I have always been a mamma’s boy, unabashedly so. I always have grown up among this coterie of friends who have been a buffer between me and the world; who have protected me, indeed insulated me from the big bad world.
I grew up in a world where women’s rights were not something that you had to fight for; they were something that you took for granted. A world where a man and a woman were but mere variations of the same basic humanity and you treated the two exactly the same but for a few very superficial details.
Yes there were aberrations. There were lechers who were promptly dealt with. There were perverts, but they were asked to debus politely, yet firmly. Accidents did happen, but they were taken care of in a sensitive way. It was a world where ‘egalitarianism’ actually made sense. In short, quite a sun dappled utopia.
Then, after spending 23 years peering at the world from the shelter of my mind, I finally left home, left my native city for scary Delhi. I knew things would be different but did not know how everything I believed in would be challenged. I made new friends, talked to new people. And the conversations I had left me completely shaken.
I was told horror stories that shook me to my very core. Stories of rape that happened in genteel drawing rooms of south Delhi. My girlfriend told me of drugs slipped into drinks and friends quietly getting the pill the next morning, and then moving on.
A professor friend told me how not a single one of her students had not been touched, without his or her consent, while growing up. Yet another spoke of uncles who would rape children regularly to ‘cure’ them of their homosexuality.
And over and over again, I realised somehow, I had become part of the problem. Growing up, I had always looked at women, ‘checked them out’ I think the phrase is. I never thought much of it. It was all a part of our whole male-female interaction. Suddenly, all of that did not seem so innocent anymore. I was the lecher now, the pervert I had so loathed earlier.
This pained me, outraged me. Didn’t they know that I was different? Couldn’t they see that violating them was the farthest from my mind? That I cherished and worshipped them?
In my confusion I turned to my old friends, and all of them deserted me one after the other. I turned to logic but that fell through. When rapists (not men, despite my re-education, I still maintain the distinction) generalise and objectify women irrespective of age, colour and looks, why should not a woman do the same about the male gaze?
Next I turned to egalitarianism. Women too objectify men. Men too can be raped. But the statistics are so skewed to the disadvantage of women on this front that it felt ridiculous even to me. How can we talk of equality when one half has already been run to the ground and pounded upon so badly that even the most gruesome of acts seem normal?
My next friend was empathy. I understand how difficult it must be for you, I said. It was gently pointed out to me that I most certainly did not. As a middle class heterosexual male, I was so far on the right side of the normative that I could not imagine what is was like to be constantly in the spotlight, to be judged and censured at every step.
My last resort was my little town. Things are different back home, I squeaked. Delhi is a very different city, I pleaded. And then I met more people, people from my own city, and they told me stories. Stories that made me realise that so comfortable was I in my own cocoon that I did not see the same thing happening right next door, in the very red-brick school buildings that I thought were my fortresses.
As the realisation sunk in, I was lost. I was on the wrong side of battle lines that were very clearly drawn and I did not know how to get back. More importantly, I did not know how to stop the war.
If the December 16 horror showed us anything, it was that rape is not about sex, not about titillation. It’s about power. Yes, wearing short clothes does cause rape but not because it excites, but because it marks a woman’s freedom to dress the way she wants to, a challenge to the male hegemony.
How do you stop something like that? When does rape stop? When does casual interaction between two individuals cross over to harassment? Is there a line at all?