All of us navigate our pasts, especially the unforgettable, tumultuous journey from adolescence to young adulthood, using milestones to mark our memories. The first crush, the first kiss, the first scrape on the basketball courts, the first 100-metre dash, the first time you stayed out past curfew hour and the first time you spoke on stage, your knees knocking in excitement and anxiety.
But growing up as a female in India, there’s another ‘First’ that blots your nostalgia with insidious persistence. It’s the memory of being violated. It’s that day in the calendar of your evolution that your physical space and emotional security was first trespassed by a pawing hand, a groping fist, an abusive catcall or the unzipped trousers of a man coercing you to look at him on the bus going home from school. If you’re lucky, that’s the worst that happens to you.
Did I just say that? Are we so brutalised by the commonplace frequency of sexual abuse that an unwanted touch, a leering whistle or a stranger’s body forcibly rubbing against yours is placed in the category of ‘not so bad’ because elsewhere iron rods are being used to wrench open a young woman’s innards?
Yes, and that is exactly the crisis that stems from violence being coded into the very DNA of an essentially misogynistic culture. In our society, sexual molestation is treated either as a minor irritant or the inevitable consequence of being a girl. The ingrained tolerance for it as some sort of twisted rites of passage — to be ignored when it can’t be fought — explains why an offensive, feeble and idiotically underwhelming phrase like ‘eve teasing’ is still used as a respectable euphemism for abuse.
As teenage girls, as young adults and even as battle-weary middle-aged women, we have all fought sexual violation in the ways we know how. Even today, sometimes when I walk down the leafy lanes of the Delhi neighbourhood that has been my home for four decades, I feel I’m going to meet them right around the bend, just as I first did when I was 15 — those foul-mouthed louts who would relentlessly stalk me on their two-wheeler, screeching their brakes to a grinding halt as they lunged to grope and pinch, then sped off just as quickly, their full-throated laughter taunting me into tears of rage. Of course I went to the police, but nothing much came of it.
From that instance to every time it happened again — on the road, on a bus, in a cinema hall — I retaliated, as most of us do — by shouting back, hurling a shoe on the odd occasion and quite often reaching out to slap the offender as hard as I could without endangering myself. But like most girls, I understood, that if my spirit were not to be fettered by a cocoon of over-protection, if I wanted to do after-school drama and debate lessons and fall and run and fall again on the basketball courts — if I wanted to be an independent woman with big dreams — I would just have to accept that this was going to be part of my life.
The reason I find it difficult to share the optimism that the outpouring of street rage after the Delhi gang rape will be some sort of inflection point in our discourse on gender-rights is because elitism and privilege have created a widening gap between the struggles of the ‘aam-aurat’ and the political establishment. Unlike the great cities of the world — where the mayor and the hot-dog seller may ride the subway together to work — not one of our policy-makers ever uses public transport. How can they ever understand what the daily violation of one’s private space feels like? I doubt if they ever need to even step out for a walk outside of the manicured lawns of their lavish (taxpayer-financed) bungalows and if they do, how often is it without security?
The other reason the present debate seems to fall short of honesty is because of the shroud of silence that hangs over uncomfortable and unspoken truths. By focusing (correctly) on law-enforcement and safer cities are we averting our gaze from the enemy within? What of sexual violence inflicted by a husband on his wife? One survey says one in every five men admitted to forcing his partner to have sex. What about child sexual abuse — most often by a trusted uncle or a friendly cousin or a seemingly genial friend of the family whom we may chide gently when caught or, at best, socially shun but never ever hand over to the police? Instead, in pursuit of some warped notion of respectability, we implore our daughters and sons to pretend it never happened and become co-conspirators in an unforgivable silence. What about all the times we have accepted violence in our personal relationships, making excuses while knowing better? Remember, in more than 90% of rape and sexual abuse cases the abuser is not a stranger.
The truth is that in a country where little girls are killed before they are born, it is difficult to feel hope. The fact that we pray for the blessings of ‘a hundred sons’ for young mothers while claiming to be a country that worships women says it all. We The People are part of the problem.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV and currently a Visiting Fellow at Brown University’s India Initiative
The views expressed by the author are personal