Speak Up and Stand Up

Arvind Narayanan is an average engineer during the day, a playful father and an annoying husband by the evening and a dreamer when asleep in the night. By the crack of dawn, he is a wannabe writer. He plans to give up his hopes of being a writer the day the last coffee plant dies.

Speak Up and Stand Up

Cathartic is the word, sort of. It took about seven months to get here. All I had to do was to ask a few women in my family and friend’s circle a few seemingly “uncomfortable” questions. My goal was to get the women to fill up a mini-survey to help me understand the gravity or the pervasiveness of gender-based abuses, sexual mostly, that women in India undergo. I hoped to get a sense of the odds of undergoing any form of abuse, sexual, physical or verbal, if one is born as a girl in India. Finally, since I grew up to believe that this topic is a “don’t ask, don’t tell” women’s issue, I wanted to break the mold and learn and…grow up. Ignorance could be bliss but knowledge is power.

As simple as the task seemed, it became confusingly arduous for reasons unbeknownst to me. It needn’t have been this emotionally entangled. It needn’t have morphed into a debate between an idealist heart and a dominant defeatist mind. To ask or not? What to ask? How would they feel? What would they think of me? Why do you care? Who gave you the authority? Isn’t this their problem? The last question is one of an eternal escapist. On to the shirker highway. Ignition. Vroom. Zip. Very much like a typical Indian who turns a blind eye to any existential crisis until it hits his or her home. After a few months of deliberation, my heart won the tussle and I sent out my survey to the women I know. I requested some of them to pass the link on to a couple of their friends to increase the sample size. In the end, the number of respondents were just eleven in number. Nevertheless, the responses were eye-opening to my naïve and ignorant self.

Before I delve into the details of survey, I would like to thank all the women who took part in it. There was absolutely no reason for them to share their personal stories but most of them did (Hat tip!). There are also a few caveats that must be mentioned –

  1. The survey was very subjective in nature. The women I sent the survey out to belong to the middle-to-upper-middle class urban families. There isn’t any diversity to speak of in terms of religion or background.
  2. Fortunately, most women surveyed come from families that see them as equals and are in a relationship where they have an equal voice. This may indicate that the survey results do not highlight the worst-case abuses faced by women who are oppressed due to various reasons like caste, creed, religion etc. In short, this survey may be the most optimistic of all abuse related surveys ever done 😉
  3. Since the sample size is so low, the responses may not indicate any particular trend unless they overwhelmingly point in a certain direction
  4. The survey respondents’ ages are largely skewed towards 35 years and above and some of the respondents have lived outside of India for the last many years. Hence, an accurate extrapolation to the current state of affairs cannot be made.

Now that the disclaimers are out of the way, let me breakdown some of the responses. Though the sample size is low, it appears that all the women, unfortunately, have had to deal with some inappropriate touching by strangers while seven respondents said that they have been molested or groped at least once in their lives (Refer CHART-1 & -2). All the respondents mentioned that they were abused by strangers and while five of them were also victims to family members or friends.Basically, this could indicate that if you are born as a girl in India, there is an extremely strong chance that you will be molested or groped or felt up.

CHART-1
CHART-2

On the various forms of abuses (Refer CHART – 3), all the women have undergone either a form of verbal abuse (Catcalls, whistles, comments and sexual invites) or a form of physical abuse (touching, groping and stalking). One of the women has also been a victim of a serious form of physical abuse (sexual assault or a rape). It was indeed very shocking to learn that a woman in my close family or friends circle has been a victim of a serious sexual assault.

CHART-3

On sampling some of the comments from the respondents, I feel at loss for words on the seriousness of the crisis and the absolute lack of discussion on this topic in social circles –

“A stranger in Hyderabad masturbated on the street when I took my dog for a walk”

“Auto drivers exposing themselves more than once”

“Brushing against body, feeling butt or chest – again too many times- Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune and any other place I’ve lived”

“In chennai, a passerby (basically an old man who was a beggar) squeezed one of my breasts”

“…middle aged man followed me through the congestion and tried putting his hands inside my pant. On failing, he managed to feel me up all over….”

“Minor groping – Too many times to count in Bangalore: Brigade Road, MG Road …in Bandra, Mumbai where a drunk old man grabbed one butt cheek….”

“Every friend who lives in India has definitely unfortunately been a victim”

When I was setting up the survey questions, I was hoping that there will be at least a few women who have escaped unscathed from the prying eyes and snoopy hands of sexual predators. It seems utopian now. Most women who took part in the survey have had the privilege of living an otherwise uneventful and blessed life in which money, food, shelter, clothing and particularly, higher education were almost guaranteed. Belying my naïve assumption, safety from abuse wasn’t a given. In the world’s seventh largest country, there seems to be no hiding place.Ironically, abuse seems to be a teacher of equality just like any other disease permeatingall levels of the society without a hint of prejudice. Nothing is off the list. The air seems to be filled with hands waiting to touch a woman or her something. Any woman. Just something. It doesn’t seem to matter. Just some skin.

Now, where does this leave me? It was cathartic to get rid of the sense of inaction but now what? For starters, this has made me more aware of the crisis. True to my Indian nature, since I learnt that the crisis has hit my home hard, I will now develop a deep sense of consciousness. I am neither an expert to come up with a list of ideas nor a master to advise others. However, as clichéd as it sounds, a systemic change can begin within our little families and homes. Creating channels for conversations within one’s family or social circles can improve awareness on the issue. We could also stop treating abuse as a normal way of life. Truth be told, abuse doesn’t always show gender bias. In the last many months, I have also heard stories of men in my close family circle being unfortunate victims. There are always more reasons to act than to stay muted.Bottling up experiences is not always an option, speaking up when the moment allows is. Indifference is not an option, listening is. Inaction is not an option, standing up against abuse is.Retaining the status quo is not an option, taking big strides towards progress is. Inspired, is the word.

Opinions are of the writer.

 

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