My experience with sexual assault and how the legal system fails women.
Issue #94: Why women don't fight back.
Trigger warning: Sexual harassment. Violence.
On a bright sunny day in the winter of 2014, I was at a crafts mela with my parents and an aunt.
We were enjoying the rare good weather in Delhi, the food, the music, the beautiful handmade art by local artisans from all over the country.
They announced that a street play was beginning.
My aunt and I stopped to check it out, while my parents walked on to make some purchases at stalls they were interested in.
It was a thick crowd. People were jostling for a better view of the performance.
Suddenly, I felt something pressing into me from behind. I thought it was someone’s shopping bag that was jutting out as the owner tried to get a better vantage point like everyone else.
I moved a few inches to the side to make space. But the ‘bag’ moved sideways in tandem with me.
I turned around and saw that a man was standing right behind me.
I looked down.
He was holding his penis and masturbating against my body.
Aside from the people who were present that day, I have shared this story with maybe four or five more. Many people closest to me have never heard this before.
It has taken me eight years to get to a point where writing it in a letter to 4000 people does not make my hands tremble anymore, or make my mind go blank with a thousand feelings that I am yet to process.
I turned back and faced ahead.
I clearly remember the two thoughts that crossed my mind in that instant.
One. I thought of a family elder who had recently told me how a man had masturbated while staring at her when she was traveling on a bus as a teenager. This had happened 50 years ago, and I was the first person she had ever shared this with.
Just a young girl then, she had not known how to react. She just looked away while the man went on. She had lived with this trauma alone for half a century before confiding in someone who was not even born when it happened.
(Really makes my eight years of processing feel like fast-tracked progress in that context.)
Two. Just two years before this day, the Nirbhaya gang rape had shaken the country. Six men had gang-raped a 22-years-old woman traveling home one night in South Delhi. The brutality of the rape - they shoved an iron rod inside her and bludgeoned her internal organs - had ripped a hole that pierced even the cold heart of this apathetic city I had called home all my life. She fought for her life for almost two weeks before succumbing to her injuries.
In the face of the man standing behind me, I saw the ghosts of those six men.
I remember thinking - I am not a teenager on a bus in the 1960s. I am not a 22-year-old young woman, fighting six men alone in the middle of the night.
I could step away and let this go.
But emboldened by this ‘victory’ over me, who will he target next?
Will it be a teenager on a bus?
Or will he put a rod inside a young woman?
I have to stop him.
It is weird how many thoughts can flash through your mind in one instant. I secured my phone inside my bag, and double checked the zip to ensure it would not fall out - because I knew we were heading for turbulence ahead.
I handed my bag to my aunt, who was standing next to me, entirely oblivious to what was happening.
And then I turned back to face the man.
I grabbed him by the collar with one hand and punched him in the face with the other.
I do not remember how many times I punched and slapped him, though I remember seeing blood fly out of his mouth at one point.
I punched him till my hand could no longer take the pain of the impact.
He kept acting like he did not know why I was hitting him, asking me what had happened.
People around us stepped away, stopped watching the play, and started gawking at me instead. I was their entertainment now. No one stepped forward to ask what was happening. No one stepped forward to help either.
If you have lived in Delhi long enough, and you see a woman hitting a man in a public space, you already know what came before that. And since she is already getting her revenge, you feel no compelling reason to stand with her, and might choose to sit back and enjoy the show.
There were policemen patrolling the mela for security. I caught sight of one of them and dragged the man to him.
I was a government officer at this time, which meant I carried a Home Ministry ID card on me at all times.
I shoved this ID card in the face of a policeman, read out his name tag, and directly threatened his job if he did not take custody of this man right away.
I should mention here that I am just as scared of policemen as the next law-abiding citizen of this country.
And yet, this was a day on which I sent several policemen cowering under the sheer intensity of my rage, and the powerful yellow card I was flashing.
For context, you should know that I was the kind of officer who felt guilty for a week if I as much as took a personal printout on the office computer.
So this was the first (and last) time in my government career that I used my official ID card to get special treatment in a personal capacity.
Of course, ‘special treatment’ here refers to basic rule of law being followed in our country.
In truth, I had never stepped foot inside the Home Ministry and had no power to affect the career of even a fly in law enforcement.
But they did not need to know that.
One cop led to another, and by the time we reached the mela thana, I was surrounded by a small gathering of cops, all holding on to one man - more for their own safety than mine.
I barged into the thana, explained the situation to the thana-in-charge, and demanded he lodge an FIR.
The man being dragged by the cops started crying.
The thana-in-charge gave me a pen and paper, and I started writing the FIR with my now-bleeding, swollen, and trembling hand.
Within seconds, several cops had gathered around.
‘One Madam from Home Ministry has been assaulted and she is going ballistic at the thana.’
You don’t expect such high-stakes drama when you are assigned a dull posting at a crafts mela.
At one point - when he probably thought no one was looking - the man tried to make a run for it.
If the cops had any doubt about whether I was telling the truth, this dispelled it.
Five cops grabbed him before he had taken five steps away, dragged him back, and beat him with their lathis.
I felt a surge of satisfaction.
A few more minutes passed as I wrote on.
The man was now desperate.
He suddenly lunged forward and grabbed my feet, begging for my forgiveness.
I felt violated by his touch and kicked him as hard as I could. I was wearing heavy-soled sports shoes.
I felt his nose crack under them.
A waterfall of blood gushed from his face.
If I were not having the worst experience of my life, I might have smiled.
I finished writing the report and gave it to the thana in charge with more empty threats against his job if he did not take it forward.
He assured me he would comply.
I had requested my aunt to inform my parents. By the time I was done with the FIR, they reached the thana.
I was successfully fooling everyone with my ‘brave’ act so far.
But the one person was not fooling was myself: I knew I was more scared than I had ever been in my life.
I finally felt safe the moment I saw my parents. My mother hugged me and I started crying my eyes out.
I had just written a two-page-long FIR about it, but I could not bring myself to say a word about what had just happened to my parents.
The thana-in-charge saw this chink in the Home Ministry madam’s armour and took his well-timed shot.
His tone suddenly changed from ‘we will comply, madam’ to ‘you are like my daughter’.
He advised me not to file the complaint. He said it would only mean innumerable visits to courts, reliving this experience, and seeing this man over and over again.
I saw my parents who, I knew, would insist on driving me to the court each time and be forced by my decision to spend the next God-knows-how-many-months-or-years reliving to this incident with me.
I tore up the FIR.
The thana-in-charge assured me that I had made the right decision.
I told him I did not want this man to touch another woman ever again.
He promised me that his team would make sure of it.
We left the mela.
When I got back home that day, I went straight into the shower. I felt like I needed a hundred showers.
I felt like burning the clothes I had worn. I still remember the clothes I wore that day, and could never bring myself to wear them again.
I spent the next week with my hand covered in a bandage, and my mind trapped in thoughts of that day.
Every empty moment I had to myself, I spent wondering where the man was right then and what he was doing.
I had no doubt that I had left the cops with enough motivation to break several bones in his body. At the very least - I knew I had broken one myself.
As much grim satisfaction as that thought gave me, I could not - and still cannot - decide if I did the ‘right thing’ in that situation.
I wondered if going through this experience had made him, as I hoped, wary of laying a finger on another woman ever again.
Or, if he was taking out his anger against me on a defenceless woman on the streets right now.
The second thought kept me awake many nights.
I still think about it sometimes.
Why don’t women fight back?
After the piece I wrote last week (link at the end of this piece), a few of my male readers wrote back to me, asking versions of the same question: ‘Why don’t more women call out such attacks?’
I also got many messages from women who had had the kind of experiences I had written about.
Some of them had suffered in silence - too young or clueless or shocked to react.
To the others, I posed the question the men were asking.
Here are some of answers I got:
“I called him out in a bus full of people and no one came forward to support me.”
“I created a scene. Later, I overheard some women muttering how spoilt young girls like me are. They said we should not step out of our homes if we cannot take such normal occurrences on public transport.”
“People told me to let it go because ‘boys will be boys’.”
“I was slut-shamed by bystanders for the choice of my clothing.”
“I was told he was too young and I should forgive him because he had his whole life ahead of him.”
“I was told he was too old and I should respect my elders.”
“I called the police and they refused to register my complaint. Later, some co-passengers told me that he had bribed them on the side.”
“I called the police and they told me to think about his wife and kids.”
“I had a male friend with me who wanted to beat up my harasser, but I stopped him. I was afraid that if I got him beaten up, he would come back with a bottle of acid next time.”
To answer the question the men were asking, when women try to fight back, we are held back from justice by several unseen chains:
The moral police.
The actual police.
The thought of a bottle of acid.
Most women - even those who muster the strength to fight their attackers - lose the fight against these chains.
Just like I did.
I know you are angry right now.
(I thought I was over it but even my hands are trembling again.)
A friend told me that pieces like the one I wrote last week unleash a lot of rage in my readers and that I should channel the energy I was unlocking in a meaningful direction.
This was wise advice, I thought.
So here are some directions in which I urge you to channel the rage you are feeling right now:
Next time you are in a public space, keep one eye out for any woman who looks uncomfortable. Trace her line of sight and you will usually see the source of her discomfort. Go and stand/sit between them. If you can, look him in the eye when you do this.
99.99% of women have no cause to allege that a random man walking down the street sexually harassed them. If a woman around you says it happened, believe her. Tell her that you believe her.
Ask her what she needs you to do in that moment. Only act on your own judgment if she is not in a position to answer this question.
If you hear about an incident like this and find yourself starting a sentence with “She should have…”, stop right there. You don’t blame the victim when you hear of a murder or a theft. Don’t do it now and don’t let anyone else do it around you.
The above also applies to any questions asked about what she was wearing, where she was going, what time it was, etc. She should or should not have done… nothing. HE should not have been a molester. Be clear in your mind, your words, and your actions that that is entire the moral of the story.
If you have children - and I know it goes against every parent’s protective instinct to think this about their child - but accept that something like this could happen despite your best efforts to protect them, and raise them accordingly.
Teach them how to protect themselves, yes, but also how to treat someone suffering around them with kindness and empathy.
Raise them to know not to feel shame or guilt over someone else’s actions.
Make it your mission as a parent that your child(ren) feel safe in the confidence that they can talk to you about anything.
If you have a son, you might think he was born with the privilege of not needing to know any of the above. Raise him to know all of the above.
Thank you for reading. I hope this helps someone.
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Reading this made my skin crawl,so iam wondering as a victim, would we be able to even understand the level of trauma you must have undergone. Unfortunately, the system is broken, and I wish we had special courts wherein harassment cases had to be cleared up within a week, then more people will come forward to identify such monsters.
Take care MV, it is tough to write such stark pieces and be mentally calm.
One more reason why women don't fight back -- they are too stunned or revulsed to do so. Young girls only experience this; no one talks about this. Some eventually learn to fight back Many never do for all the pertinent reasons mentioned in this post.
Training for both boys n girls on all possible forms of abuse is essential. They need to know that such an act is wrong. They need to know of all options to exercise in such circumstances. It can't be left to one's wits.
The question is WHO WILL or CAN TEACH? School yeachers? Parents?