A few years B.C. (Before Covid), I was having a team lunch with some friends at work. We were all just back from tours to various parts of the country and were swapping travel tales. There were 3-4 women and one man at the lunch table this particular day.
One of the women brought up that she didn't feel very safe at the hotel in which she had been put up. It made the rest of us share our respective hotel horror stories. I mentioned how it always scared me when a hotel room door only had an auto-lock and did not have a physical latch with which the door could be locked from the inside (the fear being that anyone can open an auto-lock from the outside at night using the hotel key).
I sheepishly added that I sometimes move a table or chair to block the door from the inside when I spend the night in such establishments. It may not help a lot in case of an actual attack, but it allows me to get at least a few hours of shuteye at night.
At this point, I expected the room to explode into furore at how paranoid a person I was. Instead, it broke into cries of "Oh my God, I totally do that too!" from all the women.
The singular man stared at all of us with his mouth agape.
For a while, he legitimately thought we were bluffing and this was some weird practical joke we were all playing on him. (Spoiler alert: We weren’t.)
The idea that someone might feel scared enough on a work trip to blockade their hotel room door with furniture was absolutely alien to him.
It was a moment that reminded all of us of the very different planets men and women inhabit. Not on Mars or Venus, but on this very Earth.
We have all heard horror stories of violence against women in public spaces. So I am not going to add more today, or we will end up with an unending book of violent and disturbing stories here.
However, I recently hosted a Womaning Clubhouse (link at the end of this post) on this issue and I do want to share some stories that came up during our conversation there.
Shruthi shared several stories of such experiences during the discussion, all of which featured her giving her assailants a severe thrashing. Respect. ✊🏼
She told us about the man who groped her as a child (something that has happened to every woman I have ever spoken to about this) and who she kicked in the privates.
She told us about the man who showed her a pornographic magazine at a bus stop while she was traveling home from a tuition class and then tried to hold her hand. She kicked him till he fell on the ground, and then asked bystanders to join the free-for-all kickathon while she made her escape.
She told us about the man who wanted to be 'friends' with her, and asked her to get into his car while she was walking down the road. She broke his thumb when he tried to shake her hand.
But Shruthi - the wonder woman who always fought back - later married into a conservative North Indian family, which gave her a taste of what happens in most Indian homes after a girl or woman has been assaulted in a public space.
"I was walking to a yoga class, early in the morning one day. A man was riding a bike towards me from the opposite direction. He saw I was alone, slowed down his bike, and groped me as he drove past. Now, I have been on my State's Water polo team - and I was walking with a metal bottle full of water in my hands. I turned around and flung the bottle at him and, with my well-practiced aim, hit him right on his head. He fell down from the bike. I went over and kicked him several times, hopefully breaking a few bones in the process. I noted down his bike number and walked away."
However, once Shruthi got home and narrated the incident to her in-laws, what should have been a hero's welcome turned into predictable victim-blaming.
"What really hurt - even more than this unpleasant incident - what the instantaneous reaction from my in laws: 'Oh, you shouldn't have done that. Tomorrow he might come back with a gang. Don't go to yoga for the next couple of days.' "
Shruthi decided that she would not suffer the punishment for a crime committed by her harasser.
"I called up a friend who is a cop, told him the story, and gave him the bike number. He tracked down the man and called me into the station to identify him. I did that. And then they dealt with him separately. I was not going to live in fear constantly because of his crime."
Having a cop as a friend is not a privilege every woman enjoys (let alone that perfect aim at a moving target!) but the lesson remains that even women with as much agency, privilege, and gumption as Shruthi are forced to 'lie low' and put their lives on hold because "What if there is a bad man waiting for you outside?"
More afraid of telling families than being harassed
Natasha shared the story of a colleague who was traveling by train and woke up in the middle of the night to find a man groping her in her sleep (another common tale among women who dare to travel by overnight trains).
"This girl was a tigress. She fought back, she kicked, she screamed - basically, she created a scene. The compartment was full of people, but not one person came forward to help her. What's worse, she saw two bystanders actually videotaping the whole thing. At the next station, police got on the train and took the man away. But when she was narrating the incident to me later, she told me her biggest worry, 'I'm very scared that one of those videos will turn up on YouTube or WhatsApp tomorrow.'"
This is par for the course among women in public spaces - we can expect help from nobody, but live in fear that somebody is going to take a bad situation and make it worse for us. Most of all, those who care about us.
"Here is the reality that every Indian girl lives in: If we get harrassed, we are more afraid of telling our families than we are of the harassment itself. If a girl tells her parents that some boys followed her on the street, she knows that it is her freedom that is going to be taken away. Her parents are going to say, 'Why did you take that road? Why didn't you walk back with so and so? Take your brother with you everywhere you go tomorrow onwards. Or simply - No more going out from tomorrow.' "
No matter who the fault lies with, it is the woman’s freedom that gets curtailed. And that has conditioned us to be wary to the point of paranoia.
"Every time I enter any public space, I look at the escape routes. I first look at what in the environment I can use as a weapon, in case I'm attacked. I am mentally prepared all the time. I have told this to male friends - and men just don't understand it. But in our heads, we women are constantly plotting how we can use a metal water bottle we are carrying for self-defence, like Shruthi did. We are mentally practicing how to use it in case we get attacked."
Why women overthink
It is an emotion that every woman is familiar with: Always being prepared. Always mentally planning an escape route, or a self-defence strategy in every setting. Nandini echoed Natasha's sentiment.
"As soon as I enter a new building, a part of my brain starts mentally plotting all the exits in case I am attacked and have to make a quick escape. I have already got a plan in mind for what all I will do if I get raped - down to which therapist I will go to after the event. If I wear a chiffon kurta one morning, I am already thinking how it could become transparent if it rains and men would lech, so I make sure I pair it with a heavy duppatta. Whenever I am in the vicinity of a man I do not know or trust, you can rest assured I am plotting self-defence maneuvers in case he attacks me."
"No one ever taught me to do all this. It is something I have become subconsciously programmed to do - like most women, I think. I have stopped wearing hugging clothes because they might be harder to run away from someone in. I don't wear heels for the same reason. I always sit close to the door in any cab, and keep an eye out for empty spots on the road, in case I have to jump out of the cab if the driver attacks me. My phone getting discharged gives me anxiety, so I carry heavy power banks with me all the time."
People often ask why women 'overthink'. How does this sound for an explanation?
A disclaimer here: Natasha and Nandini are not two exceptionally paranoid women that I carefully handpicked for these quotes. They are literally the first two women I spoke to about this.
So what can be done about this infuriating and depressing state of affairs? I spoke to Rewa Marathe, Urban Planner and Architect, and here are a few concepts she shared:
Number 1. Holler Back.
If you are a bystander and you see a woman being harassed in a public space, a useful concept is on the website "I Holla Back".
The 5Ds of iHollaBack are: Distract, Delegate, Document, Delay, and Direct.
Distract: Engage the person who is the target of the harassment in a side conversation. Pretend to be lost. Ask for the time. Ask for directions. Pretend to be their friend, and walk away from their harasser with them. Accidentally-on-purpose spill your coffee, or the change in your wallet to cause a distracting scene.
Delegate: Find an authority figure - the restaurant manager, the security guard, the store employee, the policeman - and alert them about the situation.
Document: If you are sure it is safe, take a picture or video of the incident. (But never share this footage without the consent of the person being attacked.)
Delay: If someone has just been harassed in front of you, take a few minutes to sit with them, ask them if they're doing okay, offer to help report the incident, etc. (Offer advice if they ask, but resist the urge to mansplain what they should do if they are not asking for your advice.)
Direct: Directly call out the harasser if you are sure it is safe for you and stop them in their tracks.
Number 2. The burden of language.
Rewa explains the burden of language we use:
"When an incident of violence against a woman is reported, even the language used is 'A woman got raped here…' It is seldom 'A man raped someone here...' The very language we use transfers the burden of blame on the victim. And this is why, you will see thousands of ads, hoardings, messages teaching women and girls self-defence, but almost no messaging teaching boys and men not to rape."
Also, understand that the most unsafe place for women - statistically speaking - is their own home. More women are harassed, raped, abused, and murdered by men they know than not.
So, get the notion that you can keep a woman safe by locking her up at home out of your head.
Number 3. The tyranny of reason.
Rewa says the book "Why Loiter" has revolutionized the way she sees women in the city.
"Basically, what the book says is that men can get attacked or hurt in public spaces too. And yet, when men go out into the city, and take that risk to their personal safety, is seen as the 'manly' thing to do. But for women, this risk is seen as unnecessary, because of the notion that women need to be protected.”
“This protectionist attitude towards women's safety comes at the cost of women's freedom to live a full life.”
Basically, when a man is attacked in a public place, he is never asked the question, "What were you doing there at this hour?"
We need to stop asking women the same question too.
Number 4. Let ladies loiter.
"A phrase used in this book is 'the Tyranny of Reason'. Women are always expected to have a good reason to be out of their homes in public - going to school, college, office, the market, etc. Whether or not you have this Reason determines whether you are a good woman or bad. A good woman doesn't take risks by going into public spaces without a Reason. A bad woman takes risks for no Reason - she does it for frivolous things like having fun, meeting friends, or just hanging out."
"Men, on the other hand, are constantly seen hanging out at paan shops, sleeping in public parks, discussing politics and religion on road crossings - basically, loitering. All the time, they are risking their own safety to do these things.
“The revolutionary concept in the book is - give women this right to take risks, too. Yes, work on creating safer spaces - more street lighting, more hawkers on the street, more open spaces, parks, footpaths. But also, stop asking women who get assaulted this question - 'What were you doing there?' Let women loiter and reclaim public spaces and their own freedom to be in them.”
I have a dream: women putting adda
I was recently featured on a podcast called Puliyabaazi. It was really kind of the hosts, Pranay and Saurabh, to invite me to their show, and we had an excellent conversation about all things Womaning.
It was not until I was reading up on 'Why Loiter' this week, that it occurred to me - every episode of Puliyabaazi begins with the hosts saying:
"Bhai, hum Hindustaniyon ko batiyana bahut pasand hai. Bangali mein 'adda', Oriya mein 'khotti', Kannada mein 'harate', aur Hindi mein 'puliyabaazi'. Iss kala ke liye hamari har bhasha mein ek shabd hai." (We Indians love to hangout and chitchat, and there is a word for it in every Indian language.)
The thought that occurred to me was - When was the last time you saw a group of women hanging out and chitchatting openly in a public space as men do - without any concern for who is watching, who is leching, who is eavesdropping, what time of the day or night it is, who would attack them, and how would they protect themselves if they did?
I have a dream - to see a day when women, half of the world’s population living under permanent lockdown - are seen out and about in our cities and streets, putting adda or khotti or harate or puliyabaazi.
Or even staying in a hotel room overnight without needing furniture propped up against a door to fall asleep.
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