It is the holiday season, the most festive time of the entire year. A time to move away from the past year; a time to sparkle and rejoice. This year however, holiday spirits have been disrupted by a series of awful happenings across the world. Or my world, as I know it. First, it was the children. The children from Sandy Hook Elementary school, whose families are now in our thoughts. Next, it was the 23 year old gang-rape victim in New Delhi. The girl, who now struggles to survive after surgery to remove her damaged intestines.
Following the shootings in Sandy Hook, social media was abuzz with trying to set a time to talk about gun control in the United States. Now was not the time, it was decided. Not while we were still grieving. Not while families were still coping with their huge loss. As an immigrant from a very different, very foreign country, I felt the immense grief, I partook in the rage as an observer and citizen of the world, but understood that my opinions on gun control may be redundant since they are not from around here.
A few days later, business was moving back to usual on the internet. Grumpy cats and Christmassy pets galore. I don’t blame the internet. I love the internet, and I love the internet people. Distraction is the basis of our being, giving us strength to carry on no matter what. Somebody needs to.
And then, there was news of this gang rape. At first, I saw the news in my news feed as a link that someone on my Facebook had shared. My instinctive reaction was to marvel at my apathy, while also feeling empty rage rising up in my body as I skimmed the article for a few seconds before closing it shut. I rationalized this apathy by saying to myself, that belonging to this world, it is easy to feel immune to news like this. ‘What can we do?’, I responded to anyone who tried to talk to me about it. It was grisly to think about and at every moment I was thankful it was not me or my loved ones.
This went on for a few days until last night, when I spoke to someone who was deeply upset by the incident. During our conversation, we watched the Indian media question authorities about the lack of safety for women and share details of the girls surgery.
The only thing more common than rape in India is the shift in blame for the rape. First, there are the rapists. Then, there are authorities. Telling us that it is not purely a law and order issue. Telling us that women call it upon themselves. Telling us how ‘spicy food’ is responsible for rape. There is widespread outrage, of which there is exhaustive media and internet coverage. There is some outrage from public figures; there are pleas for capital punishment and swift justice.
As a part of the media’s coverage of the incident, they interviewed a rape victim and survivor from February this year, who spoke about her troubles with dealing with the trauma, monetary problems raising her children, and the social ostracism that she faces as a rape victim and survivor.
Following this, we looked up Rina, the said ‘Park Street rape victim’; we read of how she was raped in the car of a man she had befriended at a night club. At this, I watched as my companion’s mood changed from being sympathetic to ‘pragmatic’, as she explained to me that it was ‘plain common sense’ to not enter strangers’ cars, and that Rina should have been more careful.
‘She should have been more careful’, she said. ‘It’s common sense, she was 36 years old and has children. Even if you are drunk and feeling frisky, you should know better than to enter the car of a stranger. What do you expect?’
What do we expect?
A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with someone who wanted me to point out, what I thought were the key differences between the cultures towards women in India and the United States. After very little thought, I responded by saying that socially, we are fighting the same battles in India and the United States, just in different intensities. In India, we fight to survival female infanticide and sexist violence. We fight to be heard and protected in a society with historically male dominated norms. Just like women fight in the United States, to have a right to choose what to do with their bodies. To be compensated equally for the same quantity and quality of work. To live not just in a binder, but in a world that recognizes all and any rape as ‘legitimate’.
And these battles, they are nowhere near complete. They are not complete in India, they are not won in the United States.
As a prefect in a girls school, I’ve had little girls come up to me and complain about being flashed by strangers in the parking lot. I have watched timid South Indian mothers take driving lessons so they can drive their daughters to school after being cried to that the school bus driver would misbehave with their daughters. Even as a ‘woman in science’ in the United States, I have experienced and seen gender based condescension towards women in all levels of interaction. As a girl growing up in India I have experienced and witnessed being inappropriately touched in public transport. Once, while traveling on a train from Chennai to Coimbatore (both cities in Tamilnadu, India)- in the First class coach, a man who shared our compartment tried to behave inappropriately with both me and my Mother once he realized we were traveling without my father’s company.
This is not a confessional blog post. Our lives are terrible tapestries, filled with repressed memories of ourselves, girlfriends, mothers, aunts, cousins; being harassed, inappropriately touched, flashed, talked to obscenely. By teachers. By cousins. By uncles. By swimming instructors. School bus drivers. These are the days of our lives.
A Facebook status from an outraged friend who recently moved to another country from India put it plainly.
‘I have been touched inappropriately in a bus. I have been eve-teased on the streets . I have had to pick what to wear just so i don’t get touched by strangers . Vulgar comments have been passed when I was walking alone . But you know what?! You can’t fight a nation alone. So. I left.’.
But can we truly leave? One of my closest friends lived in New Delhi until a few months ago. The biggest reason for why I did not want to read the article about the recent New Delhi rape case was because of how grateful I was that the girl was not my friend. It was anger and rage mixed with an unfair amount of gratitude, gratitude that made me ashamed of how I felt. It brought back memories of every story I had ever heard, every tear we shed while embarrassingly admitting to friends and our mothers that we had been touched inappropriately.
Rape is not a quick act. You can stop yourself at any time. Rape is bullying. Rape is humiliation. There is no caveat emptor with existing in the same world as men. Men can be wonderful. We all have several beautiful supportive men in our lives. It is a basic human right to say, ‘Hey I’ve just met you and this is crazy; but please don’t rape me.’. There is nothing that warrants ‘slut-shaming’ or ‘power-tripping’ or ‘being punished for a lack of common sense’. There is never a time when we ‘had it coming’. There are no gray areas in the justification of rape.
But are there not? Even women who are ‘sympathetic about the rape’ say that it is pragmatic to be smart about the choices that we make. It seems like the right way to go. It is what we would teach ourselves and our children. To stay in large groups and be safe. To equip ourselves (read this)with self defense. To not isolate ourselves and go out at night. To live in mistrust and not complacently slip into feeling protected by the government we pay our dues to at any time.
After all this, we wonder why anyone would want to hurt another being until their intestines rupture. ‘It is not an ideal world’, my companion told me. ‘When you know rapists are at large, you must not befriend strangers. You must not take public transport at night.’. She is probably right.
All we know, is that we can run, but we cannot hide. We can be 14 year olds with no help from the ‘journalists’ filming us being molested (also read this); we can be three year old girls who cannot incite ‘slut-shaming’ yet; we can be nieces and daughters and students and friends; we can be our mothers and fathers and godparents, giving up promotions and careers and sleep to protect us; we can be women endorsing feminism ‘redefined to the Indian context’. We can be blessed, disgruntled adults, living in different countries but unable to break ties with our own, desperately but resentfully clinging on to our identities.
But we have this in common.
Rage. Rage from despondency and helplessness.