23.8.13

liar liar lipstick

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.

2 comments:

Sreya said...

I always wondered, when we visited, why I was constantly chaperoned to the point of ridiculousness. In the last few years, I'm starting to get a few things.

I had a visceral reaction to this piece and I'm not sure exactly how to describe it; but I know that my white friends that've visited India for whatever reason insist that while they "loved" it -- code for "different" -- they would never ever go back. For these reasons, though they will never go into details in front of me. But it's sad because I know exactly what they mean.

Until you wrote this, I didn't realize the extent of society/class segregation that arises as a consequence. (When I went to college, many of my friends were taxi drivers. I played chess with them on a daily basis. When my mother came to know, she reacted so badly I was shocked. But she's merely following this script. If you associate with the wrong people, bad things will happen. She was genuinely afraid for my life and was unable to express or explain this fear in a way that made sense to me.)

I never understood these coping mechanisms, or that these were coping mechanisms. But that's because I enjoy certain privileges I know my mother (and many, many others) didn't as a young girl growing up in Delhi. It distorts and rewrites the script for entire generations of women. It's awful. Thank you so much for writing this.

A said...

I just read the article on CNN.com that gives more background information on this story and they were talking about a Black girl who was on the same program as the girl who wrote this and how she felt that her own experience wasn't all bad- there were good men too. I was thinking how ironic that is because, if I remember right, according to the US Dept of State's Travel website, Black women have it the hardest while traveling in India. Honestly, it was surprising to me considering our overwhelming affinity for/ attraction to/ fascination with light skin.

You basically nailed it with the whole "we are conditioned to gravitate towards only certain people" thing. I've noticed several times that a lot of people from Western countries (and even Indians born in the US) have difficulty in telling the difference between people of different classes and backgrounds, so to speak. And it has always amazed me that somebody that I could look at and think of immediately as "paavam" or "C" or "other" (for lack of better terms), can seem the same as "us" to Western eyes. Does that sound arrogant? Yes. But was it a necessary survival mechanism we had to develop to grow up in India and negotiate everything this country threw at us(as women)? Oh yeah.
And so, I can see why they wouldn't have that "filter" as you say. They simply never had to deal with that. Honestly, that makes me a little bitter towards our own condition.
You make good points, S.