I moved to Pune as a 25-year-old in July 2013. Being born and brought up in Delhi, Pune was the first city outside of Delhi I was going to call home for next two years. So, when I landed, I was nervous, scared, excited, and wanted to socialize. Talk to almost everyone I’d meet, even if they spoke only Marathi and no Hindi or English. A regular conversation in earlier days would sound something like this:
“So you are new in Pune. Where are you from?”
“Delhi!” (with enthusiasm)
“Delhi. Oh, Delhi is so unsafe for women. Should be named rape-capital instead of national capital after Nirbhaya case.”
I would do my best to defend stating Delhi is safe, my family and friends live there and it’s just a myth propagated by media. However, I’d suddenly feel stereotyped – someone who smokes, drinks alcohol often, abusive and disrespectful towards women. A potential rapist, perhaps. For those who don’t know, exactly seven months ago from that time, a girl (referred as Nirbhaya, that means fearless) in Munirka near IIT Delhi on the night of December 16th in 2012 was beaten, gang-raped, tortured to limits of animosity. So much to the extent that when the girl was taken to the hospital, her intestines were hanging out of her vagina. She died a painful death eleven days later and the whole nation was outraged with protests and demand for stronger women’s rights. One convict died and four were sentenced to death five years later. A juvenile, the sixth participant, was set free in 2015 after a three-year sentence.
As an adult male, who probably doesn’t groom himself as per societal standards and is pretty shy and mostly scared, I’ve had a hard time since then. Suddenly, the energy of public transport system changed, women were on alert and I knew I was seen as a rapist when I walk out on streets with my messed hair, beard and uncommon helpful behaviour. Rules of society had changed overnight and for me, it was like walking in a jungle with bears. Bears are scared of humans that they may harm them. Humans are scared of bears, what if they attack? It has been a pretty similar scenario. Where women, in general, were apprehensive of a possible sexual misconduct, I was equally traumatized by the thought of an accidental encounter where I would be wrongly convicted of sexual harassment. Decisions in current times are not made in courts, but in TVs, newspaper and social media. I stayed in a hostel in Pune and used to work late in my lab three-kilometres away. I would often walk back to the hostel at two or three in the night. Many times, I was offered a lift on scooter by vehicles passing by. I began to feel safe again in Pune when I saw a young woman offering a lift to a stranger like me at that hour. That restored faith in society to a certain extent that there is a place where girls move out fearless and trust men. But, that didn’t last long enough when I returned home.
This fear had its roots. My cousin, who I grew up with and respected, was accused of molestation with false charges on my return with a demand for money in exchange. He owns a store with fragile Chinese products for children that often come with no warranty. This woman wanted to exchange a damaged toy after months of purchase, that had no warranty liabilities. As per the policy, the claim was denied but, only after a heated argument. Later that night, my cousin was arrested on charges of sexual misconduct with that woman. What was surprising in this case, her husband, family and children were the witnesses. In an offline conversation, they demanded 2 million rupees to rollback the complaint, which was later settled to a million. His fault? He is a male, comes from a respected family, owns a business that primarily runs on goodwill his father had earned over four decades, was alone in the store with no one to speak in his defence. But, that’s just my story. I’m scared of doing anything offensive to anyone and stay alert to protect myself from any false accusations which often projects me as someone antisocial. However, in the current wave of neo-feminism, I confess I feel deeply threatened when I walk on streets. So, that makes me contemplate is there a place safe for anyone? For men, women or other genders to just be? I’d probably just stay home rather, I thought.
Home, yes that’s the safest place. But, no said my friend Supreet Dhiman. In her research, she questioned, “Is your home safe from abuse“? Sadly, NO was the answer. In so-called Indian-values ridden society, it’s almost a crime to talk about incest, but somehow it seems okay when it happens to someone in a family. Since sexual contact in such a case is often achieved without overt physical force, there may be no obvious signs of physical harm. Whether or not the signs of abuse are physically obvious, sexual abuse in a family can have lifelong consequences. I did hear some horrifying micro tales from Supreet in our last interaction and I was too shocked to express myself in words anything more than OMGs or blank-raised-eyebrows. She mentions “The silence around incest is the key to its existence. A few months ago a 47-year-old son was booked for raping his 70 yrs old widowed mother in Punjab. In another case, a 10-year-old girl gave birth after being raped by not one, but two of her maternal Uncles in Chandigarh.“
I’m baffled for how to fix this and have a place which is safe to breathe. Some might call #MeToo campaign a staggering success when it successfully generated millions of tweets across the world within a few weeks showcasing the unity of men and women joining hands and voicing some of the most horrifying incidents of their lives, many (including me) questioned the impact that this might bring to create a social change and reduce sexual abuse. Talking about victimization doesn’t remove victimization. Some even called it another western keyboard activism that will eventually meet the fate of a balloon.
Five years after Nirbhaya case, how much has the nation progressed for women safety in Delhi or India as a whole? Reported cases in Delhi pertaining to “assault on a woman with intent to outrage her modesty” (under Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code) have increased by 473% from 727 in 2012 to 4,165 in 2016, said a news report. With an awareness of multiple degrees of sexual harassment and non-reporting due to an offender being someone of power or family, I believe we’d agree that vast majority of cases go unreported. So, unfortunately, it won’t be shocking if the real statistics for 2016 climb to over 50,000 just for Delhi. So many versions of Nirbhaya case have been repeated against women across the ages in different geographical locations in past five years that I didn’t want to start writing this in the first place.
As the #metoo campaign died out in India with expected no visible results, this week I came across another extremely disgusting incident. A Delhi University girl was sexually harassed by a seemingly 50-year-old in a moving bus, a few kilometres away from where Nirbhaya was brutally assaulted, half a decade ago. In the middle of the day, this man had no fear in exposing his junk under a school bag, touch the girl inappropriately with his elbow and masturbate in a moving bus, with dozens of other passengers around him. What gave him so much confidence that he was sure he could easily get away with it? She was brave enough to voice it, but another voice was left unheard. Rather, as per her statement, she was repeatedly asked by the offender that if she had a problem she could leave the bus. She did capture the disgusting act on mobile camera and made it public later (I’m sure you would not want to see), but failed to receive any support from co-passenger or even police, who filed a quick FIR that took them just seven hours. Is sexual harassment so normalized? I deeply fear for this society if such is the real case. This incident was barely a step away from another major assault. Had this been night, and there were no overwhelming number of passengers, I doubt if he would have refrained from shoving that thing inside of her. Good news? He’s still out there moving free, probably harassing someone else.
When I keep my anger, sadness and empathy aside, and look at all of these events with a perspective of logic, social reasoning and psychology behind such acts, a part of me argues with self that we live in a society where relations are often established online by a right swipe on a mobile app, love and compassion are losing the meaning. Is society evolving faster than we imagined? So much that we are failing to keep up the pace, and mutual sexual harassment is just okay and new fashion? Sexual encounters while being intoxicated (a state when no consent could possibly be given) is another method on similar lines, which possibly, is slowly getting normalized. A horrible state of affairs I believe. However, the roots lie deep in the childhood, upbringing, family, friends and first contacts.
My first introduction to my sexuality was no sex education class, but an accidental landing on a pornographic website with a Google search term “snow aurora USA” and autocomplete on a public computer in an internet cafe. There began a dark exploration of what pornographic images and videos had to showcase about male dominance, outrageous exploitation of female bodies with so much of gore and violence that I was scared to visit the website again, but somehow I did out of curiosity. I thought that was real. That’s what society was based on, like masculine dominance, seeking pleasures off exercising power on someone, torturing others, being strong and abusive. All that, I thought, I would never be able to achieve with that 4 feet and a couple inches tall, and barely 45-kilo heavy body. But, that’s what I saw in my family and neighbourhood. I had more privilege than my sister about what I could do, wear, or where I could visit without permission. I had seen or at least heard of my distant relatives or their friends been scolded or beaten up for petty reasons by their drunk husbands. I always questioned to self, was that okay? As a 14-year-old I had enough senses to know, NO IT WAS NOT! But, I would always wonder – why was no one talking about it? In those conversations I would promise to self, I will never be the man that I hate right now.
Truth is, we are all potential sex offenders. The only difference between you or me and an actual sex offender is the stories we grew up in, our childhood, our fantasies, our realization of self, and knowing what’s right. Sex offenders are not born. They are created, nurtured and eventually brought into existence by society. Whether it’s India or the part of the World India think they should be, that’s far West, the primary construct of society is power. Since birth, we are filled with silent examples of exercising power, a dominance that our brain learns sub-consciously each and every day. Most importantly during childhood. The power of husband over wife, mother over child, mother-in-law over the mother, uncles over their spouses (or vice versa), brother over sister, uncles over children, grandparents over grandchildren, so much that brain is programmed to seek and exercise power wherever possible, as probably that is the whole aim of existence. Then we grow a little older and suddenly come to most baffling realization that our bodies are different from each other that, of course, is covered under clothes. Bodily features are different and society expects us to behave in a certain way and the first gender divide begins.
A boy playing with a girl suddenly becomes a matter of laughter and the two sexes are divided into larger groups that seldom truly interact and grow in separate silos. Since they do not interact at a deeper compassionate level ever, there is no mutual sense of respect of existence and search for finding and exercising power begins – something that our brains had silently trained on. Our brain was also recording the stories that we didn’t bother consciously of sexual abuse that was happening around us. Then we enter teenage and no one had ever talked to us about sex and mutual respect and compassion. To end our inquisition, we reach out to the easiest accessible thing – the internet and eventually the fascinating world of pornography. We learn and sub-consciously weave stories in our heads, something similar to dreams.
We all love villains in movies, don’t we? We are often floored by a strong antagonist character in movies because they are strong, charismatic, they are portrayed cool and can do whatever you have consciously or subconsciously ever imagined in your life with no guilt. They eventually die in the end but are portrayed to have best of all worlds before they die. Our hero is always the man of struggle, miseries, losses – all that is the actual living out of that screen. When these strong fantasies overpower our conscience, and brain feels the time is right, we surrender to those anxieties and desires and commit the act of sexual assault to seek that pleasure of exercising power only to realize, it was not real. I mean, some do realize in one attempt that it was just a false fantasy, and some become repeat offenders where they keep on seeking pleasure in such acts.
This brings us to the million dollar question – who is actually responsible for the sexual offence in the first place? The girl who was just being herself, wearing what she likes, doing what she would love to do at any given time of a day/night and probably minding her own business or maybe even just flirting with someone one evening. Or the person who was born to probably a decent family, was raised around gruesome stories, was kept in disconnection with opposite gender or his own sexuality, had developed a world of fantasy of his own and under an extremely complex mix of his identities he wanted to establish he used an opportunity that he found right to be everything and do everything he ever imagined in that one moment seeking the instant gratification. Who is the eventual criminal that should be punished? The victim? The offender? The parents of the offender? The family of the offender? The people whose stories made offender fantasize a world of their own? All those graphical content publishers? Lawmakers who failed? Who?
The question here I am seeking an answer for is actually not identifying the criminal and punish. However, to find out the cause and treat that. A criminal could be hung to death, but crime survives every time. Some people come up with punishments like decapitating heads, penises in public to set an example for others to stop the crime. Do you really think it’s going to stop with that? What actually they will be doing is the same thing – seeking pleasure off someone else’s misery, which eventually was the one of the major root cause of that offence. No amount of punishment is sufficient for destroying someone’s integrity, and eventually life. We need a revolution at a much finer scale that we easily miss out in rage and living a life of superficial elements.
It’s going to take a long time, as it’s been around for millennia. So, expecting instant gratification from this revolution will be a crime. Parenting has to evolve, relationships have to evolve, our method of communication has to evolve, education has to evolve. Importantly, the structure of society has to evolve. This is a complex feedback process and not a pipeline circuit with individual valves. If we keep on repairing the final valve, expecting clean drinking water while the inlet of the repaired valve has actually the sewage supply, we’ll never get clean water. Too technical, right? Let it be because it’s not necessary. What’s important is our life functions as the water cycle. Everything is interconnected, nothing is in isolation. So, curing the isolated segment one at a time will do no good. However, correcting isolated segments with a synoptic approach may make a huge difference and eventually provide the cure.
I understand, this is really fancy, highly impractical and could never be possible. But, I am no social scientist that I could provide a three-step easy solution to the millennia-old problem of mass destruction. However, through this, I only wish to apologize to all of the readers if I ever was offensive by any means, or may have unknowingly objectified at any point in life and open a space for discussion where you can just be and I will be present with all my patience to listen to you and work around logic and solution. I do realize, being a male I was provided undue privileges that I never asked for, however, recognize I am equally vulnerable to the same elements that as a woman (or as one from other genders) you go through, but at a different level and extent. I am a man. But, I am not a rapist.
Feature Image: Odyssey