There was this Sweet Valley book where one of the characters gets assaulted and the other raped. I don’t know if you are familiar with Sweet Valley, but in my teenage world, this was akin to Barbie getting raped. It just didn’t compute. But then, something wonderful happened. The book, called ‘Take Back the Night’, showed the main female characters pulling in all their strength, including a march on campus, and going to court and confronting their attacker. It was probably been 15 years since I read it, but it still swims in my head. It was the first time, I think, that I’d read an account of sexual assault and rape. But it also taught me to be strong and overcome the fear.
A lot has changed in those fifteen years. I’ve been to court with a rape victim, I’ve driven in Delhi at all odd hours alone, I’ve been around this country for work – with only men surrounding me – I’ve read so many more serious accounts of violence and rape, and I’ve also understood how to exist in a New Delhi bubble. This rape, like so many of the others I’ve heard about, struck a deep chord in me. It’s because I like to travel by myself, for myself. For an NGO project, I had a video editor who lived in Adarsh Nagar and I took the metro almost daily to sit with him. I’d come back when it was sundown, and the station was often lonely. I always sat in the womens compartment. I wasn’t very worried about my safety, to be truthful, but my father was quite upset. He really didn’t want me travelling on my own to such a distance. All's well that ends well, and I never had any trouble.
We are a society who thinks erring on the side of caution is the way to be – and who can blame us. Instead of looking at out Constitutional guarantees and saying that we will go/be because we are free to choose where/how/when we want to go, we think it’s safer if we avoid any “trouble”. To the level that I’ve had girlfriends sit me and down and tell me to never drive after 9pm. But I’ve always held that if I want to drive myself to dinner and back, why should I be too scared to do so. It seems silly now, doesn’t it? These little battles we have within our social constructs. I’ve been all over South India with a cameraman I barely knew, touring small villages and town for work. One afternoon, I was out on a fishing boat, getting shots for a video. I got off, and found a number of men had converged as I was the newbie, this fair skinned girl, seemingly alone, in the middle of this hectic beach. One of them was drunk and was close to groping (or perhaps pushing me) when a number of people intervened and took him away. I didn’t know who he was, I hadn’t even engaged with him. But because of that, my cameraman became quite protective. On the way to another small town in Tamil Nadu, he was upset that our tickets weren’t in the same compartment. I told him I was totally fine and would just pass out, but he came to check in on me as he was worried about my safety. I appreciate that even more now, as I think I was lulled into a false sense of safety because of my very genuine bravado.
Truth is, I rarely feel unsafe. Nervous, yes. But I always seem to think I can stop the men from misbehaving. I’ve had many, many unwarranted comments coming my way all my life, and I always look that man in the eye and get him to stop. Sometimes I laugh it off so that it doesn’t esclate. I don’t like to show I’m nervous because I fear that will help the situation spiral.
Of course, I’m an idiot. All these strategies should be okay, the same way sitting on a bus with a friend – and a man that too – should make you safer. That if my driver was driving the car instead of me, nothing would go wrong. Or better, if I never left my house, no harm would come to me.
I work, I read, I opine, I earn, I spend, I travel, I vacation. I’m really holding my end up as an urban young woman. But I am up against some huge challenges. Of course, this means I’m going to be told that I’m moving too fast. That if it’s not my ability to take trains to small towns (almost) by myself, then it’s that outfit I wore this weekend. If it’s not the fact that I dare drive my car – bought with my own money – then it is that I can be seen drinking in the company of men.
I don’t know much about this girl, but I do know she is a medical student that tells me she works much harder than me. Being a woman doctor, she was certainly upholding her end of urban-young-woman bargain. And for some men, this makes them insecure. They will pummel and rape this strength out of us.
My friend Christina and I were discussing this over an afternoon coffee. We wondered, at what point do these guys decide that they are going to GANG RAPE. I can imagine one starting to tease, the other crossing the line to physically touching. But is there a silent nod, a secret handshake, a longing desire, to one-by-one rape this trembling, bleeding, screaming girl? Because she took the bus. Because she sat with a guy who might not be her brother, father or husband. Because, maybe, she has a better deal in life than you.
I know rape is as mental an act as it is physical. When I was interning in DC I became obsessed with a book about rape called ‘Against our Will’ that I’d bought in one of those street book-sales. It talked about how rape was the final nail after soldiers won the war, how it was a way to mentally defeat your opponent by saying ‘here, I just raped YOUR woman, you have lost’. It’s the first time I learnt that concept and I was horrified. I feel like its extended to some version of – you are not as independent as you think you are, because I can rape you and finish you any time I feel. We don’t need to have names, or histories. We just need to have lives.
So what am I going to do about this in my daily life? I’m GOING to continue to have one. I might carry mace and a few select numbers on speed dial, but I will not be scared into submission. And on YOUR part, I hope you do the same. And on OUR part, we have to demand better policies, better protection, better justice.
Where are the feminists? I see an election platform for 2014 coming up.
We are going to TAKE BACK THE NIGHT.