I had just finished my day with receiving appreciation for the depth achieved in my research and gaining a deeper understanding from different perspectives. It was a good day at work. Early in the evening, I had received an unexpected call from my father. He asked me to come home, expressing concern about my safety. He said that my mother was worried about me living alone and being out late at night. While I knew my mother was overthinking, I decided to put myself in her place and consider her perspective on my safety. To give you some context, my parents live in Aurangabad, Maharashtra and I’m currently working with Living Lightly in Rishikesh, Uttarakhand.
After work, while commuting to a place where my team members and I often gather to eat, I experienced harassment in a crowded auto-rickshaw. A man attempted to touch me inappropriately, starting with my thighs and then my breasts. This incident is not the only one. There are countless others, of men staring at me on the streets and boys sitting alongside the footpaths, catcalling. The list is endless and I’m sure that it holds true for any other woman.
I can only imagine the collective experiences of women in my family, my community, my city, and the entire world. Sadly, somewhere in the world, a woman was likely being subjected to sexual assault while I was born.
How deep does this feeling of insecurity go? Since when have I been carrying this burden? When did it start, and how long will it persist, leaving me feeling unsafe in the streets?
I remember the time when my mother used to stand on the balcony, talking to her sisters about not holding back our daughters, encouraging them to reach for the sky and fly high. She emphasized education and economic independence as a means to come out of oppression for women. Now, the same woman is urging me to come home, making me wonder how grave the situation must be for her to take such a stance.
This phase marked a significant turning point in recognizing gender differences. Our school uniforms changed in 7th standard, transitioning from frocks to Punjabi suits for girls and from shorts to full pants for boys. Before that, it was okay to run, fall, dance, even get into fights. But not anymore!
It was during this time that I became aware of the rituals associated with menstruation, learning to hide cramps’ pain and sanitary napkins, pretending that our bodily functions were a secret, and feeling ashamed for this natural aspect of being a girl. And if by mistake, you catch a stain, all hell broke loose. “What a sin! How shameful for a girl to not be able to handle consistent flow of blood for (atleast) four consecutive days every month.” – These kind of remarks were common.
We were accustomed to our bodies changing, but suddenly, some changes were given more priority than others. At that time, for me, wearing a sock was no different from wearing a bra. Both involved constant size adjustments, and I disliked wearing both the items. However, it became apparent that the surroundings categorized them differently. All this messaging was indirect.
My first experience of harassment occurred in school, when I found a sketch of a naked girl on my desk. The sketch depicted a girl with hair as short as mine, and glasses similar to the pair I wore. The paper was unsigned and I instantly discarded it, trying to ignore what happened. However, it lingered at the back of my mind as I walked through the corridors of the school or even engaged in conversations. I was acutely aware of my body and how visible it was. I felt guilty for merely possessing this body and experienced physical discomfort within it.
Her Choice and Her Consequences
Later on, I was advised to dress according to the consequences I aspired to avoid. Every woman eventually faces the argument whether she was “asking for it” which extends beyond clothing to factors such as posture, location, time, and the people she interacts with. At the core, people question your agency and freedom. How dare did you decide to sit like that, go to that particular place, at that hour, and talk to other people! The list goes on.
During my first job, where I worked on alternative building technologies that I was passionate about, I felt uncomfortable due to how my then teacher, who was also the principal architect of the firm interacted with me. I eventually quit that job because I had a gut feeling that he was hugging me inappropriately. To this day, he argues that I was mistaken. And while I acknowledge that possibility, the satisfaction I felt after saying “I quit” was immense. If anything, it felt empowering because I mustered the courage to stand up for myself.
Workplace harassments come with an added layer of questions that women often ask themselves – how much is too much? Is it just me? The work is great, so should I address it? Will it affect my career?
That Feeling Of Insecurity
Although the world is unfair for women, I believe that looking inward and understanding the source of that feeling of insecurity is crucial. In a conversation with my sister last week about what feels like home, we realized that certain surroundings impact how secure we feel. We discussed how darkness made us uncomfortable, as we grew up outside the city where shops close by 7:30 pm.
The narrow street with slums on either side and people sitting outside their homes, made us feel visible and at times, scared. The deeper we delved, the more we discovered our own biases. She elaborated on terms such as rich, poor, tall, fat, literate, higher cast, orthodox, feminist, and so on. One by one, we questioned whether we associate the fear of harassment with any of theses parameters. This exercise helped us gain a bit of clarity.
After contemplating all this, I spoke to my mother. I told her about the recent incidents but this time, I also shared how I responded to them. How I called out the man in the auto-rickshaw, causing him to run away. I mentioned how I decide to trust someone while hitchhiking, and recounted instances when people came forward to help when asked. Finally, I asserted that I wouldn’t allow fear to drive my life decisions. My gender does not limit me; rather, it liberates me. And it is for these reasons that I don’t think I’ll be coming back home.
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