I almost didn't write this post.
Procrastination is one reason. A genuine lack of time is another.
But the most relevant reason, really, is that I didn't really know.
When I was around fifteen, a cousin of mine from the US who was visiting India took a train ride with her father from Churchgate to Andheri. My uncle had not lived in Bombay for a decade and a half and simply remembered the Virar Local as being "a little crowded" at peak hours. Now you don't leave a thirteen year old girl alone in a strange city, so of course she rode with her father in the general compartment. Needless to say she was sobbing uncontrollably when they got home. When I landed there, all the women in the family were crowded around her trying to offer comfort. The men of course were berating my uncle for using the "Viral Local of all trains".
Now despite my claim that I'm from Bombay, I've only lived in that city for a little more than four years. And I've been inside a Virar Local just twice. So on that day the only reason I felt bad for my sister was because she had to ride squished up inside a train compartment full of men, for a journey that must have lasted almost three quarters of an hour. It wasn't a big deal. Girls cry over anything.
You see, I didn't really know.
A couple of years later, again in Bombay, I was walking down a lane, my college bag slung on my shoulder, probably whistling a tune on my way to the bus stop. There were a couple of girls walking a few yards ahead of me, who must have been around fourteen or fifteen. I noticed them when a tall boy of around my age walking in the opposite direction, bumped into them quite hard. He'd apparently been pushed by a couple of his friends with the sole intention of crashing into the girls. As you would expect, the boy simply walked back to his friends laughing away to glory, while the girls quivering with shock held on to each other and walked on without a word.
For a second I felt like I should teach those boys a lesson. But I've never been very brave. One of me. Three of them. I walked out that lane ashamed of myself. Ashamed for not trying to right that wrong. What's the point of good intentions if you don't have the guts to carry them out? As I walked past the girls, I even considered apologizing on behalf of men in general. I don't know if it would have made a difference, but the fact is that I felt too guilty to do even that. My inaction had made me an accomplice. I wasn't any better than those boys.
It's not easy to forget such moments of weakness. But I walked out of that lane still not really knowing.
Yes, I'd heard about eve-teasing. I'd heard about guys on the street singing songs like "Choli ke peechhe kya hai" to harass women. I knew it was the right thing to do to escort a female friend home at night. I knew it wasn't a safe world for women. But I didn't really know what women have go through in the streets of this world. I had heard about "bottom-slapping" but had never really seen the point of it. Surely it didn't happen very often?
I read about incidents like what happened to Hemangini Gupta on a train to Chennai, and lauded the efforts of victims who tried to ensure that the molesters got punished for their acts. I know a girl who beat a guy with her sandal at a bus stop. Another kneed a man in the groin once. But really, I didn't think of these as anything more than "one-of" incidents.
So when I heard about the Blank Noise project, I nodded my head about how sexual harassment was a real problem in India and thought I should try to write something about it for their blogathon.
I'd probably have forgotten all about it, though, if not for this post. Annie has written a powerful account of what a woman has to go through in our cities. It hits home the fact that these things are not "one-of" incidents. That women suffer this harassment throughout their lives. That there is a real problem out there. It's a post that we men need to read more than the women. Because we need to know.
Two of my cousin sisters grew up in Bombay. Two more are still in their teens. It makes me shudder to think what they must have gone through or what experiences life still intends to show them.
And I feel ashamed once again. Just as ashamed as I was in that lane almost a decade ago. Ashamed that I represent a gender that knows no limits. A gender that perceives a woman as weak, and then proceeds to take advantage of that weakness. A gender that goes on to blame the women for attracting the attention in the first place, when their only fault is that they were born female.
This post is for those two girls in that lane. I just wanted to say that I'm sorry.
Update: As part of the blogathon, Neha Viswanathan has written a powerful post about harassment in India.
Megha writes about child abuse, and lists helpline numbers in the US and India.
Update 2: Megha Krishnan writes about sections of the penal code under which harassment is an offense.
Thalassa_Mikra proves that it doesn't matter to the men what a woman is wearing. Even a burqa isn't enough protection.
Charu points out that no place is sacred. Men seem to know that God is blind.
Incognito shows that it doesn't matter if you are in a crowd or not.
M. gives tips for retaliation. Use them with care.