The following was submitted by SMIW reader Ujwala Parthasarathy to our campaign #HaveShortsWillSmoke.
I commuted to school and college in Bangalore in state transport buses for seven years. In Class 9, I was sexually assaulted in a crowded bus for the very first time. When I informed my mother, she asked me to take care and stand behind the driver among women instead of going towards the back of the bus where the men stand. When an educated, working and well-traveled woman in a position of blind trust gives such an advice, one tends to follow it with a feeling that the sexual assault was somehow one’s own fault for going towards the comparatively emptier back of the bus where the men stand.
After quietly suffering through two more such incidents, I broke down before my older sister, who gave me the more effective advice to carry my sharp compass in my hand and poke the bastards with as much force as possible. I did carry my compass and poked a lot of men who ran their hands down my uniform. I continue to face the supposedly milder versions of sexual harassment such as cat-calling, swearing, jeering and ogling. It took a while for my subconscious guilt to completely disappear; guilt which says that unwanted advances are somehow my fault, that ogling or catcalling is somehow triggered by what I am wearing.
In my profession, wearing a saree is compulsory so I got used to it. Also, I love wearing saree and I am comfortable in it. But, I also realised that the ogling and catcalling is reduced when I am wearing a saree, though the blouse cut should not be too scandalous as per society’s standards (I wonder who made them). When I raged against this unfair image perception based on our clothes to my mother, she could not relate to my anger and frustration at all. She actually made a statement that “See, this shows it is better to wear saree rather than western clothes. Even rapes would reduce if more women wore sarees.” I was aghast and reminded her of rapes on dalit women in rural India or even on a saree-wearing mother of 2 children in Palika Bazar, Delhi.
Recently, when one of my friends wanted to take me out for a surprise and asked me to dress casual, I still insisted on knowing exactly where we were going, so I could select the appropriate casual wear. My friend, being male, was understandably lost. Of course, I can enter a temple or walk down a street in the older part of the city in a skirt or jeans, I may not even get groped or lectured if I am very lucky; but I will get ogled and leered at. That is as certain as the grass is green. If I am a sensitive person, I will feel uncomfortable and the day will be spoiled. I don’t expect my friend to get this. Someone who has grown up with unseen male privilege will never fully know – no matter how well meaning and empathizing they are.
Then, there are days when I will make up my mind to wear what I want! To hell with what others think! Sadly, it takes a lot of mental preparation and jaw-clenching tolerance towards the stares and the jeers. A lot of days, I am just not prepared for all this mental anxiety and cave-in to the moral diktats of society to wear a saree, even when I am not going to work.
Men can never truly discern the strength and fortitude it takes for a woman to wear what she wants.
Hats off to all the ladies wearing what they want, every day!
About the author:
Ujwala Parthasarathy is a professor at the Christ Law College, Bangalore.