Recently, I stood by the Flora Fountain in Mumbai, India, along with my fraternity in the field of journalism. Feeling angry and almost helpless that five men had raped a young photojournalist, we’d scribbled onto large paper sheets: “City of shame! Photojournalist gang-raped!” and “Mumbai becomes India’s new rape capital. We demand safety and security for all.” One poster was even bolder in its simplicity: “A woman brought us into this world. How can we disrespect another?”
The approximately 500 journalists in attendance were men and women who work at the various newspapers, magazines and news channels that comprise India’s rich media industry. Policemen stood by, watchful and alert, as journalists sitting with placards gave sound bites to their colleagues from news channels that were there to cover the demonstration live.
As I protested, I was reminded of my own recent transition back to working as a journalist in India after an eight-month stay in the United States, where I worked as an intern at The Boston Globe and The New York Times. Two months after my return — and close to eight months after the rape of a young girl in New Delhi rocked the nation and the world — I reflected on my homecoming.
Writing, as a woman
I sat in a café in Bandra where I can choose from any type of international coffee. The women next to me discussed their husbands while playing with their iPhones. This is one of the most trendy parts of Mumbai. Several Bollywood and television actors reside in bungalows or palatial apartments here. This was where the country’s first McDonald’s outlet opened in 1996. But, like everywhere else in India, it is also where paradoxes thrive. The high-end brands and street fashion live in Bandra west. Next door, in Bandra east, is a sea of cramped slums filled with diseases. Urban India is consuming iPhones while 300 million Indians still have no access to electricity at all. The government is pushing for nuclear energy as a response; pulsating grassroots movements continue to oppose it.
I arrived at the café having navigated through the vibrant flea market. I wore a denim skirt that falls a couple of inches above my knee. But there was no dupatta, or scarf, around my neck and covering my chest. Was it Bandra west that got me to finally ditch the dupatta? Or was the fact that it has been two months since returning to my homeland and that I’ve simply become accustomed to the constant staring?
Since returning home, I have never allowed a scarf to leave my chest. I returned home amidst a flurry of other countries issuing cautionary notes to their citizens traveling to India after the rape of the young girl in New Delhi spotlighted the problem of sexual assault. Upon arrival, I realized that this new story had transformed me, too. I chose not to wax my legs because I was sure that I would not wear anything that would reveal more than my ankle. My clothes purchased in the United States — the strappy and semi-transparent tops — stayed in the suitcase. Instead, I dug out the old long-sleeved kurtas that reeked of mothballs from the bottom of my wardrobe. Out came the cotton scarves too. I began to search through my mother’s wardrobe for her kurtas.
I remembered something I was often told earlier by several female friends visiting from the West: India is a sea of men. I never understood what they meant. I defended my country, stating that women were liberated in India. I’m an educated woman who can mostly speak her mind freely. My friends’ observation felt awkward to me, until I walked the streets one evening, still jet lagged, four days after I had landed in Mumbai. I felt eyes piercing through different parts of my body.
For the first time in my life, I realized my existence on the street. For the first time in my life, I realized my gender. I realized I was a woman in India. I realized I was the “other” on the street. I realized that I was something different, which would attract attention. What was I wearing that day? A long skirt and a tank top with my shoulders covered with a wide scarf. It was nothing unusual.
Such thoughts never crossed my mind before I left for the United States. I felt I was a strong, liberated woman. I knew I was one. I straddled conservative and modern India, rural and urban India, with almost equal ease. I wore cool clothes in the evenings in Mumbai; I wore boring clothes on my jaunts to rural India. I knew what to wear at what place, and I learned to adjust to my surroundings and the various perceptions of women. As a journalist, getting my story was more important than worrying about how patriarchy did not allow me to be dressed in a certain way, no matter how hot or uncomfortable the dress code for the region. I chose not to fight over fashion when my larger purpose in life was to convey oppression of various forms by being a journalist. And to do that work, I carried the diverse two Indias within me — in the way I dressed, in the food I would order at a restaurant or accept in a mud hut, and in my choice of carrying the dupatta.
Once, I painted a beautiful picture of India for a French friend in Boston to convince her to travel to my country with me. She asked me if the long-distance trains had doors for each passenger. I remember laughing aloud and telling her that doors were not even a regular feature in the trains in the West. Her eyes bulged out, and she said, “I can never travel to India by train then. I will add to global warming, if need be, but I will only fly around India. I don’t want to get raped in the train!”
I was shocked to hear her words. I thought she was being paranoid and that the media was contributing to that paranoia. Upon returning home, the odor of that paranoia engulfed my being.
Printed in black ink
My plan upon returning to India was to travel across the country, jumping off from one train to another, from one assignment to another, making friends on the train, speaking freely to men and women alike, gathering their stories and the story of the carefully sown together pieces of India.
When I returned to the country, the newspaper that my family subscribed to had one page dedicated to news of rape: a five-year-old raped by neighbor; a college student stalked and raped; a toddler raped and murdered by uncle; an employee alleges rape by boss; and so on. I picked up a copy of the other leading newspaper at my neighbor’s home and that newspaper too had a similar page. These stories were laid out as boxed items that detailed where the rape took place, the profiles of the raped and the rapist and, of course, the brutality of the process. Each particular rape news story seemed to overpower the next.
I began to notice small things that I would have overlooked earlier: Some newspapers had logos for rape stories. Others had a boxed tally presenting rape statistics, a chronology of incidents of rape. Babies discovered with bleeding vaginas and anuses. A plastic bottle shoved into the vagina. All of this, I was told, began after the Delhi rape that captured the world’s attention.
For the first time, I began to understand my mother’s pleas for me to please return home before midnight. Never had I imagined that this paranoia would enter my psyche. But it did. It got me to cover my skin. It kept me within the confines of my home, where soap operas began to reinvent themselves by introducing more rape incidents.
Underneath the dupatta
As I’d walk down to the nearby market, I caught myself staring at what girls were wearing. I wanted to cover up the backs of women’s knees or their visible bra straps. (I had been so happy to have access to such a wide range of colorful bras in all sizes in the United States. I was waiting to get back to Bombay to allow the pink strap to be seen with the orange strap of a tank top.) I wanted to cover up the ladies wearing saris whose waists were exposed when they held onto the overheard bars on the buses. I feared for all of them.
While visiting Delhi, my male cousin dropped me at a girlfriend’s home, and I was bewildered to see her wearing a shirt whose neckline showed the beginning of her cleavage. I wanted to cover her up to prevent my cousin from casting his male eyes on her. Instead, she bullied me to stop wearing my kurta and to wear her clothes instead. I felt uncomfortable looking at her wardrobe, even though I used to plead with her to let me borrow her clothes. Her wardrobe had not changed. Something inside of me had changed.
“Your Facebook photos tell us that you did wear cool clothes when you were in the United States. What has happened now?” she asked.
I began to explain. “I realize my gender now… the Delhi rape case… has… you know…”
“Nonsense!” she yelled back.
I remembered that she is a woman who drives to work every morning and returns late into the night. She parties every Friday night and drives home way past midnight. I shuddered thinking about her waiting at the traffic signal, waiting for the red to turn green, with her windows open.
What had happened to me? I hated that I, a journalist who had just been recognized for reporting on human rights and justice, was afraid to talk to men or to stare back at them for staring at me. Was I seeing only what I wanted to see; was I experiencing unconscious disappointment to be returning to my patriarchal country? I was excited about the prospect of returning home during my last week in the United States. Had I become one of those Indians who found a problem with every aspect of India because the West was so great? I remember castigating those foreign-returns who complained about everything. Now I wondered if I had become one myself.
I felt confident that my complaints were valid, that acknowledgement of the problems were needed lest we get so comfortable with an ailing society. Yet the discomfort about the indifference to our Indian society fraught with ailments was beginning to affect my liberty. I used to hate the dupatta. It was a cover to everything that is wrong in the society, the idea that men will stare at women so we’d better cover up since men won’t change. But it came to my rescue when I was reeling.
From political to personal
I suddenly connected the dots. Call me paranoid if you will, but the facts revealed everything: the high numbers of female feticide and infanticide; the high rates of girls dropping out of school; the high maternal mortality rate; the disparity in the numbers of women employed; the very few women who have taken up (or been granted) leadership positions; the high number of women who are married off just at the turn of puberty; the high number of women who are killed for marrying someone they love; the number of women who are killed because of caste or religion. All of this suddenly made sense to me personally, not only politically. Walking down the street, if there was even a cool breeze that could misplace my dupatta, I felt trapped. For the first time in my life, except for instances when male photographers on the field would do their best to make women reporters feel inferior at a crime scene, I felt I was of the weaker sex.
India, like all other countries, has a long history of women resisting patriarchy and sexual oppression. But beyond noisy marches, the individual emotional and mental journeys of resistance that women undergo, often daily, to walk around in society are rarely heard. And as I returned to my country, I found myself forced to seek out my identity as a so-called liberated Indian woman — even as I suddenly saw patriarchy and sexism everywhere around me.
Yet another girlfriend getting married only meant more questions about my own wedding, and thus my very worth. The elder aunts blessed my girlfriend as she got married. Even as my mother bragged to them about my recent success as a journalist, the only blessing I received from the elders was, “May you also get married soon and be happy.” A woman with laurels but no husband is a woman whose life is incomplete. It seemed that the purpose of my education was only to be able to attract a good groom who would make me happy. What is shocking was how most girls succumb to that propaganda: study hard, earn some good money, have a fat wedding and then be the good wife. Television shows continue to reinforce these ideas, even though women in my country have long been breaking boundaries, such as I did throughout my 20s. I even heard someone in my family, whom I love dearly, remark about another younger woman in our family, that “she cannot do anything fast in the kitchen. She is worthless.” This statement came even after the woman had dutifully given a boy child to the family, as the elder aunts would say.
At a bar with my girlfriends recently, I was scared to dance. I was worried that my friend was getting too drunk and that the men were staring at her. I reminded myself that I had the phone number to the nearest police station, yet I also remembered how the police would only tarnish us women for staying out late and drinking.
That night I was up until 4 a.m. wondering: Why was I so scared? Wasn’t I the one who had fought with men all the time? I remembered when I was at a crowded bus stop years earlier and a man touched my behind as he walked past. He turned around to see if I had noticed. I slowly walked behind him, trying not to lose sight of his white shirt amidst so many other white shirts in the crowd. I finally caught hold of his collar. I yelled out, “So you tried to touch me! I’ll show you!”
He began to beg, and he tried to touch my feet to ask for forgiveness. But in crouching down, he was able to free my grip and begin running. I yelled, “Catch him! Catch him!” A crowd followed him until a man nabbed him. I was so happy that he was caught. The taller man kept the molester’s collar in his grip, as he began to plead, “I have not stolen anything! Please let me go!” The man began to dig his hands into the molester’s pockets and upon finding nothing, looked at me, as though asking why I’d chased him. I was slapping the man and screaming, “Ask him where he touched me!” I kept punching him (which hurt me more than I had imagined) until I realized that the crowd had begun to dissipate. They were hoping that a thief had been caught; they were not interested in a molester. I wanted to drag him to the police station, but it would have been a 15 minute walk, and I knew that even the man who had nabbed him had begun to lose interest. Taking him to the police station would have been foolishness on my part since nobody would walk with me.
I punched the man once more and walked off. People stared at me. As I walked onto the bus, people were discussing the commotion. “Was he a thief? Did he get caught? What did he steal? These guys should be taught a lesson!”
I said aloud, “I was the one who made the noise. He had touched my behind.” Nobody said anything, not even offering fake condolences. Even the women were quiet; a thief story would have made them discuss about the sad state of the society until they had reached their destination. A molestation was not fun, and not to be spoken about.
The man had violated my body; the people who chose not to support me were complicit in that violation. My slapping the man paled in comparison to the way in which I felt violated. But nothing had happened, and soon it was time for me to get off the bus.
A continuing journey
Why did I finally shed my dupatta in Bandra? Would a dupatta continue to be tucked into my bag with my wallet and bottle of water? Why was I so scared in the first place? The Delhi rape took place about the same time as the rape in Steubenville, Ohio. But the former affected me so much more, in ways I had never fathomed. Was it because I knew that even if my hemlines were not revealing, the stares wouldn’t stop? Was it because I knew that men would always get away, while we women would be castigated? Was it because I was scared to find out how many of my male friends, or friends of my brothers, or my brother himself stared at women to make them uncomfortable?
I am still trying to find my answers, even as news of rape and other forms of sexual harassment continues to trickle in, both in India and from all parts of the world. Don’t get me wrong, patriarchy is not a problem just in India. My chest has been stared at by a very senior professor at a prestigious American university. But I feel the concern here is more acute because I am trying to find my way around my own home. India is a country where women are treated either as goddesses or vixens; it is a country where I grew up playing with boys; it is a country where the old vegetable vendors call me beta (child), and where I once felt like a confident woman who could conquer the world with her intellect.
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