The issue began to roam about in my mind when a friend of mine from the US who had visited India for a bit told me that she couldn’t go about anywhere in India in shorts or a knee-length skirt, or shirts without sleeves without being ogled at and sometimes, groped.
What she told me wasn’t out of the ordinary. It only rekindled the anger many of us women in India, and perhaps other countries, continue to have, against an issue that is rooted in a heady mix of sexism, patriarchy and misogyny. It only, to me, reflected a simmering undercurrent that we’ve all known and grown up with in India. She brought up a truth that has been the basis of the general environment of feeling unsafe, for many women in public spaces.
That got me thinking: is what a woman wears really something so difficult for men to deal with? Is it a woman’s duty to “not get” violated or raped or harassed or ogled at? Is it for a woman to do everything she can so that a man can “keep his urges in check”?
If these questions were answered in the affirmative, it would be like saying that every criminal urge in a criminal is a reflection of the failure of a security sector system – when it reality it is more often a proclivity inherent in an individual than an external element. It is disheartening to note that there are many people who believe that it is a woman’s way of dressing that causes sexual violence.
To say that a woman should be careful to not get raped is to feed into the sexist undercurrent that thrives in society today: that a man can do anything and his “urges” are okay to run amok, and if the girl got unwanted attention from a man, it is her fault and not his. Some might argue that films, the media and modern art forms have been significant influences in letting this happen. But in many ways, isn’t the media giving us what we have never questioned as wrong?
Let’s take a moment and look at this objectively. If a burger brand sells its products with images of a woman with a deep necked dress holding a burger, or if a singer weaves in horribly sexist and violence-promoting lyrics, or if a car brand advertises itself with an image of a bunch of women tied up in the boot of the car, aren’t we ourselves to blame? If in films, we see women being objectified, if in award ceremonies and interviews, we find women being questioned on their bodies, their clothes and their looks and nothing else, aren’t we the ones to blame?
Let’s not forget that we come from a history where women have been objectified. Whether as comfort women in the times of the World War, as courtesans and dancers in eras before that, as tools that settle disputes for warring families, or even as property ready to be sold at a “marriageable age”: there has been a complete ignorance of the female voice in intellect, reason, logic and action. The media – movies, books, literature and even sitcoms – represent women as society sees them.
For many Indian communities, the good natured simple woman who keeps house is the ideal. For many a community in India, the woman who wears anything she wants and knows what she wants is the anomaly. For many global communities, the focus has often been on the woman’s body. And the media picks up on that: so is it fair to say that the media influences us to look at women as chattels?
No matter what a woman chooses to do or not to do, there is an intellectual reasoning underlying it. Nothing in a woman’s choices or actions asks for objectification. I don’t agree at all that a woman’s dressing implies that she is asking for harassment. I don’t agree at all that a woman’s work should be reduced to nought and that any focus on her should only be driven by attention to her body.
Some time ago, I tried an experiment. I wore full sleeved shirts and tunics, about a size or two larger than my own. I walked down streets, visited hotels, cafes, malls and stores, I used public transportation, I stood in queues and I did pretty much everything one needs to, to access basic needs in a working day. It didn’t matter: what I wore didn’t matter one bit. I was still ogled at with that disgusting look that has been named “undressing with the eyes”. Men – and twice, even boys younger than I was – whizzed past, singing, whistling or catcalling in high pitched and shrill tones with their eyes shamelessly on me, a hand lingered longer than necessary while returning change, one person brushed against me when there was enough space for a car to pass. I compared notes with other friends, and what we described to each other is our everyday reality. On the contrary, you find men of all shapes, sizes and ages wearing the most microscopic shorts imaginable, with tank tops (some, to my ghastly discovery even with which rolls of fat jostling for space) – you don’t see women with their eyes riveted on them or catcalling or whistling after them.
I then extended this experiment a little further. I made it a point to engage in conversations in public spaces and social gatherings with men, on intellectual, political, social and spirited debates. I made it a point to read and equip myself with information that would help me carry a conversation I initiated. I won’t say that I had all the answers, but I certainly did hold my ground and defend my points in most conversations. Nine out of ten times, I noticed that many of them spent time looking at my feet, my hands or other parts of me except my face, when I spoke. Seven out of ten times, I noticed that they spaced out. Three out of ten times, I noticed that they told me that I was too well-read for a woman. None of these are favourable kinds of behaviour, at all.
According to data from the National Crime Records Bureau in 2014, in India, there are over 848 women who are either harassed, raped or killed in India, some after being abducted, every single day. And these are only the reported cases – heaven knows how many more would be added to the list should all cases be known of. In 2013, almost 34,000 women were raped. That’s a 35.2 percent rise from 2012, with the highest rate of increase in Delhi.
The root of any form of violence and discrimination between the genders stems from patriarchal attitudes. And until we realise that by perpetuating patriarchy, we continue to cause harm, this will continue. I choose to say we, because it isn’t only men who perpetuate patriarchy, but women, too. And all this happens because as a community, we know no better.
We’re in a day and age where education has reached so many corners in so many different forms. And yet, there is a continued support circle for gender discrimination. This is especially because our education seems to emphasise more upon the question of literacy, rather than sensitisation. We’ve got to rise above these absolutely ridiculous considerations of inferiority or superiority of the sexes. We’re all human, and there’s something “we can that they can’t do, and we can’t that they can do”. Respecting the differences and celebrating them isn’t hard at all.
This article is contributed by the writer for the 6th Women Scream Art and Poetry Festival, Kolkata Chapter.
About the Writer:
Kirthi Jayakumar is a lawyer, journalist, artist, author and a peace and conflict researcher from Chennai, India. She graduated from the School of Excellence in Law, India, with a concentration in Public International Law, and from UPeace, Costa Rica, with a Masters’ degree in Peace and Conflict Studies, and a minor concentration on Gender and Humanitarian Laws. Kirthi is the author of a work of fiction called Stories of Hope, and has written two non-fiction books, Public International Law and Essays on Gender in Peace and Conflict. She runs The Red Elephant Foundation, and The A38 Foundation, besides being a VVLeadFellow. She was the recipient of the US Presidential Services Medal from President Barack Obama in 2012, and the UN Volunteer of the Year Award for 2011, 2012 and 2013. Kirthi is an avid reader and a zen-doodler, and is awaiting the release of three books in 2015.
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Rhythm Divine Poets in association with Art Fair celebrates the strength of woman on the occasion of woman’s month in March by promoting art and poetry festival in the city of Kolkata. To raise voice against violence on woman is the mutual goal. These associations will lead to Rhythm Divine coordinating Kolkata chapter of the global event called Woman Scream International Poetry and Art Festival on 26th March by Women Poets International Movement (Mujeres Poetas Internacional MPI) from the Dominican Republic, and coordinated by Jael Uribe, MPI’s President.
The Kolkata chapter is co-sponsored by Incredible Women of India, Manya Education Pvt Limited and The Princeton Review hosted by the Berlia family in Kolkata. Print partner SIBCO Overseas Pvt Ltd and Admakers Gift sponsored by Readomania
Radio Partner Radio One 94.3FM
Online Web media partner Incredible Woman of India and Calcalling
Online media and literary partner Readomania, Learning and Creativity and Being Bookworms