I am the Victim and I Blame Myself

>> January 3, 2013

I’m not sure when exactly it was that I discovered that my sex made me different- more vulnerable, more susceptible to a certain kind of look, touch, interaction, and, of course, violence.

It may have been when I was twelve- standing precariously on the precipice of puberty, trying to make my peace with a rapidly evolving body- and a visiting uncle (who ironically, even today, claims to have held me as an infant as I peed on his brand new shirt) prodded at my barely there nubile breast.  It may have been when I decided that I shouldn’t bring it up with my parents- a twelve year old child’s considered decision based on sheer inability to articulate what had happened to her. It may, perhaps, have been when my period did arrive in all its awaited glory, and my mother gleefully declared that I was a “woman”, and that I was not to pray during those painful days because, as she patiently explained to me, I was “unclean”. To be fair at that age, religion and prayer were mere rituals to me, but my sense of justice-, I remember-, was acutely offended because there I was, not being allowed to do something, only because I was a girl.

It doesn’t matter, in any case. After twenty five years of being a woman in this country now, it simply does not matter when I discovered that I was “the fairer sex”, fair game for every boy and man. It seems insignificant to remember when I discovered that my interaction with the world will always be different- at odds with, even- from the way my father, my brother and my male friends experienced it. It doesn’t even matter that as I gleaned this reality of my difference, my girl-ness as a child, I did not realize that it would only be the first of many such battles I would fight and inevitably fail at.

As an independent urban twenty-something, I fight some battles every day. Heck, as the elder daughter in a mostly conservative middle class family, I’ve been fighting them ever since I can remember.  As a young girl, my earliest interaction with patriarchy was when I found it residing most comfortably in my own home. In retrospect, the battle I waged with my mother because I was expected to clean up after dinner, and my brother was not, seems almost laughably petty now. More recently, I was on holiday at home in Kerala and my mother told me about Thiruvathira- an auspicious day on which unmarried women across the state undertake fasting and prayers in the hope of bagging good husbands. Oh, I thought I was being so cocky, so with it and feminist, when I asked her if she thought there was a man out there fasting so that he may bag me, glorious and beautiful that I am.

Looking back now, I realize that these battles were pathetically irrelevant in the larger context of a deeply misogynistic society. The futility, however, of these wars I waged privately never occurred to me and I remained steadfast at the front-line, fighting for what I was convinced was a worthwhile cause. In my first year of college, when I was living with my aunt, I discovered that my younger male cousin was free to stay out after classes, watch movies and plan trips out of town with his friends, and I was not. I was outraged, of course, when my uncle tried to explain this discrimination to me using a famous Malayalam proverb – that of the thorn and the leaf, and how it didn’t matter whether the thorn fell on the leaf or the leaf on the thorn, it would always be the leaf that would be considered “damaged goods”.  And even though I was extremely indignant at being reduced to a leaf in my battle for “equality”, it was only after I went to law school and discovered feminist narratives on the patriarchy of language that I would fully appreciate the ridiculous sexism of the analogy. As a young girl, I always fought these battles with an unwavering conviction of purpose, because it was about me and my right to lead my life as I saw fit. I argued about language and age-old customs that reinforce the deification of the woman to the exclusion of all agency on her part. I believed that these lonely battles were a significant albeit small part in championing the cause of women. And, yet, as I look back, I have failed so miserably in my own liberated life, it’s shocking.

As I grew older, of course, even as I continued to wage the war at home, I began to sense the very real danger lurking at every corner in the world outside. As I championed the cause of the maid’s daughter who did not wish to be married off back home, on my way back from college I only pretended to not have seen the dirty old pervert who sat at the bus stop every day, with his penis held out in his hand, hungrily watching girls in their school uniforms.  Even as I mocked my grandmother’s favourite television serials and the distorted reality they represented, I only walked faster, holding myself a little tighter, when I was followed by a young man on my way back from college, walking past my own house and entering a friend’s, so he wouldn’t know where I stayed. 

I thought I was a rebel, one more worthy revolutionary in this endless battle as I stood outside college and smoked my morning cigarette at Amma’s, much to the chagrin of our many chauvinistic professors, both male and female. And yet, the one time when I was in real danger of physical violence, of sexual assault, when a bunch of Karnataka Rakshana Vedike rowdies barged into a friend’s house where we’d been hanging out – yes, barged right in, to that most sacred of all spots, one’s home- and  started threatening to have their way with us, taking videos of us on their phones, laughing at us in sheer delight at our helplessness, our fear- this one time, I recoiled in fear, I pleaded with them in my broken tear-soaked Kannada to leave us alone, to let us be, to let the girls leave without harm.

After college, when I moved to Bombay, I revelled in the freedom the city brought me- not only in terms of financial independence but also the more cosmopolitan outlook I knew the city afforded its women. I took cabs back home from work and nights out at two in the morning, and I dealt with my perverted landlord, my lecherous plumber and my nosy neighbours with the same irreverent attitude. I took offence at the slightest indication of what I thought was patronizing at the workplace, argued about the inappropriateness of the jokes the boys’ club in office were sometimes prone to cracking, and generally played the part of the strong independent woman I had always wanted to grow into. And yet, when the cab-driver took a route not known to me, I looked around in dread, and stared straight ahead at the road, my face set in pretend-fearlessness Even as I argued almost too passionately with a friend- who very rightly pointed out that the discourse on safety should not be lost in our frenzy to assert women’s independence, in the context of the recent rape of the student from my college-on my way back from a friend’s at two in the morning, when the auto broke down for a bit and a bunch of drunks started asking me “where going, madam?”, I only pulled my stole tighter around me, praying that the auto would start again. Even as I returned home, slightly drunk from a glorious night out of spending hard-earned money, I only averted my eyes as a guy on a passing bike jerked his hands in an indecent gesture. Even as I raged against the Salman Khan who reportedly demands final edit on all his movies, replete as they are with dialogues like “pyar se de rahe hai, rakh lo, varna thappad maarke bhi de sakte hai”, I only retreated, crouched away in crowded places so the men could pass first and I could pass safely later. Even as I complained about my friend’s boyfriend with a roving hand, I walked in meek cowardice past the fruit-wallah who broke into song every single time that I walked past him. 

After twenty five years of battles big and small, it destroys me today, right now, as I slowly and surely realize the futile it has all been. How naïve I have been waging my private war with male chauvinism- much like every other woman in this country- a war that now appears to me to be so irrelevant and insignificant, I might as well never have tried.

For every man who has made me feel a little less confident and a little more vulnerable, I have allowed another man to get away with exactly that. I remember one occasion when I did respond to a pervert thrusting his groin against me in a bus in Bangalore, when I raised my leg and kneed him right where it hurt.  I remember he moved away, surprised, even a little scared, and writhing in pain. I probably got lucky that one time; I realise that he could have responded in kind, that he could have grabbed me, punished me for my impertinence, that even if I had yelled and attracted attention, it would have evoked nothing but apathetic stares- from men and women alike. And yet, on an impulse, I ran the risk. I have, of course-since, and before- kneed, and elbowed several hands jostling my behind, grabbing my breasts, but it was always in passive defence- to protect myself, to get away from the situation.

My parents, perhaps, were justified in telling me to “be safe” and not my brother- because they spoke the risk-averse language of parents who’d rather see me safe than brave; but how was I justified – young, hot-blooded feminist that I’d deluded myself into thinking I am- in never reacting with such violent anger as I felt on every occasion, never telling the men that they could not get away with it? I did not walk up to the obscene creep at the bus stop and ask him to put it back in or suffer. I did not ask the disgusting man who followed me what he wanted and whether he would like for me to report him to the police.  I am the victim, and I am beginning to wonder, maybe, I should blame myself.

Here I am, fighting petty battles against the insidious patriarchy of language, rebelling against a matrilineal heritage that expects my womb to produce a thoroughbred Nair girl to keep the family lineage alive, and protesting the callous use of words like ‘rape’ to describe a bad interview. And there she was, fighting rape itself, fighting off six men who thought it was well within their right to taunt her because she was out and about in her city, fighting off a rusty iron rod that was repeatedly used to sexually assault her, until her insides were twisted beyond redemption, simply because they were drunk and they were men and it amused them to destroy a woman, a weaker human being, with such heinous design. Girl X has made me see the error of my ways. In staying alive and in wanting to know “if they’ve been caught”, she inspired a fearless confidence in me, and in death, she has made me realize that it will be too late, far too late, if I wait for things to change. 

It would be, I know, unfair to claim that women do not react out of cowardice- because that is not true. I do realise that the battles I have fought are not entirely insignificant, that these lonely battles every one of us women fight today are very necessary to bring the attitudinal shift that this nation needs today. Girl X, however, has made me realize that this is simply not enough. Misogyny and its various manifestations, most particularly rape, is- at its core- a power trip.  A power trip rooted in the knowledge, cultivated by generations of men and mostly women, that they can get away with it, because the woman will bear the burden of her "shame" silently. The most urgently necessary solution to this problem is, of course, reform of the criminal justice system and sensitization of the police force.  Discourses on the punishment adequate for rape are also, obviously, an integral part of this narrative against harassment of women. Attitudes may or may not change, but I do not want to be at the mercy of the mere shadow of a hope. And maybe, the first step I can take as a woman is to react against what they believe are the little things- a grope here, a leer there- which builds up to this pervasive culture of misogyny.

I realize that I may be advocating recklessness, but somehow, it seems to me that the time has come to become reckless.  To reclaim the night, the day and our streets. When the country has been gripped with such fervent indignation, when the cause is being championed by people who have thus far preferred to pretend that nothing was wrong- now IS the time to be reckless, to revolt, to tell every damned asshole exactly what I think about him when he chooses to undress me with his eyes. I may run a risk, but never has the Indian situation been more amenable to such a risk, and I intend to take full advantage of it. I am an angry woman, and I must, I need to, and I will express this anger. I am a victim, but I shall not bear any responsibility for being victimized again.

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