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Perhaps it had happened before too, but this here is my earliest memory of being sexually harassed on the streets of my city...
I was 8 or maybe even younger, crossing the road to my neighbour’s house in an upmarket south Delhi residential colony to play with my best friend. It was late afternoon, there were plenty of adults milling around, when a cyclist peddling past steered his wheels barely discernably towards me.
Once he’d got my attention, he made a lewd remark, sang a few lines from a romantic Bollywood song and drove off. As I suspect any kid would be, I was startled, scared, surprised, confused and even a bit hurt. I mean, why would a stranger want to frighten me and make creepy comments? What had I ever done to him?
Each time I look back at that scenario though, two things strike me as perhaps more alarming than that man’s behavior: first, I’m assuming that at least one of the people around saw what he was up to, yet no one chided him; second, there was a little boy -- possibly the man’s son –- riding pillion on that cycle.
He was a chubby child, perhaps four or five years old. I don’t remember his face but I do clearly recall that he grinned at his adult companion’s antics, as if amused that I seemed afraid.
This episode has flashed through my mind several times over the years, never more so than in the past few weeks since large-scale protests erupted over the horrific gang rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student on a bus in Delhi, an attack so violent that she died two weeks later.
That early childhood experience of sexual harassment that I just recounted is mild in comparison with what I’ve been through as a woman in Delhi in subsequent years. All my experiences put together seem mild in comparison with the horrors that have been visited on other women in this city and in other parts of the world. Yet that memory is significant because it was my first introduction to the public apathy that is a hallmark of Delhi; because the everyday-ness of sexual harassment overshadows so much else that this beautiful city has to offer; and because I’ve always wondered what happened to that little boy.
Why did he smile? Had he witnessed worse? What are the chances that he grew up to be a man who treats women with respect? Did he ‘progress’ to bigger crimes against women when he grew up? Of the six men who brutalised that young lady on a bus on the night of December 16, 2012, one is not even 18! Clearly, these marauders know it pays to catch them young.
The scale of protests against the recent tragedy have been unprecedented. Yet, it’s not the first or even the most ghastly rape we’ve seen in India.
Perhaps it has come as a tipping point, a last straw for Indian women whose lives are governed by unsafe public spaces, political indifference to such crimes, police insensitivity and a judiciary that works at such a snail’s space that it prolongs a woman’s emotional trauma for years after her physical wounds have healed.
Perhaps men who care are just as angry and exhausted. No doubt too the scale of the current protests has something to do with our urban middle-class selfishness, a shocked realisation of “that could have been me." The Indian people and the so-called ‘national’ press have never before protested so strongly and for so long when women in villages, towns and smaller cities or poor uneducated slum-dwellers in big metropolises have been mauled.
We could debate the reasons for the magnitude of the current public outrage, but one thing is beyond debate: over 65 years after Mahatma Gandhi got us our freedom from British colonisers, Indian women are still not free. And if capital cities are meant to be a showcase of the best that a nation stands for, then Delhi –- with its shameful attitude towards women -– has been a poor choice for India.
I recounted that early unpleasant episode at the start of this article because it is to that experience that I trace my life-long (and rather tragic I would say) obsession with precautions.
I bought my first car as a newbie journalist though I could barely afford it because I could not bear the thought of being molested one more time by a repulsive stranger on public transport.
Any woman who has travelled on a Delhi Transport Corporation bus knows what it’s like to be repeatedly, constantly and openly violated while the world looks the other way. That feeling of routinely discovering unknown hands squeezing your breasts or your crotch, of being pinched on the bottom so often that you begin to consider it trivial in comparison with everything else, of a man pushing his erect penis into your thigh under the pretext that he’s being jostled by the crowd, of the perpetrator’s sniggering face when you protest, of looking up from your seat to discover the pleasure on a man’s face when he realises that he’s causing you pain by grinding his knee into your arm, of seeing the indifferent faces of your co-passengers (male and female), of drivers demanding to know why you use buses if you don’t want to be touched …
I’m not saying such things don’t ever happen to other women in other cities in India or the rest of the world. Certainly, I’ve read of shocking crimes against women in the US, where xoJane is headquartered. Even Mumbai, which prides itself on being safe for women, is not bereft of such crimes. But if every woman in Delhi were to go to the police every single time she is sexually harassed, women would have no time for anything else, nor would the cops.
This morning my maid told me she does not send her daughter to school because “what if men harass her while she’s on her way, what if some car stops and kidnaps her?” She is a poor woman living in a slum. I am not. Despite our differing stations in life though, our voices echo each other’s fears.
As a student I had no choice but to take buses, but when I began working, I started spending a sizeable portion of my salary on autorickshaws, a form of public transport in India that seats a maximum of two passengers. I discovered then what every middle-class woman in Delhi knows: that the city’s auto drivers are notoriously difficult with women, and that female passengers are vulnerable even in autos since they are open vehicles.
I remember one morning outside New Delhi Railway Station when some fellow from the crowd reached into my autorickshaw and landed a stinging blow on my chest. It’s tough to recount that experience without reliving the shock. I had on occasion slapped other molesters in the past, but this one was faceless; I didn’t see him before he hit me and he disappeared into a sea of human beings once he was done. I was so taken aback, so repulsed, that I just sat there and cried. I knew I desperately needed that damned car!
So despite my financial struggles, I got the damned car! Then a colleague told me about how she was similarly whacked in the chest one day when she’d stopped her own damned car at a traffic light. The molester was in an SUV that had stopped right next to her at the same light. He must have planned his moment of glee because he struck her as soon as the signal changed to green and sped off while she, in a state of shock, "sat there and cried."
So I started keeping my damned car’s damned windows always -– yes ALWAYS –- rolled up! Then I had the experience of male drivers veering their vehicles towards mine simply to intimidate me.
One afternoon my car was chased down a lonely road near the city’s diplomatic enclave… So I mastered the art of staying calm in such situations, I read up on the mindset of sexual predators, I went to great lengths to ensure that my cellphone was always charged, I began keeping a charger in my car and a back-up cellphone for just in case the first one conks off, and finally a few years back I started keeping a pepper spray in my handbag.
Then in 2008, my colleague Soumya Vishwanathan was murdered on her way home from work.
Delhi Chief Minister Shiela Dikshit brazenly attributed the murder to Soumya being “adventurous” because she was driving home alone in the early hours of the morning. Dikshit was no different from others who have chosen to point fingers at female victims of violence. I had impatiently listened to the spiel before, but something exploded in my head that day.
As a journalist I train myself to be detached, but as a woman I wanted to scream at her and all those defending her: WHERE DOES IT END? HOW MANY PRECAUTIONS DO I TAKE TO BE SAFE IN MY CITY?
Don’t wear short skirts, in fact don’t wear skirts at all! Don’t walk down a street after dark, don’t walk down a street during the day! Don’t use buses, don’t use autorickshaws! Don’t drive alone too late, don’t drive alone during the day! Avoid crowded places, avoid lonely places! Don’t go out late for films and parties, don’t stay back late at work, deal with the boss’ anger because you won’t stay back late for work, lose out on promotions or face the wrath of male colleagues who accuse you of expecting special privileges as a woman …
And then what? … Don’t dream of a career because ambition’s a dirty word for women? Don’t have fun because it’s not worth the risk? Don’t skip, don’t jump, don’t leave the house, cover your head, hide your face, wear a burqa? But hey, even women who are veiled from head to toe and are confined to their homes get raped, so how about this: stop existing?!
Maybe I do know why so many furious protestors are out on the streets of Delhi and other Indian cities, demanding justice for that 23-year-old girl. Maybe it’s because there’s a sense of guilt at not having out-shouted those elements in Indian society and politics whose first reaction is always to ask questions of female victims of violence, not the perpetrators of such crimes.
Personally, I’ve never been one to stay quiet. I’ve always worn my feminism on my sleeve.
Yet today, like a child harbouring an incestuous paedophile uncle for fear of spoiling the family name, I find myself hesitating to press the send button on this article.
I wish this did not feel like a betrayal. That creepy uncle is like those horrid Delhi men who derive joy from humiliating women; that family is my home city that I love so much despite all its drawbacks.
As an Indian I’m already ashamed of the fact that the current protests have attracted the attention of the foreign media; as a Delhi-ite I’m embarrassed by the reputation my city has in the rest of India. As much as I know there are women out there who will relate to what I’m writing and men who will sympathise, I know too that there are plenty who would accuse me of washing our dirty linen on a foreign website.
Ah well, it’s not a kid’s job to protect a sleazy uncle. It’s the family’s job to look out for the kid.
Anna MM Vetticad is the author of "The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic." She is on Twitter as @annavetticad.