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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.

Now trending: Feminism

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It is indeed a mystic thing that around the time that the movie Pink came out, I got to experience what is called the inability to comprehend the meaning of consent, body space and respect when it comes to sex even in the minds of those who seem well educated and believers in equal rights for all sexes.

I’ve known someone (male) who has been very vocal about respect and body rights of women and also those who from the sexual minorities – sometimes voicing a hatred for men. This particular dynamic of social development is of interest to me as well. However, I haven’t been as vocal or as expressive about knowing stuff as him. I assumed that’s just difference in personality.

Now, being a woman, one easy thing that comes due to our social conditioning which eventually gets passed on genetically as well, is the sixth sense; the gut feeling of knowing when someone can be a potential sexual threat.

I do not say I thought he was coming on to women or being lecherous. For most women who know him – and a lot of the people that surround him are women – he’s a gentle and nice guy who has his head on his shoulders when talking about gender politics. However, there was always this gnawing feeling I had – which I articulate today – that something wasn’t right about him. Somewhere his alleged beliefs weren’t what they were projected as. I let go of this feeling since we have two very good common friends.

Time went by, we all grew up and went our separate ways. He met someone and got into a relationship and constantly asked about my story or why do I not find someone. Then, I took it as a friendly concern and didn’t feel that it was totally against his ‘women are awesome and equal and don’t need anyone to be happy’ claims.

We have spoken twice in 6 months with him asking about who I am with as the central part of the conversation each time; more focused on my virginity. Now, virginity for me isn’t a coconut to be cracked before something new has to be begun nor is it a gold coin (biscuit, if you may please) that should never be lost. Virginity is just a secondary part of me. It is not something I think about day in day out, nor do I plan any milestones around it. It is simply something which isn’t a consideration in my mind in the daily life. So when he first asked me this, I assumed that this was again a friendly question, that he was just trying to be ‘Gossip Girl’.

Six months later, the poor soul is still battling with this existential question.  I again did not mind ’cause it’s not a hush hush conversation for me. However, what came next told me that putting a foot in my mouth and a slap on his face were the two best things to do.

He asked me if I needed his help to loose my virginity, in case I am still one. Now, I don’t want to call him a predator since he did voice his apprehension that he didn’t know whether this was a bad question or a friendly question but, just thought that loosing my virginity was of utmost importance and he would sacrifice himself to help me do that, even if it involved lying on top of me.

Anyway, me being me, I gave him the benefit of doubt still and explained to him how his girlfriend’s female friends who sought their male friends’ help to loose that “ugly” and questionable piece of skin in between their legs is not something that has to apply to every woman. Each woman is different like each leaf of the same plant or each cookie from the same tin. Just because we have a vagina, we aren’t identical. However, this effort was in vain since he felt that his benevolence was met with unnecessary aggression. I couldn’t help but, laugh at this. Women who voice discomfort and an opinion on any sort of sexual advance are always brash and aggressive. Even if, one talks only about one’s own choice when it comes to one’s own body. Typical.

When this happened, I was saddened and angered both by the fact that this guy was plain stupid pretending to be sly and more so, that feminism is becoming a fad now. I remember a filmmaker called Stalin coming to university and stating that he was a feminist but, was told by someone who has been fighting for women’s rights in Gujarat that he cannot be feminist. Why? Because he was a man.

This makes me question what makes a feminist? Whether the lady was right that a man can never be a feminist? Isn’t feminism equal to humanism since all it demands is to look at women as equal humans since they have always been treated as second class citizens? Dalit movements are called so because of a reason as well. Men shouldn’t cry here though – yes, patriarchy has been a bitch to them too but, they have had better advantage plus, feminism is against the system and not their sex so, calm down there.

Coming back to my point, my worry has been the lack of serious brain usage today when feminism is becoming a fad, a Facebook or Twitter hashtag. People don’t know what they’re talking about but, will use #saveourgirls frequently. It’s the same as Taylor’s factory view – herd mentality.

This experience has however, given me hope in retrospect. I think there’s still hope ’cause I called him out on this. I believe that’s what’s needed – one needs to call out an abuser when it happens without fearing the consequences. It might not even be sexual bias – it can be sexism of any kind, in any setting. It might boil down badly at first but, the next time they do it, your words will come back to them. Slowly but steadily they might learn. This much is enough for you to do your bit and speak out. I have learnt. You can too.

This is exactly where the crass and pop way the film portrays the different issues of consent, patriarchy, regional biases etc. movie comes in. I hated the way the stereotype has been put together and also the PR way that so many different topics have been dealt with but, in a society like ours such blatant street play type conversations are needed for people to wake up and understand, for people to not forget Nirbhaya and countless others who have been victims and / or survivors of this societal mental ailment of pride, honour and fear of sex. More on the film in another post then.