Monday, December 31, 2012

How do I explain?

I’ve been wondering how to explain to people, to men, what it feels like to be a woman in India. I’ve been struggling with it. I had begun to write something a few months ago but abandoned it in frustration, thinking, ‘I can never explain…’ With the events of the last month bringing this very issue to the forefront of national and international discourse and certainly to the frontier of my life, I realized with some urgency that the time to complete this piece was NOW. But I still struggle with the words.

How do I explain what it is like to be painfully aware of every movement your body makes? To be aware that you can’t raise your arm too high if your armpit isn’t shaved…that’s not a problem men have, is it? Or to not know how to sit. I can’t slouch because it isn’t ‘feminine’ and besides my top might slip too low and show some cleavage. But I mustn’t sit too straight either because that’s suggestive, isn’t it? Or is it aggressive? I’ve forgotten now what its fault is, but there was something. And my legs – does a real lady cross them or not? If my knees fall away from each other for a moment in relaxation, is that an invitation? How do I even begin to explain that you can never know what it’s like to walk down a road and be looked at only for your gender and have every inch of your visible and invisible skin crawl with the gaze of hungry, glazed eyes as they ravage you. It makes no difference whether or not I am beautiful or sexy or in a salwar kameez or mini skirt. One option apparently makes me easier to rape, the other makes me harder to. One option makes me invite rape, the other option lets rape gategrash. Frankly for many women in India, waking up invites rape. But I will still get looked at – just because I am a woman. As a woman I never walk out of my bedroom without checking what I have on. Even if I’m just roaming around the house, getting breakfast or reading a book on my couch, I am incredibly aware of whether I have a bra on under my tee shirt, or whether my shorts are too short, or whether my hair is untied and provocative. Every moment, marked with exhausting self-awareness.

Maybe it is that self-awareness that has made us the more introspective sex. I asked a male friend the other day, “Why do you do this to us? What have we ever done to you?” And he said, “You make us feel so insecure.” It’s the most honest thing I’ve heard in a long time. Because rape, let’s face it, is not about sex. It’s more about assertion than insertion…more about humiliation, domination, and at the bottom of it all, insecurity. Beneath the insecurity though is a lack of education and awareness that a society that’s organized on the basis of institutionalized bigotry and barbarity has failed to give its members.

In the days following this rape there have been rabid calls for castration and capital punishment. But as the comedian and columnist Rohan Joshi (amongst many, many others) pointed out – castration only creates psychos and capital punishment will ensure post-rape murder. Rohan also pointed out something a lot of us, especially women, have been wondering about. Punishment is all very well, but how are you going to change the very fabric of a stained society? You may cut down a poisoned tree but what of its roots? I don’t have the answer either but as someone who has been jostled on public transport, leered at for 25 years, and told I can’t wear what I want, go where I want, talk how I want or do what I want, I have certainly given it some thought. My answers are in the form of more questions, but that’s only because I’m as unsure of the solution as you. Some may find them simplistic, but perhaps simplifying the problem may help.

To begin with, why in a country like India is it not almost compulsory to have co-educational schools by this point? While the police claim it is the cause for sexual violence I disagree. How many men and women will we raise who barely speak with the opposite gender before the age of 17? The sort of segregated education we still allow only encourages the idea of “feminine mystique” and of women as “the other”. The average Indian boy grows up with two versions of the Indian women – his mother (the perfect wife, homemaker and baby bearer) and the Bollywood beauty (delicate &wife-like or the hyper-sexual item girl). When the women he finally meets as an adult fail to live up to or rather succumb to either stereotype, the answer (as with smashing a new toy that fails to work) is violence, because he hasn’t ever had to view her as an equal who too will inhabit various roles, has opinions and is as human as he is.

In the same vein, why isn’t sex education compulsory yet? The only access boys and girls have to sexual information is pornography, which comes with the burden of guilt and the undertone of filth, not to mention the most obvious issue of all which is that porn most often subjugates women, and portrays rape fantasies as the norm. With the kind of film industry we have, where a Kambakht Ishq will play to packed theatres but a “French kissing” scene is censored, perhaps leaving sex-ed to porn isn’t okay? Is it okay that a Yo Yo Honey Singh is the first place a teenager hears the word "vagina"? Perhaps providing boys with information about a woman’s body – her breasts, menstruation, vagina and ovaries – may lead to some sort of understanding of it and you won’t have a boy puncturing a girl’s vagina with a screw-driver to bring on her delayed period (YES, this did happen). Perhaps showing them a film of a couple making love, rather than a girl being pounded in the woods by three men should be an option? As long as India associates sex with filth, Indian men will treat women’s bodies as the sinning grounds.

And it isn’t simply Indian men who are at fault. I feel ashamed to say that I too have encouraged patriarchy. You all have. When a beautiful woman walks into a party and someone makes a snide comment about how short her dress is, we’ve laughed, instead of telling them to shut up and mind their own business. That too counts as patriarchy, as sexual harassment. And how long before we stand up for ourselves? For each other? When will we live in a culture where we no longer hungrily devour media that survives on creating and portraying drama between women? Where a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law are friends, where we don’t sleep with each other’s husbands, where we don’t shout at our maids because we don’t view women from a different class as our own. When will we allow our daughters to marry who they want, and tell them they can do exactly what their brothers can? I want to live in an India that stops falsely protecting its women by asking them to remain indoors, not wear skirts, and not go anywhere without a man. Where I can go to a gynaecologist and the words  “sexually active” and “married” do not automatically equate, and where a girl does not need to bring in dowry because she earns as much as her husband. Where do I go to report a boy brushing against me, or groping me as a rickshaw rolls by…grabbing my ass? What policeman will take seriously the words “He was walking too close to me” or “He calls me everyday even when I’ve told him I don’t want to talk”?

Instead of screaming for capital punishment, take a moment to think about what you sound like. Violence is borne of fear, and it almost always only breeds more violence. These men need to be punished, I agree, but more than anything they need HELP. Talk to boys, girls. Ask them why, ask them what we make them feel and tell them how we feel. And the boys that do things like this, sure, punish them, lock them up, keep them there, but can our government not organize ways to help them, to reform them, to figure out why someone would do this? A boy doesn’t rape for fun. A boy rapes because he knows no better. Because sex is that alien, elusive thing in the distance and when he feels powerless he combines the two. Men don’t rape because they lose control, they rape to feel in control. Here’s something interesting: not many newspapers are reporting a single disturbing fact about what we’re calling the ‘Delhi Rape Case’. The fact that the reason that horrific now ever-so-vivid “iron rod” was used, was in fact because they wanted to remove the DNA traces. That’s an act of fear, before it is one of violence. You don’t think of this ‘literally’ but there is a reason why we call a rapist a “coward”.

If you do want to cut off something, let it not be their heads or their penises or any such redundant appendage. Cut off their arms. Imagine not being able to eat again, or to work, or scratch oneself in public. To never masturbate again and to never, ever touch a woman again. Never hold another woman down. You find me cruel, but my life as an Indian woman is cruel. And it has been helpless, but no more.

To end, you ask me – why THIS rape? Why did you come pouring out for this one? I don’t know. All I know is that this rape sparked the fury of a nation, and if there is a movement that decies it and the structures that enable it, I want to be a part of it. When I went out there I found the critics were wrong – there were women there from every class, every religion, every state and caste and age. There were men there – old and young. This is not my struggle or yours. It is not a “student protest” or “youth movement” or the anger of the middle classes. This is no longer a struggle in isolation. It is ours, and it should not end, until a time comes when we do not just have the answers to the questions I ask, but we no longer recall the questions themselves.

The time is now. Our government may say that India is shining, but that’s just what it looks like from a distance. Come up close, join the fight, march with us in the streets and you will see they think this because they’re looking down from their high minarets. Down here you will see India is burning, and guess what? We hold the torches.