I’m told I should ‘share my story.‘ But, I’m afraid by saying it, it will become real.
I suffered an allergy attack over the weekend. I went to get some medication at a local pharmacy on Sunday morning, clearly preoccupied with my inflamed nose and watering eyes, to care about anything other than finding a cure. As I bent awkwardly on the rather high counter to make my claim at the crowded shop, a common occurrence given my short, 5’2” frame, I felt a hand brush against my behind. This same hand next patted the shop assistant’s shoulder, and the man who it belonged to talked to him as if he’s a genial uncle. I had been an unsightly picture of snot and tears (not that this man had even seen my face before he felt me up) and I was wearing extremely loose palazzo pants, along with a buttoned-up full-sleeve shirt. Even as I realised what had happened, I had already become aware of how protesting, something I don’t often refrain from in such public encounters, would be pointless.
On Tuesday, as I stood in the train on my way to work, a woman around fifty sitting behind me ‘accidentally’ felt up my behind several times, giving the impression that though she was sitting comfortably, she had no space to keep her hands that didn’t invade mine. She got up from her seat, felt my buttocks, my waist, and slid her hands up to my armpits. As I expressed irritation, she gave my armpit a squeeze and made a facial expression to indicate she was only trying to balance herself on a crowded, moving train.
As I thought about it in the next few minutes, it occurred to me, “my butt is popular this week.” Perhaps those lunges I’ve been doing once in a blue moon are finally working. And that, or something like that, is how I would have tucked away something like these.
There are too, too many encounters to share. I wouldn’t call them stories, for a story demands much more. A story demands comprehension, themes, characters, arcs, development. Perfect wording to capture what was felt. What happened. A story demands both satisfaction and longing for more, which is why we have series and sequels. Most of all, a good story demands engagement, something to keep audiences hooked, something a storyteller can only gauge if she or he himself is hooked.
These are encounters I wish into oblivion. All are memories, often but not always physical, that remind me I have a body, female or not it doesn’t matter, and that people from time to time consider it theirs. Why? Because it’s in front of them. It suggests a desire they do not believe needs reciprocity to be satisfied. When you want something, you’re expected to give something in return. Some reciprocity is expected in every exchange. But, apparently, not in these. Not that these are exchanges to be exact, for my passivity, alarm, shame and burgeoning rage do not compare with their easy, adventurous, entitled glee at getting away with it all, rules of being civilized be damned.
On International Women’s Day, as I spoke about the work the UN has been doing towards women’s rights, several well-educated men with respectable jobs bluntly remarked, ‘What have we men got to do with women’s day?’
I told them about men’s issues, detailing two specifically, one of which they should be able to empathise with – the problems faced by single fathers in India, especially those interested in adoption, and homosexual rape. I spoke about the #HeForShe campaign. But, I could see the discomfort in their faces, the incomprehension, the trivialization, the indifference and the feeling of being thwarted from their otherwise position of authority, real or implied.
But, I’m not interested in male-bashing. I cannot say I love men, for then there are those who will automatically think I’m a ‘nympho’ or a slut. But, Feminism is not about women. It is about equality. It is about making everybody feel safe, creating an environment where they can work towards fulfilling their potential. That might sound like a platitude, ripped off from the constitution of some privileged country, but my non-political self still likes to believe it can be achieved, and she can rattle off the names of several men, and some women, who have done just that.
That is the problem. You cannot even talk about it, without politicizing yourself. I am either a victim, asking for pity and understanding, or a bother, a nagging voice that people want to go away as soon as this Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein business is over. Most of all, I am uninteresting because I’m not in the entertainment industry (not even politics or sport, which are equally juicy), and there are no major revelations here either. So what if some men didn’t like my little speech? Who cares?
You don’t have to care. Several will choose not to care. But, I will keep on saying it. Two basic principles of Psychology can solve all of this. First, education. Not the kind that makes you learn to be doctors and lawyers, but the one that teaches you to care and feel responsible from a young age. Adults also are not immune to the effects of education that concerns itself with respecting a person’s space. If they fancy themselves able to learn how to drive or prepare their body for a marathon, they can learn basic decency.
Second, repetition. These discussions cannot be a fad, coming and going with the tide of newspaper headlines. We need to talk about it. We need to have a culture in which we are able to talk about it. I had a couple more stories I wanted to share but I decided against it, worrying about my career and my safety. These are situations I have stood up for in my life, but they have not been resolved in a way that would send the message to the parties involved that their behaviour is hurtful and inappropriate.
It’s not easy. We have to accept that despite thousands of years of being civilized, of having strict laws and governance and platforms of communication for several decades, there are still people who can get away with this. But, what we cannot accept is the shame and the fear we feel about it. We have to fight for it. Even as much as letting the person know that they haven’t bullied you into silence. Easier said than done, but we must keep trying to do it.
What do you think can be done to educate people about inappropriate behaviour?