During his acceptance speech for the International Freedom Award in 2009, Dalai Lama was quoted as saying, “I call myself a feminist. Isn’t that what you call someone who fights for women’s rights?”
It has been close to one year since the gangrape and murder of India’s braveheart, Jyoti Singh Pandey, also lovingly known as Nirbhaya (“the fearless one”). Thousands of gangrapes, minor, marital rapes etc. have occurred since then though the media coverage for our beloved Nirbhaya brought thousands to protest in agony for the universal truth about women in developing nations around the world — “[This is] No Country for Women.”
“A girl is not safe, neither inside the womb, nor outside of it.”
With three teenage women being kidnapped, raped, and held captive for over a decade by Ariel Castro in Ohio; with Wendy Davis still fighting for laws to protect the reproductive rights of women to their own bodies in Texas; with an Indian women dying of miscarriage in Galway, Ireland when the hospital refused her a life-saving abortion because of the blind regulations of the state; with countless rapes, sexual trafficking, domestic violence, and similar crimes perpetuated against women and children around the world, the situation isn’t too different in developed nations as well.
After the 2012 Delhi gangrape atrocity made headlines across the world, we saw hundreds of men and women protest against the Indian government to make the city and country safer for women. Even in those diverse groups of kind citizens, united by their respect for women’s rights, there were quite a number of uncouth men who mingled in with the crowds. Women were reportedly groped and taunted with lecherous remarks and stares. There can be no greater irony than facing harassment during a protest to end the harassment.
If a woman manages to live a life free of sexual harassment (on the street, at work, in public venues, modes of transportation) and grow up to marry a man (apologies for heterosexual emphasis) who doesn’t treat her as his inferior, and raise a family without facing any death threats about the gender of the child or dowry from her family etc., I will consider her to be blessed with a wonderful destiny. It is a rare, if not, impossible life to achieve.
Let’s take an example of a woman. A 5th grade classmate harasses her to make her his girlfriend in the States. When she refuses, her brother comes beaten home by a gang of teenage boys, consisting of the boy’s elder brother and his high school friends. Thereafter, she suppress that memory and settles back in her home country where her mother hires a married, middle-aged man to tutor 6th grade Hindi to her children. This man also works in a respected post at the “renowned” high school she attends. When that tutor orders her brother to exit the room so he can teach her alone, he holds her hand and caresses her face and arms inappropriately. Before the harassment gets any worse, she gathers enough courage to inform her mother who fires him. When the girl sees the same man in the school corridors, she wonders how many other female students may have suffered her fate due to such “respected” school teachers. In 7th grade, she makes her way outside to board her bus after-school just as a group of boys from another public school down the road approach her with less than friendly glares. She purposefully avoids that route and walks near the side of the lake to quickly enter her bus; however, one of the boys manages to stalk her and grope her breast before running away with a cunning smirk. Even as she manages to leave that country and come back to the US, the harassment continues with a man grabbing her behind as she stands amongst of a crowd of passengers awaiting a train. Another inebriated male grabs his crotch as a sign of masturbation as he sits across from her in a NYC subway occupied by two other passengers close to midnight; she prays he doesn’t follow her as she moves to another car of the train. The harassment still continues in varying degrees, now mostly verbal. Eventually she is strengthened by the women leadership curriculum at college and respectable employment opportunities. Occasional insults like bitch that are frequented by refusing men’s advances or by the mere length of her wardrobe become tolerable.
This was my story. But it could have been just about any woman’s story. Replace the elementary school kid with another boy in another grade. Or the tutor with a male relative. Or the young man with a co-worker. Grope away at us. After all, our bodies are free to be scrutinized and molested by your eyes and hands. Street harassment is almost unavoidable and always undesirable.
If we manage to reach powerful positions based on merit, we are downplayed by having men emphasize our perceived likability on the basis of irrelevant characteristics such as dressing sense, as is evident in the case of Hillary Clinton and Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer. We are commonly tagged as being adequately crazy, and/or inadequately attractive. But women can be a hindrance to each other as well. I was disappointed when supposedly strong female role models like Serena Williams questioned the character of the teenager who attended the party in the Steubenville rape case, as if, she was asking for it by putting herself in that danger. Nothing was mentioned from her end about the character of the rapist athletes. Only when UniteWomen Org asked her to clarify her statement, she changed her stance. Even an icon like Beyonce, who chants anthems of “Who runs the World? Girls!” finds feminism too strong of a word to embrace, perhaps in the fear that it may harm her fan following. Of course actions speak louder than words but she can take a leaf from Juno star Ellen Page who was quoted as saying, “But how could it be any more obvious that we still live in a patriarchal world when feminism is a bad word?”
Unless you are affluent enough to afford the luxury of a trustworthy, chauffeured car in the streets of Delhi, consider yourself a prime victim for harassment as the aam aadmi/aurat. And for those women who are stuck in the lower rung of the social strata, justice is even harder to come by. In my high school days, I was too naive to understand why our one and only house maid in India would sometimes take leave and show up with bruises near her face and neck and state them as “accidents.” It was only when she confided in my mother about how her husband would force himself upon her that I realized the truth.
I frown upon women like Sonia Gandhi and Priyanka Chopra who are “offended” by the reality of the aam aurat (common Indian woman) whilst enjoying 24X7 security of bodyguards. Instead, I highly respect an actress like Mallika Sherawat for speaking the truth about the regressive culture of Indian society where village panchayats still force women to marry their rapists, where the sex ratio is a terrible indicator of the ongoing crimes of female foeticide in metropolitan cities and small towns alike, where women are harassed on a daily basis, and spousal rape and abuse is rarely addressed to maintain the image of a happily married life.
Some examples of the hypocritical Indian society.
“Oh divorce rate is so high in America! Look at us in India. We are so good at blindly arranging marriages where the woman does not have as much societal and financial liberty to escape an abusive relationship.”
“Dear lord! Look at all these scantily clad foreign and Bollywood women. They are ruining our culture and sabhayata and encouraging men to rape! Excuse me while I masturbate to the same images of these women.”
Uncle –“Let me give you a lecture on how to please your husband and in-laws. You may as well forget your own family because his family is your family now. I’m the expert on this matter even though I beat my own wife at home.”
Aunty — “Let me show you how to behave properly so you can impress your in-laws when you get married. I’m the expert on this even though I abuse my own servants at home.”
Let us not forget the good men who understand the importance of consent and they do their bit to speak up against such harassment. I am fortunate to know quite a number of men who write to me, asking about the contributions they can make and the organizations they can get involved in to tackle these issues. Some of my male friends have also narrated incidents of being harassed or abused by other men and women so please note that this is not about pitting one gender against another. It is about raising awareness and finding solutions.
Speaking of solutions, very few women are capable of successfully retaliating against their harassing perpetrators as demonstrated in Kashyap’s “That Day after Everyday” and it forces the solution on the victim. Because we dress, work, and leave home at certain hours of the day and “cause” such unwarranted attention on ourselves, we are somehow responsible for protecting ourselves. Screw the countless passerbys who watched the women fight to death for their safety.
At times, I still struggle with an unsettling fear of avoiding situations where I can get raped. Such thoughts even surfaced when I approached a dimly lit campus bus stop at 9pm to take a final exam, or when I would walk in some deserted streets to reach Penn station. Every situation is plausible for rape and those who suggest recommendations for avoiding rape carry the rapist mentality. No woman wants to consider herself “lucky” to live a life free of sexual harassment. It is a liberty that everyone deserves as a human being.
Debates still revolve around how much “safer” a woman feels in one city to the next, the statistics, the emotional exploitation and shaming of the victim’s predicament from authorities and society alike. Satirical videos, empowering movies, law amendments, helplines, increments of reporting of rape crimes, and the death penalty of the remaining culprits have provided a temporary band-aid though the cut is much deeper. Just how much deeper? To understand that, do read this UN rape study in Asia.
With so many disheartening headlines every single day, how can women expect lasting change?
I believe one of the solutions lies in continually seeking the good and finding the role models who inspire you (man or woman) to spark the change, first within your own thinking, and then in your community, and so on and so forth. After all, we form the society of passerbys, police officers, advocates, media, volunteers, healers etc. If we don’t speak up, we shouldn’t be complaining about the resulting headlines either. Our voice, coupled with our actions, can change the status quo. Only then, the life of normalcy that many women around the world so desperately envision may not be such a far-fetched reality.
Recently, I was a bit appalled to discover truths of Gandhiji’s experimentation of sleeping with naked women and Martin Luther King’s extramarital liaisons that seemed so inconsistent with our flawless perception of their god-like character. Their contributions to humanity are immense; nonetheless, such humanly contradictions suggest that you can either die a hero, or live long enough to realize that every individual has a less than gleaming past.
I will use this platform to present to you a few of my most cherished role models, all of whom have made remarkable contributions to our world, transforming their personal experiences into the catalyst for action. All descriptions are borrowed from the work of the Pixel Project.
Sunitha Krishnan – India
Dr. Sunitha Krishnan is an Indian social activist, a gang rape survivor and Chief Functionary and co-founder of Prajwala, an institution that assists trafficked women and girls in finding shelter. The organization also helps pay for the education of five thousand children infected with HIV/AIDS in Hyderabad. Prajwala’s “second-generation” prevention program operates in 17 transition centers and has served thousands of children of prostituted mothers. Prajwala’s strategy is to remove women from brothels by giving their children educational and career opportunities. Krishnan and her staff train survivors in carpentry, welding, printing, masonry and housekeeping.
Anuradha Koirala – Nepal
Anuradha Koirala, CNN Hero 2011 and human trafficking activist, founded Maiti Nepal, a nonprofit which saved more than 12,000 women and girls from sex trafficking and prostitution, when she escaped an abusive relationship that left her with three miscarriages. After the relationship ended, Koirala used a portion of her $100 monthly salary to start a small retail shop to employ and support displaced victims of sex trafficking and domestic violence. Maiti Nepal was her brainchild for giving voice, legal defense and rehabilitation to victims of sex trafficking. The group also takes in rape and domestic violence survivors, as well as abandoned children. “The hardest part for me is to see a girl dying or coming back with different diseases at an [age] when she should be out frolicking,” Koirala said. “That’s what fuels me to work harder.”
Iana Matei – Romania
Iana Matei is Romania’s leading advocate and activist for the end of the sex-trafficking of girls and women. Until a few years ago, Ms. Matei’s shelter here was the only one in Romania for victims of traffickers, though the country has been a center for the trade in young girls for decades. In 1990, as Romania was emerging from Communism, she participated in daily street protests and eventually fled to and resettled in Australia where she earned a degree in psychology and worked with street children. In 1998, she moved back to Romania where she began working with street children and eventually rescuing underaged girls from prostitution and sex trafficking under dangerous conditions.
Here is a complete list of 16 amazing women from around the world, including Kenya, Somalia, US, UK, and Jordan, prepared by the Pixel Project. There are not enough words to describe their contributions to humanity. Hope these women inspire you in your endeavors to restore the rights of women and save the lives of millions of Nirbhayas in the future. And kudos to you for your efforts if you are already on that path 🙂