Sexual violence is not just about rape. It isn’t only in the act of penetration that we are humiliated and helpless.
A year back, I sat with eight female friends and had an alarming realization as we talked: all of us sitting together had experienced some form of sexual violence or another.
It seems to me that it’s important for us to recognize how widespread this is. Sometimes we are violent towards ourselves as women, because we don’t realize what it means when we “just let go because it’s too embarrassing to talk about” or turn our heads away.
When I was about nine, my mother explained sex to me. But even before this revelation, which did not scare or impress me either way, I had been told that there is such a thing as “bad touch.” “Ganda lagta hai” (hindi for “it feels bad”) and its variations framed the vocabulary of my early understanding of sexual violence. Yet, despite my fierce mother and the fact that I grew up in a sheltered, protected sort of town, sexual violence happened around me.
For me, as a kid living in a university environment, there were little instances of sexual violence and abuse.
These are just the ones I remember/have been told about:
- When I was around six or seven, we had a drawing teacher who would come to our homes to teach some kids from the locality collectively. Every time one of us went to show him our work, he would take our hands and guide them down to his pocket and keep it there, over his penis, while he taught us. He was fired for a while, but then re-hired because no one believed the few kids who did speak out.
- When we were a bit older, we were haunted by the idea of a man on a black motorbike with a mask or a helmet, who would drive around our area and slap women across the breasts while driving by. It happened to our housekeeper, an old woman outside of campus and to me (these are the instances I know of). This was also the first time I realized that simply picking up the battle-banner and being determined to fight back is not enough. Often, you are helpless.
- My friend and I were chased by a man on the road at about 9:30 p.m., while coming back from a class we were taking. He kept saying lewd things about our vaginas, using the word “chut” (hindi for “pussy”) which so many people I know, men and women, are so fond of using otherwise.
- Another friend of mine was harassed in her own backyard by a man on a motorcycle who would come by and watch her play. She was about 10 or 11, as far as I remember.
- Men have been known to park their cars behind Sacred Heart Convent School and masturbate to the idea of young girls in the school. We were asked simply not to go to those corridors from which we would be seen (because that is apparently the cure) and I don’t believe anyone ever reported these men.
- We heard stories about two women that I remember clearly, who were raped near the golf course and near my friend’s house – and to most of us, these remained stories, a distant reality. Perhaps because it was a sheltered and protected sort of town, rape happened more to women who came from economically lower backgrounds, while people in bigger houses refused to assist.
- Friends (yep, in the plural) experienced sexual violence in loving relationships, where sex became the man’s right and woman’s pain, and by family members, where it was just something to be kept secret.
Sometimes the victims of these crimes were unwilling to speak out. More often, they had spoken out to general apathy and helplessness. Most people adopted this policy: “Don’t talk about. Don’t be seen. Just protect yourself and everyone else’s reputation.”
I was horrified by the rapes, but it didn’t occur to me then that sexual abuse is not restricted to the act of penetration. It took me a really long time to realize this, but I now believe that sexual violence is far more complicated and ingrained.
At University, it became increasingly alarming, and also alarmingly unsurprising, to hear about the ancient Indian law-giver Manu and his Laws for Women, to talk about how women in general have been objectified and used as the grounds for battle in many ways for thousands of years. It was suddenly glaringly obvious that sexual discrimination and violence pervaded most social norms—the sindur that marks a married woman as “taken”, the loads of wealth exchanged relatively one-sidedly in most Indian weddings (from the bride’s family to the groom’s), the fact that it was unsafe to walk home after 10, in how women who drank and dressed differently were treated. In how, despite being a college that talks about women’s empowerment, when the mob molestation of women happened in the University of Delhi in September 2007, a professor in my college stood on stage and demanded that we take responsibility for how we dress.
I also had no idea how to deal with them experientially. I did not have the vocabulary to do so, because when, in an overcrowded metro, a man stood with his knee lodged between my legs and grinned at me continually for four stops, I had no words to express what happened to me. In fact, I didn’t even know for sure if something had happened and the few people I mentioned it to almost looked relieved at how minor the act itself was. All I could have said at the time was “ganda laga” (“it felt bad”), but that didn’t seem to be enough to bother someone else with.
It took me a while to realize that it is enough. The instance that got me really charged happened two years back when I was subbing for grade five. A child in the class came to me, hesitant and panicky because a teacher at home had touched her inappropriately. Later, the child apologized to me as though she had done something wrong. She kept trying to convince me not to tell her mother. It was exactly the kind of response I’d had with the man in the metro: a deep uncertainty about the other person’s intention, and an instinctive need to make little of worries and fears about sexual abuse just in case someone else was bothered.
I am writing this down now because when I shared my worries with the other teachers then, some were a little amused that I had taken a child seriously and some were annoyed that I was creating a bit of a scene with a parent. Because what should be quite obvious seems to bear repeating.
Those concerns we have, the niggling sensation at the back of your head? They’re not little. They’re unnecessary and completely enough.
It is enough when a child raises some concerns, even if the child herself doesn’t know what she’s saying. Of course she doesn’t know what she’s saying. Chances are, in our current setup, she hasn’t really been taught about sex, good touch, bad touch and rape. Chances are she’s embarrassed because the adults around her are hesitant to talk about it.
It is enough when something at the back of your head says “no, this isn’t okay” even if you are with a partner, even if you have been sexual with the same partner before.
Writing this in the aftermath of a particularly brutal gang rape in Delhi, for me it seems really important to say this: Sexual violence is not just about rape. It isn’t only in the act of penetration that we are humiliated and helpless. It is in the assumption of the husband that the wife will wait on him. It is is the assumption of the brother that the sister will do the dishes. The demand of your parents that you don’t go out too late, and don’t edge towards certain parts of the town. The professor who tells you that you were molested because of the length of your skirt. The man who believes its his right to be sexual with his partner even if she says “no”. The heterosexual male who believes it’s okay for women to be gay but not men.
Sexual violence is also about the woman who allows her boyfriend to touch her when she doesn’t want to be touched. It’s about the mother who tells her daughter “that’s just how it is,” or the teacher who is embarrassed about a student’s menstrual blood. In the apology you make for bothering someone with something you’re less than sure of.
Don’t stand for it. Don’t just let it be… Raise your voice, and really say it, scream it:
Enough is enough!
Manasi Saxena is a student of history and of life, who has recently stood at the very edge of a cliff and realized there is nothing more awesome than being vulnerable, nothing more brave than accepting it and nothing more valuable than sharing, growing, receiving and being authentic. She loves puppies, stories about long journeys, people, traveling, art, cooking and warm cuddly hugs.
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Ed: Tara Lemieux/Kate Bartolotta