We've all read the CNN iReport article. We've all had an opinion: either extreme or nod along. We've all had a thought about it, and we've all discussed it. Usually, I don't engage with people who say things like "she's just an attention seeker" or "it couldn't have been that bad" or "was she stupid?". I find that to be a pointless exercise that always results in my getting pissed off and incoherently yelling. But today, after two conversations of "India isn't all that bad, we're all developed and shit" and "She's just being attention-seeky" I need to vent.
First of all, India is all that bad. Whether you're white or not, although I know for a fact that white women have it really bad (not from this article, from white American colleagues in Bombay). To list three instances of sexual harassment I faced today: Auto driver stared at my boobs and licked his lips suggestively for the entire 11.6 kms stretch from JNU to Teen Murti. A man on a bike next to me at a traffic stop yelled lewd things at me and tried to touch my legs. One auto driver had a conversation with my crotch. And these are just the ones I noticed. Tuning out, by the way, is how most women I know deal with sexual harassment. Sometimes, we add an iPod and earphones. We even take out phones.
Which brings me to my second point: Women Urban, middle-class women in India have filters. We are socialized into watching ourselves constantly: What we wear, where we go, how we travel, what we say. More significant than these, as elite, urban, middle-class women, we are taught how to filter the people we are friends with. We are taught how to recognize people from similar class (also caste, sometimes religion) backgrounds and make friends only with those people. From a lot of discussions I have had about this (and two years ago, about something else), I always hear "She was so stupid not to know who to hang out with." This, obviously translates into "she was hanging out with shady looking people." And I have to admit it, if only for half a second, I thought it too.
Mostly because that is how we learn how to live with daily indignities. That is our first instinct. We have a list of things we do to avoid them. We filter people. We tune out. We carry a book. We carry a bag. We wear dupattas. We wear jeans even on days so hot, I'd want to wear shorts. We drive cars or take cabs instead of using public transport. And when people who haven't learnt to deal with it are faced with this blatant sexualization of their bodies, when they speak out, we call them liars and fools. We tell them they're stupid because they didn't know what the right side of town is.
We tell them they should have hung out with the good boys instead.
I looked in the mirror yesterday, and just for a moment, I thought I glimpsed a person in there that I had never seen before. I knew her eyes: they were brown-black, just like mine, but I didn’t know a single other feature. Not the nose, not the shape of her cheekbones, not the curve of her forehead, not the curl of her hair, not the mole on her ear, not anything I see today.
I looked in the mirror yesterday, and I only saw you.