Thursday, December 20, 2012

Being Woman

In the wake of the recent spine-chilling gang rape and assault that happened in Delhi, I finally decided to publish this post I've been waiting to post for a long time.

I was born in India, and spent 22 years of my life there. I absolutely love the country and the cultural diversity that it brings with it like no other country in the world does. We have a rich heritage and the kind of history that most other countries pretend to have, but don't. I am immensely proud to be born in such an amazing country, and yet, after moving to the United States, whenever I go back to India, things make me uncomfortable. And I'm not talking about the climate or the fact that things are less 'developed' in India. I'm talking about the mentality of people.

A girl walking down the street wearing shorts and tank tops will make every single man on the road blatantly stare at her. Wearing a two-piece swimsuit at the beach makes all heads turn towards you, and traveling in the unisex compartment of the local train is an open invitation to get groped from all directions. Most orthodox in-laws still have the tendency to reject a girl who has been with another man in the past.

Gender equality
On the other hand, men can do whatever they please. They can flaunt banana hammocks at the pool and get away with whipping out their penises on the side of the road to relieve themselves as other men act like nothing's wrong and the women turn away ashamed, pretending they didn't notice. So what happened to all those talks about gender equality? Why am I forced to wear long sleeved shirts and jeans when it is 40°C outside when men can take their shirts off if needed? Why does a boy have as many girlfriends as he wants and won't get anything more than a disapproving look or two, but a girl can get rejected for having had a past relationship? Did Ram have a right to put Sita through the agnipariksha and why didn't he have to take one? I was lucky for growing up in Maharashtra, one of the safest and most lenient states in India where eyebrows don't raise to see a girl playing soccer with other boys, but my North-Indian female friends didn't even have the option of staying out of the house after dark because it's 'unsafe' for them.

So much for being the largest democracy of the world.

A few years back, I was walking in my neighborhood with my friend when this kid passing us deliberately touched her chest. I didn't notice it, but as he walked past us, my friend told me what happened. "Are you sure he did it on purpose," I asked. "Why else would his hand reach my left boob when he's passing me on the right," she said matter-of-factly. I turned around to look at the boy as he kept casually walking away. He couldn't have been older than 13 or 14 and was about my height. "Stay right here," I said to my friend and turned around and started walking towards him. He realized he was being followed and kept walking faster sneaking sideways glances at me. "Hey you," I yelled. That attracted the attention of a few passers-by, some people buying fresh fruit at a fruit stand and a couple of rickshawallahs waiting for passengers. Normally, attracting that much attention on the road would have embarrassed me, but not this time. It gave me more confidence about publicly putting the kid to shame. He turned around with his chin up in the air and a look of arrogance, and said, "what!" I stormed closer to him and grabbed his shirt collar, bringing his face within 10 inches of me and staring point blank in his eyes. "Why did you touch my friend," I said. Having a girl grab him by his shirt and talk to him aggressively baffled him and his tone got submissive, "I didn't do anything." "You did, and you know it," I said, "who gave you the right to touch another woman?" And then, just like that on an impulse, I hit him hard across his face. I heard the fruit vendor shout something at us and the two rickshawallahs rushed over to mediate. I won't lie, right at that moment, I was suddenly overcome with fear. I was clearly stronger than the kid, but I had never made a scene on the street like that before and didn't know if those rickshawallahs would gang up on me or manhandle me. I softened my voice and tried my best not to sound shaky, "I dare you to touch another girl again," I said. I let go of his collar, shoving him a little to assert my victory, and started walking back to my friend, proud of what I had done, expecting her appreciation. Instead, her face was red with embarrassment. She shot me a disapproving look, turned away, and started walking even before I could catch up with her. I heard the rickshawallahs and a couple other random people reprimand the kid a little and then someone passed a comment and I heard laughter. My head was filled with a medley of emotions - guilt, anger, fear, confusion, but most importantly, satisfaction.

"That should teach him," I said. "Shut up! Why did you have to embarrass me like that," my friend blurted, almost in tears as she kept walking ahead of me with her gaze fixed on the ground ahead of her. Seeing her unexpected disappointment made my jaw drop. I embarrassed her? I thought I stuck up to her. If anything, she should have been grateful to me! "I'm sorry," I said, "it was a fit of rage." "Don't ever do things like that again," she said to me, "you'll get both of us in trouble." At that point I was genuinely confused, and then started to feel ashamed. Had I really done something wrong? Had I jeopardized my friend's life along with mine in an impulsive act of defiance? My 21 year old self decided that what I did wasn't really something to be proud of. I didn't talk about it with my parents or anyone else out of fear of getting rebuked. My mom always lectured me for being feisty and I didn't want to give her a chance to say "this is exactly what I mean."

However, after reading about all the rapes and assaults that happen on a day-to-day life, what I did makes my 26 year old self proud. I had the guts to stand up for my right as a woman that not many women have.
women in skirts
Not an invitation to rape
I have retaliated indecent sexual advances towards me more than once in the past. We need more women to stand up to the injustice happening around us. As my friend Mohona pointed out in her post, all of us have been victims of molestation in public. It can be as trivial as getting "accidentally" touched inappropriately on a public bus, getting our chests stared at, or something as serious as rape. What happened to the Delhi girl wasn't her fault, and yet the injuries she sustained on account of the lust of a bunch of strangers will have life long effects on her, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Is it enough to give these guys capital punishment? Why do they get immediate death? Why shouldn't they have to live a life in suffering like her?

I was lucky I was in Pune, which is one of the safest places to be in for a woman in India. Would the rickshawallahs have the same attitude if this had to happen in Delhi or UP or Bihar; or would they have raped and brutally assaulted me for standing up to my friend? The thought makes me shudder. No one has given men the right to express dominance over women and it's not their job to decide a woman's place in society. The patriarchal system does not justify treating women as objects to be used at your disposal. We have a right to walk in a crowd without getting groped. We have a right to wear skirts and sleeveless shirts without having every set of eyes on the road pop out of their sockets at us. We have a right to take that night bus home without worrying about getting gang raped and thrown out on the road half-naked and near dead.

It sure is important to teach our daughters the importance of protecting their safety in public, but it is more important to teach our sons to be real men and learn to show respect, courtesy, and self-control.

Don't rape
The message we really need