. The actions taken were indeed the best possible to handle the situation for everyone’s interests but, I still have questions.

  1. Why are we still given manuals as women to adhere to in the public space? Why do we still feel that men are entitled to certain places and hours of the day and not women?
  2. Why do organisations and victims of harassment at workplace feel that lodging an official sexual harassment complaint is a tedious job?
  3. Sexual harassment cases, especially in the workplace must be dealt with a lot of sensitivity. It does take a lot of courage to speak up. We are always asked to adjust and maybe also not “overreact”. Is it because a woman standing up for herself is not believable or acceptable to patriarchy? What about the men who get harassed as well? Where should they go? Can’t we see that patriarchy is damaging both women and men and we shouldn’t go against anyone who speaks up against it?
  4. Why are we okay with crimes happening in smaller cities or in poorer neighbourhoods in big cities? The current furore is just one needle in the entire basket of examples of “educated” men behaving like its the medieval ages?
  5. More importantly, from my own story, the question is still unanswered is how do we deal with such grey areas of sexual harassment like in the case of B who found ways to sit next to me at a restaurant during team lunch or would find ways to take centre stage in conversations and continue to flirt? Why is there no conversation about this? Why aren’t such men taught better rather than the women being asked to avoid them? Why is there no way to take action against them without it being a hassle or an agni-pariksha (test by fire, to determine one’s “purity”) for the affected person, be it man or woman?

I hope that by reading this, you will understand the politics of abuse better and learn to fight it. It takes tremendous effort but, is worth every sweat and crease of worry. Of course, it can be scary as was for someone on Twitter and yes, I have been luckier. However, I feel that the spaces where patriarchy slyly hides in guise of business, politics, power and so on, will slowly be peeled off one layer at a time.

We should start talking about it more (with friends, family, colleagues) and train our minds to speak up. When it happens, you don’t know your body to be yours since someone else seems to have ownership over it. You need to train your mind and body to be yours and yours alone. The next time that something like this happens your response will be quicker and you will claim your body then and there.