Our apologies in advance. This is a long, rambly post. Sorry, an even more rambly post than we produce in those rare moments when we stir ourselves to actually write at length. And yes, we'll have to abandon our beloved first person plural for the nonce. We beg your pardon.
When one of the people behind the Blank Noise Project blog-a-thon got in touch a few days ago and invited me to participate, I hesitated. I'll gladly help spread the word, I said, but I don't know if I'll post.
You see, there are parts of this whole thing that leave me uncomfortable.
There's the matter of the road-side romeos, as we like to refer to them. The ones who whistle and sing film songs at girls. Scum, right? Shouldn't be allowed, right?
To answer that, I'll have to digress a bit. I was talking to a friend last night. She mentioned a girl we both know who was being harassed. I sat up. All concern. What happened, I asked. Well, some chap who'd taken a fancy to her had been emailing and SMSing a lot, had asked her out several times, that kinda thing. I snorted. That's not harassment, I said, that's a dumbf*** who doesn't get the message. And then I had this flash: the road-side romeos, they're doing just the same thing – they don't do the flowers and asking-out-to-a-date thing, but it's really only because they haven't been grown up learning that kind of courtship ritual. It's just a different culture thing. Take away the, um, "sophistication" levels, and we're still talking unwanted attention here.
And that's where I'm stuck; I fancy a woman, I ask her out, is that harassment? I think not.
When a guy looking at a woman with admiration – or trying to strike up a conversation, or asking her out – is labelled "harassment," a line is crossed. I'm quite likely to do some of that (well, okay, just the leching part, I lack nerve to do more than that, usually), and I don't see myself as a predator by any stretch of the imagination. And as I long as I have hormones and eyesight – alas, one is aging, so that may not be long – I will continue to say a mental hubba-hubba-va-va-voom whenever I happen to spot a woman who meets my particular standards of attractiveness.
Anyway. Let's leave my dilemmas out of this for the moment. Where was I? Yes.
Over the last few days, reading the posts that have begun coming up around the blog-a-thon, I have been feeling .. shell-shocked. Not at the content – female friends have told me more and worse – but at the sheer numbers. And the pent-up rage that one sees coming to the surface. And I have begun to think that while I still don't agree that ogling is harassment, I can understand why so many women think so.
What, aside from that, pushed me to finally post? Several things.
I think it was reading, somewhere on some news site during my insomniac wanderings, which one I can't remember, that ridiculous euphemism once more: eve teasing. Jeeze. Teasing. Therein lies a problem. The media needs to stop using that antiquated term that makes it sound like a boys-will-be-boys lark and tell it like it is. If some creep paws a woman, say he pawed her, for god's sake.
I think it was several memories coming to the surface.
Like this once, way back when I was fresh-faced youth (yes, there was such a time), I had an elderly perve groping my crotch in a crowded train. Crowded or not, I reached down, got hold of his little finger and bent it backwards. Crowded or not, he managed to wiggle his way quickly to the other side of the train.
That was just once. I cannot begin to imagine what my life would be like if I had to go through this every day.
Like this other time, years later, in a train with a female friend, as we were getting off at a crowded station, she whispered to me, that guy behind me is pinching me. The rush of people getting on and off was a bit of a hindrance, but as we got out, I reached out and caught his neck, and slammed him against a pillar. His friends came to his rescue, trying to pick a fight. Ask this b*********d what he was doing I yelled in my tattered Hindi. A crowd, as crowds do, quickly formed. Beat the m**********d up someone suggested helpfully. The pals quickly changed their tune. Let him go, he's young or something to that effect. I lose my temper rarely, when I do, I see red. My friend pulled me away. Let it go, she said, probably concerned that I would burst a blood vessel. I wish I hadn't. Maybe I scared him enough. Somehow, I think not.
Partly, it was the memory of, over the years, female friends telling me of walking hunched, with a file held across the chest; of carrying knives in their purses; of being felt, groped, touched, pinched every day for years. Some have retaliated, hit out, made a scene. Most haven't. They've been told to let it go, don't make a scene, it happens all over, there's nothing you can do.
I also remember an essay by Meenakshi Shedde, one that was short-listed in the Outlook Picador contest in 2001 [Thanks to Dilip, who, incidentally, won second prize that year, I can now quote the relevant passage]:
Besides, my dress sense is relatively conservative, covering most of my body. Minis and plunging necklines are mostly in the realm of what I call `boyfriend clothes' -- clothes best worn with a boyfriend attached: a single woman wearing them draws so much unpleasant attention from the men in the streets, it is simply not worth the bother.Is there a point to all this? Kind of. Here it is. If a woman is physically assaulted every day to the point where she carries a constant kernel of suspicion and rage around with her; if a woman within reach of a man's hands in situations where he thinks he won't get caught is touched inappropriately more times than not; if a woman can't wear what she wants to when she wants to (and don't give me that lame-arsed twaddle about respecting culture – if paunchy men can wander around in public in striped chuddies, shirtless, scratching their privates, it is hypocritical to want women to cover up), then something's very, very wrong.
So, will this blog-a-thon matter a solitary damn? I'm sceptical. It will, by and large, preach to the converted. Such trolls and plain weirdos as may happen by will not see reason. But, hey who knows. It will bring some attention to the matter. Maybe get some media coverage. At the very least, if some women speak of their rage for the first time, and find some release in it, if some woman can walk proud and erect, if some angry women stops tarring all men with the same brush .. and if even one man looks at this problem differently after this blog-a-thon, perhaps a beginning will have been made.
After I wrote this, and was agonising about whether to post it, I happened to be chatting with a friend. And in my usual decisive way, I dumped this post on her, asked her for an opinion. Post, she said. Yes, it rambles, she said, kindly not going on to say, hey, who expects anything else from you? We discussed a few other blog-a-thon posts we'd both read. And she said something that summed it up for me better than I could have. So, with Megha's permission, here we go:
Who are Roadside Romeos? Are they some separate branch of society different from us? We, blog readers = respectable. They, RRs = scum of the earth? I think that line that some of us have in our mind is what this blog-a-thon somewhat blurs. Perhaps, in reading the testimonies of women everywhere, there may be men who sit up and realize that what they think is harmless is perhaps not so harmless. Perhaps, in reading the testimonies of innocent men who have unfairly been subject to angry glares, there will be women who will sit up and realize that not all men are scum. Perhaps we will come away on the whole realizing that things are a lot more nuanced than we see them as.
And another thing too - when a malaise is as commonplace as 'street harassment / eve teasing' is, we become somewhat indifferent to it. A problem that we are at most times, content to ignore, until and unless it directly affects us. Shy away from uncomfortable truths or live in blissful denial of it. But perhaps, on reading the posts written on this topic, some of us will, at least in our heads, stop pretending that the problem is the rest-of-the-world's alone. It is very much ours as well. And isn't that an essential part of solving any problem - to start by acknowledging that it exists?