In the media furore surrounding the Delhi gangrape many young children encountered the word rape for the first time. A friend's daughter is who is still young enough that my friend hadn't quite got to the conversation on sex, was confronted with having to discuss sexual violence, when her
daughter heard the word on the news.
As part of an ongoing research project on feminist mothering, I have talked to many self-identified feminist mothers who spoke of their concerns that danger is the language in which they are often compelled to approach the discussion of sexuality.
Often, the first sexual thing we talk to our children about is good touch and bad touch. The reality that our children need to know these things, to be told explicitly that if they are ever touched in ways they don't like, they should tell their parents, even if they are threatened with dire consequences for doing so, compels us to talk to them.
My daughter is just getting to an age where the conversation on good and bad touch is imminent. She starts pre-school this year. She may even commute on a school bus, like the four-year-old who was so brutally assaulted in Juhu recently.
I have tried to begin this conversation by focussing on consent rather than danger.
Even before she was two, we talked about how she did not have to hug (or be hugged) by anyone whom she didn't want to. I am considered a rather odd mother, because I actively discourage friends (many of whom understand) and extended family (many of whom don't understand at all) from picking her up or even touching her without her express permission.
I've told her she doesn't have to be friends with anyone just because they're my friends. I want her to know that she always has a choice, that her will and desire are important.
I hope I am laying the groundwork for her adolescence, when she will be able to say no with conviction and self-assurance. But I also want her to know that it's ok to say yes when she desires to. And yet, I want to tell her that this yes is best said in contexts of mutual respect and trust, in addition to desire.
I want my daughter to have fun. To walk on Marine Drive at midnight. To take the last train home and exult in the breeze in her hair as she stands at the door (but carefully, holding something!). To hangout in public spaces in Mumbai with a sense of belonging. To buy books and eat on the street (attackers of hawkers, are you listening?)
As a parent today, as one's child grows older and takes steps away from you, one has to learn to live with the fear without letting it take over. One must attempt to resolve the dilemmas of telling cautionary tales even as one equips a child to take calculated risks. Of talking to them about the possibility of sexual violence and how to deal with it even as we assert our collective right as citizens to claim the streets as spaces of pleasure.
I struggle with all of these things even before my daughter goes to pre-school, in the hope that if she is ever confronted by someone who threatens her with, "What are you doing here. I'll call your parents", she will smugly say, "I already did."
Shilpa Phadke is a sociologist and co-author of 'Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets'
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