Tuesday, March 07, 2006

on pondering the disdavantages of no man being an island.

Being very far removed from the what’s-what of the Indian blogosphere, I had to be alerted by Aishwarya of the admirable Blank Noise project, which has made March 7th a ‘Blog Against Sexual Harassment/Eve-Teasing Day,’ a project I endorse as heartily as tomorrow’s ‘Blog Against Sexism’ initiative. I encourage passersby to spread the word, especially the male of the species that come here because they are super-intelligent, enlightened friends of mine who would never ordinarily count themselves as members of that panting, sweaty, narrow-minded mass of patriarchy that treats women as less than human beings. Stand up and be counted as protesters against the soul-destroying illogic of sexism and gender oppression.

Be counted if the reasonableness of having a day for women without giving them a holiday from being the victims of systemic abuse, open as ever to the neglect, discrimination and violence they face on the other three hundred and sixty four days of the year eludes you. No one has been ludicrous enough to suggest celebrating days of awareness for discriminated-against races, or classes, or castes, or even sexual orientations. There seems to be no other point to celebrating Women’s Day other than allowing a lot of powder-puff enthusiasts to gather around and exclaim over the very specialness and fragility and the powerful emotional appeal of women, much like diamond jewellery. Be counted if you think that ‘charm’ and ‘mystery’ are deeply flawed reasons to build lasting social ties.

Blogging about eve-teasing is less simple. One does not know if one’s own run-in with prurient lechers in the past merits the moral and emotional consideration of women who have been through so much more; one has lived a relatively charmed life in the city of Mumbai which, while not perfect, has happily proven that perfection is not synonymous with goodness; one’s powers of expression cannot do justice to the helplessness and rage and humiliation that never disappear after the first time a man treats one’s body like public property.

It is worth running with the idea of public property as analogous to the carelessness with which people treat things that are not expressly and solely their own. Perhaps it has something to do with the general tolerance of men being able to piss in public. They’ll do it against someone else’s wall; they’ll spit paan and scratch themselves in broad daylight, and all of this is observed behaviour only with regard to the possessions of others. It’s almost as though the long-suffered repression of women in society has balanced out with an almost utter lack of impulse control training in men. Coupled with an ingrained belief in their supreme lordship over the universe that is socially and legally sanctioned, for unknown reasons, the result is a state of affairs in which no woman - no woman at all - will ever be able to answer the question, ‘Have you been sexually harassed?’ with a negative. Even public structures have a better track record against abuse. It is also worth noting that men of an economic class that generally has recourse to private bathrooms and non-spittable drugs are far from innocent of being participants in this systemic oppression.

It takes a lot of maternal teaching and reinforcement, as it did with me, to learn to “just ignore” abusers. Theoretically, ignoring is a sound idea – deprive them of attention or acknowledgement, and sooner or later even the privileged sex should get the message that they are not all that special. This, at least in my social class, is the general consensus on how to deal with sexual harassment. There has been such widespread use of the silent accusation tool that it, had it actually been effective, would have shamed a lot of scumbags into virtue. At best, the errant abuser who isn’t-quite-a-rapist-but-really-just-one-of-the-boys takes the silence as a sign that he has well and truly frightened his victim and lays off, not wanting to take things further. Evidence forces us to accept that “ignoring” is a practical disaster as a defence tactic.

Is violence the answer? It is a knee-jerk response and, to tweak the nose yet again of all the supporters of an evil new Bollywood blockbuster that shall not be named here, it is undeniably a false and crude solution. Hitting a man who doesn’t expect it is a bit like – well, groping a woman who doesn’t expect it. I have been leered at, touched, talked to and stared at so much that no amount of shouting feels like it will be enough. Who do I talk to? My father and protector? My friends, who cover for me in train compartments and drop me home on late nights? I don’t know how to talk to strange men, having learned only to ignore them. Does flippancy work? Sarcasm? A casual swipe at the head with a magic sword? But what sort of battle are we at? Not a very meaningful one unless both parties fight. And a completely pointless one, may I add, unless women win.

(My solution to the combination of a visceral fear of sexual abuse and a lifetime’s conditioning to ignore is a pre-emptive ‘elbows-out’ strategy that involves a poke in the stomach to anyone who gets too close. It doesn’t teach anyone a lesson, but it works for me. As for getting anyone to listen, learn and desist from using their paws on anyone but themselves, I’m quite willing to shout at men when my mother is not around. It’s very soothing to the mind, and surely at least a little more effective than the ignoring strategy. There’s got to be some dogs out there that’ll run off when the hydrant talks back).

Read for edification the posts of Annie and Aishwarya. See also a related post by Twisty that may be one of my favourite ever pieces of writing. In Sunday's Guardian, a slightly obvious but compellingly statistics-filled look at rape as a consequence of war.

Finally, I would like to dedicate this, if she will accept it, to Kate, for successfully overcoming the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie, and shouting back.


  1. very good post. I agree ignoring isn't a very good defensive tactic.

    I think taking the support of men you can trust isn't bad (its not always patriarchy hiding under chivalry) and neither is using violent tactics, if not martial arts (!) then at least sprays or just your elbows if you are strong enough. And of course always be cautious. I know it takes away some of the freedom but then we all trade off some security with some freedom.

    I hope I don't sound like a chauvinist hiding under a pragmatist ;)

  2. Anonymous3:57 pm

    arre maidam..aap kaa likhti hain sasura samajh hi nahin aata hai...ka ka bada bada angrezi shabd ka prayog karti hai aap...aap ka oxford shabdkosh pe paida hui thi kaa?

    bhiku doodhweala

  3. @ anon/b d : to aap ko thodhi na koi jabardasti kar raha hai padhneko!!!!