Image: Varsha Bhargavi
This happened just yesterday as I was returning home after attending a thought provoking seminar by Hyderabad Collective, hearing from rural journalist P. Sainath and Prof. Gopal Guru. I shared a ride in an autorickshaw with my Professor, Saras Ma’am who teaches history at Kasturba Gandhi College for Women. She too was equally delighted with the topics that were discussed and was sharing her own experiences about rational thinking and how it can be applied in our daily lives.
Hyderabad was as usual was buzzing with life even at 9 PM, but the traffic was thankfully thinning. As we both cringed inwardly looking at the saffron flags being sold on the roadside, we both had the same question in mind about whether we can manage to attend the second day of Hyderabad Collective seminar to hear Siddharth Varadarajan and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta. 22ndApril 2016 is Hanuman Jayanthi which means there will be more men on the streets expressing their religious fervor by vehemently imposing their ideologies on everyone and anyone. The saffron flag sale outlets were doing brisk business. As Saras Ma’am was voicing out her concern about whether anyone’s checking the environmental impact such festival decorations are likely to have, we stopped at a traffic signal.
A man who was asking people for money quickly approached us. He looked dirty, unkempt, shirtless with only a trouser hanging loosely on him. He was dragging one of his leg as he begged for money in sign language, projecting himself as being too exhausted to talk. I noticed that there was nothing wrong with any of his body parts that gave him a reason to beg. In fact, he looked a lot healthier beneath all the dirt and grime. Noticing this, I politely refused by putting my palms together and mumbled “Maaf karo bhai” (Sorry, brother) and continued the conversation with Saras ma’am. This is a regular phrase used by Hyderabadis while refusing to give money to those who beg.
As we continued our discussion, the man went around other vehicles before returning back to us and quickly worded an expletive line in Telugu which translated to something like this, “You are shamelessly showing off your breasts by wearing revealing clothes in public!” It took us some time to comprehend what he actually said. Before we could even react the signal turned green and our auto driver sped off. We both were utterly shocked when it sunk in, but chose not mention it. The humiliation was unbearable for the rest of our journey for me as well as Saras Ma’am, who will be retiring next year. We did not speak a word until we reached our destination.
Only a couple of days ago, I was tweeting my experiences on sexual harassment with the hashtag #WhenIWas. While tweeting, I was also reading other women’s set of ordeals in similar situations and all the trauma they had to endure before sharing it within 140 character limit on Twitter. My encounter to sexual harassment began when I was 8 yrs old and was raped by my uncle. I kind of grew numb inside as my parents did not stop him from coming home even after I told them what he did to me, with my limited vocabulary. The physical pain was unbearable but it dulled after a few days. I used to run away and hide behind my mom when he walked around. After a few years I grew numb towards any male advances I encountered. Not that I didn’t feel hurt, but each time the numbness grew along with the dull pain which stayed on. That might sound like an oxymoron, when I say numb and pain together, but it is in fact, exactly that.
We women carry on with our lives, going to school, working, interacting with friends, attending family functions, pursuing careers, falling in love, getting married, having babies, raising children, watching them grow and all that, with a cloud above our head. That cloud refuses to go away. We carry that cloud with us wherever we go, whatever we do. Only we can see it and feel it as the molesters and rapists live inside our heads. It is easy for anyone from outside to advise us to forget and move on. My fellow survivors said the same thing to me. And I said the same to my friends in similar situations. As we all share the same secret. No matter how much we try to erase these sexual harassment incidents -verbal as well as non-verbal, they just stay with us making us grow numb and dulled with pain. Any new encounter of sexual harassment only adds to the density of the cloud we each of us have above our heads.
Yesterday’s incident was just one such encounter. The man just assumed that he was entitled to pass a vile comment on my body parts, like any other man in India. Should I have reacted? Yes, absolutely. But then I stop and think about the ordeal I would have had to put up with in explaining what he said, to the police. I may have had to repeat myself several times before the perpetrator gets a verbal warning or a bit of thrashing. But that’s about it. Even the law enforcement would ridicule me for wanting to press charges. It enrages me to see the notion of male entitlement over women’s bodies as if we are some lifeless sex toys . The rage builds up each time I encounter someone leering at my body, lecherously trying to occupy my personal space, touching me unnecessarily, remarking about my physical attributes, try to correlate my physical attributes to express their dismay that I am also intelligent, mansplain to me after I made a valid point and so on!
As for the revealing clothes the man was referring to, me and my professor both were wearing salwar kameez with dupatta. Only mine was sleeveless as seen in the image above
Have Shorts. Will Smoke.