After last week’s shocking gang rape, Artika Ashdhir gives her perspective on sexual harassment in India, what it’s like to live in Mumbai.

Artika Ashdhir Asia, India,
A woman protests against rape in Delhi. Photo by Ramesh Lalwani

A woman protests against rape in Delhi. Photo by Ramesh Lalwani

No matter what happens, my love for the city of Mumbai will be unscathed. It was here I became a woman, got the best job in the world (at least according to me) and learnt to stand up for myself. So if someone says that Mumbai is not so safe after all, especially after the gang-rape on 22nd August 2013, I have a simple answer to that, Mumbai was never safe. It was never safe for women, like New York, Paris, London, Sydney and all the other major cities in the world aren’t safe. Wherever I go there would always be a threat of a bird shitting on me, me getting hit by a bike, someone running away with my bag, someone commenting on the way I dress, someone starting at me, groping me or worst case scenario raping me. As a woman, or to generalise a human being, the uncertainty of something bad happening to me is going to be same wherever I go, the degree might vary though.

So when there are horrible incidents of molestation, sexual harassment and rape, instead of feeling scared, sad and shaken, I feel angry. I can’t even imagine putting myself in the shoes of someone who has gone through so much pain, but I still try to imagine, if I was in her place, what would I have done? Would I have sat at home in shock and never move out ever? Would I prepare myself for an entirely new form of humiliation if I would like to lodge a complaint? Why humiliation? This is because the lawmakers in our country have not been taught how to deal with issues like sexual harassment, molestation and rape. They would ask all kinds of inappropriate things and make you as uncomfortable as possible. Its sad how nobody felt the need to teach the police, lawyers and even the judges in courts to be sensitive enough to deal with cases like these. And I am sure this is because nobody considers these heinous crimes a big deal.

Talking personally, I am an only child and a girl in my family. The amount of protection I got could be compared to what President Obama gets. Studied in a girl’s boarding school, Girls College and stayed in the college hostel, so never really got a chance to see the dreadful face of Indian men, or any men for that matter. But what I got from these all girls’ institution was my first and very subtle lessons of feminism. Surrounded by strong willed and stupendous women such as my teachers, professors, friends including my mother I grew up to be quite independent and resolute myself.

Though I did spend three years in the rape capital of the world, Delhi, I was kept relatively safe given that my hostel curfew was 7 pm. But when you talk about Delhi, even 12 pm is not safe. Since I was in a girl’s hostel, round the clock there were guys swarming outside our hostel gate trying to get a peak at girls. So we were often followed by guys on bikes and cars the minute we stepped out of our cocoon. I consider myself fortunate that my experience of sexual harassment was limited to being followed in Delhi.

Then came the time to face the even bigger bad wolf: Mumbai. But I instantly fell in love with this wolf; well girls always have a thing for bad boys! The freedom and independence was larger than life here, I was living on my own, and didn’t hold myself back. A very important part of this experience was to interact with guys on a daily basis, I would admit that it was weird to talk to guys and see them all the time in campus where I did my post-graduation. But this also was the time when I was left to fend for myself, without any hostels and deadlines, and to be honest I didn’t miss it at all.

Mumbai is considered to be much safer than Delhi, and I completely second that statement; even after the horrendous crime that took on 22nd August 2013. Mumbai is still the city where girls can travel in taxis and auto rickshaws in the middle of the night, in public buses without getting groped, go to pubs, restaurants and have a nice time with friends, can wear anything they want and not be hassled, with the right precautions and attitude. Why do I say that? Well it is a given fact that women in this country or anywhere else are treated or looked at like sexual objects, and not human beings. So when you are a sheep in a wolf’s territory you need to be cautious and astute to live a life with fewer experiences that can leave a big nasty scar.

The first time I faced sexual harassment in the city was in a small cloth shop, when the tailor with the excuse of taking measurements was trying to feel my private parts. When I realised what was happening, I pushed him away, shouted curse words at him and ran out of the store. This thing made me furious and I began to look for policemen near the area so that I could go and complain, but in vain. When I cooled down and began to think about it I started replaying the incident again and again with different endings, like punching him, breaking his hand with which he assaulted me, to beating him till he drops dead, it felt like I didn’t do enough to protect myself. But that incident was turning point for me, now I do not spare anyone who even stares at me for few seconds, I look right back at him with the most angry face I can make and ask him ‘ what’s your problem?’. I don’t know if it is the right thing to do, I don’t know if it really works and makes the person embarrassed, I don’t know if by doing this I am actually protecting myself, but to be honest this is the only thing that can protect me, because its only me that can protect me, and the past incidents of sexual assault (the Delhi and Mumbai gang-rape cases) prove that.

The first thing that every woman in India should understand is what constitutes sexual harassment: we still use words like ‘eve teasing’ which do not sound serious at all and that’s why most of the incidents of sexual harassment come under this category and are dismissed. Our great old Bollywood is no less in instigating ideas of women as sexual objects. The obsession with fair skin in our country is a gift from Bollywood, and that has led to extreme inconvenience and discomfort to tourists in India.

Whenever ghastly incidents like rape happen in our country three things happen that annoy me the most; firstly, everyone starts commenting on the reason of the girl being at the particular place where the crime happened. I ask why not? I ask what led to that man assaulting her. In case of Mumbai, the girl was on a work assignment at an abandon mill, it was her job to be there, why are people saying that she shouldn’t have been there at the first place, why don’t they ask the right question of why did the men even dare to commit such horrendous crime? Secondly, the minute something like this happens, the entire middle class of our country is on the street, lighting candles and shouting. What they are actually doing is taking out their frustration of work, home and disguise it as a protest to demand justice.

Isn’t it important to understand, why women are treated like this? It is a very deeply rooted issue, and it starts with young boys seeing their fathers treating their wives as servants and with utmost disrespect. And these men or women come on the streets protesting and when they go back home, the men ask their wives to serve them food, and the women timidly spending hours in kitchen trying to make her husband happy with food. And thirdly, people rise up against such issues only when an educated woman in a metro city goes through crimes like rape, what about that abandoned woman who lives at the railway station and is raped every night by any man who passes by her? Well she’s not that important and valuable like the educated woman who went through the same thing. (Do not mean to offend anyone, just trying to make a point).

I believe that when we have the opportunity to bring a change in the system, we should utilise it by trying to unwind those deep twisted roots that cause this problem. In my opinion, firstly efforts should be made to educate all women in the country; secondly, a campaign to eradicate such attitude towards women should start at the slums and less prosperous areas of a city, because if we really look at the trends, the men who assault women come from these areas. A middle class uprising is important to show that we not a society any more that would tolerate atrocities against women, but such uprisings should be sustainable and reach out to people of all classes so that the impact is bigger and widely spread.

To say that it is a normal thing for a woman to go through ‘unpleasant’ experiences, like a being stared at, being followed, stalked, groped or masturbated at is the feeblest thing to say, unless we don’t fight these ‘unpleasant’ experiences on a daily basis, such crimes against women will continue. I have gone through much less than other women have, but I would like to salute them to putting up a brave face and carrying on with their normal life and I would hope that they gain strength like the woman who went through a terrible trauma in Mumbai last week and fight against any form of harassment. In the end I would also appreciate the work of Mumbai Police, who acted fast and now all five men accused in the gang-rape case last week are arrested, when we have them, Mumbai is safe, much safer than Delhi.

– Photo by Ramesh Lalwani.

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Artika Ashdhir