Why must a woman be seen as someone’s mother or sister to deserve respect and safety on a street in India—or anywhere?
When I was 13 years old, a man in a busy marketplace grabbed me, fondled my breast, and walked away. I have never seen quite so thunderous a look on my mother’s face as I ran to her, crying. “He did what to you? Which man?” She tore down the street after him, with the fury of God’s own thunder.
Because we were regulars in the market, the local shopkeepers came quickly to our aid. They caught the man, tied him up, brought him back to the scene of the crime, and formed a circle around him. “What did you do to my daughter?” asked the biggest shopkeeper menacingly. “Nothing,” said the man sullenly. Smack! The shopkeeper slapped him hard across the face. “Would she be crying like this if nothing had happened?” he shouted. “Don’t you have any sisters? A mother?” shouted another shopkeeper, slapping this man again. Then the other men in the circle joined in and started beating the man, as if they had never in their lives treated a woman with anything less than respect. One woman led me away as my mother tried to stop the crowd from lynching the man who had grabbed her daughter.
I grew up in a small town in northern India, and I cannot even begin to count how many more such incidents happened to me and to my friends over the years. It became part of our lives. We refer to the experience of walking down a street as a form of “eye-rape.” You can feel the lascivious stares and see how men are mentally undressing you as you walk by them. And it doesn’t stop at the stares. They follow up with disgusting comments about your body or simply moan softly as you pass. If it’s a crowded enough street, they brush by you, their hands lightly grazing your body.
Sometimes I’ve responded with a swift but subtle kick as the man walks by. Or suddenly I swing my arm out, hitting the man with my purse. It usually makes no difference, other than the mild satisfaction I get from not being a passive recipient of such harassment. Most of the time I have managed nothing more than a glare, partly because it happens so quickly and so often, and partly because I’ve often been afraid of lashing back.
Instead I developed ways to guard myself. I go out in groups, or at least with my brother, my parents, or a trusted male. When I do walk by myself, I stare straight ahead with a stony expression on my face, trying to ward off any advances. Most often I carry a large bag that I hold across my body.
None of these tactics work, of course, but they have become part of my identity.
When I first moved to the United States for college, I was constantly on guard, but I quickly noticed how no one paid any attention whatsoever to me. I moved about easily, with no stares, comments, rude gestures, or inappropriate advances. It was truly wonderful. But the scars have remained: For the first two years of college many people referred to me as the “ice queen” because of the way I walked—eyes straight ahead, with a frigid expression.
I was so unused to the idea that men weren’t going to make some unseemly overtures that it didn’t occur to me to smile at someone when I walked by them. Over time I changed, becoming more friendly to the people I passed (smiling and saying hello, even!), but seven years have passed since I left India, and I still carry my bag on one shoulder and hold it with the opposite arm, so that I protect the front of my body.
Years later and many thousands of miles removed, I can still remember the outrage and shock I felt during that incident in my childhood, and the grin on the man’s face as he grabbed me, and the casual authority with which numerous other men did the same in years following. It was as if my body was ripe for their picking.
But something else has stayed with me too—the way the men in that crowd repeatedly characterized me as their sister and their daughter. Even to my 13-year-old self, this characterization had seemed off somehow, because it didn’t seem based on familial ideas. And even if it was, what if they didn’t see me as their sister or daughter, or if the perpetrator had answered that no, he did not in fact have any sisters or mother? Would his behavior somehow have been permissible?
Why did I have to be someone’s sister or daughter or wife for this to count as repugnant behavior? Was simply being a person not enough of a reason to treat this act as abhorrent?
I think one answer to these questions lies in the way the female gender is often viewed in India: as property of the male, and therefore subservient. But because of women’s sexuality, women are also the wild card—they can bring both shame and honor on a family. For a man to protect the honor of his family, he must closely guard his women’s sexuality. If a woman’s honor is forcibly taken from her or her sexuality is threatened in any way, the men who identify her as kin have an unspoken, unwritten rule that they can demand punishment for the offender.
This is what drove the circle of men to form that evening in the marketplace, and the same logic governs the question they all asked: “How dare you touch one of our own?” But claiming sexual harassment often backfires on the victim, and she is viewed as having somehow encouraged it, so it is with relative infrequency that men are caught. This provides encouragement for men to push the boundaries on what is permissible, or at least what they can get away with.
On December 16, 2012, Jyoti Singh Pandey was traveling with a male friend on a bus in New Delhi, India, when the two were attacked. Pandey’s friend was beaten, while Pandey was brutally and repeatedly gang-raped. She died in the hospital two weeks later, from grievous injuries sustained during the rape. Her rape and death made headlines all over the world and galvanized the nation of India to protest crimes against women and to demand legal repercussions for the accused. On September 10, 2013, three of the four rapists were sentenced to death. The fourth was a minor and was sentenced to three years of detention in a juvenile delinquent center.
In the wake of the brutal attack on Pandey, every boundary was crossed. This young woman did everything right: She traveled with a trusted male acquaintance, she was from a “good” family, and she was dressed appropriately. And yet she and her friend were treated more savagely than we can even begin to imagine. The public was outraged, and “justice” was swift. The men who attacked and raped her repeatedly were sentenced to death, and the nation let out a collective
sigh of relief.
Did anything really change in India after Jyoti Pandey’s death? I do not think so. In the months since her death, countless women have been harassed, sexually assaulted, and raped. But Pandey represented someone we could all relate to—my mother saw her as someone she could have hired to work in her organization, the elite saw her as someone as well educated as their children, and many of us just noticed that she was about the same age as we are.
One reason why not much has changed is because of the focus on the woman. It’s actually not in the characterization of the victim that change is required. The young woman being harassed, raped, or assaulted is always someone you can relate to. She’s always able to be someone’s mother, sister, or wife.
What needs to change is our characterization of the men who perpetrated this heinous crime, because they are not some aberrant, demonic version of humans. They emerge from the same society that you and I do, even as we keep forgetting. Instead, over and over, we try to reform the victim, and somehow make her less of a target: Travel only in a group. Wear modest clothing. Make sure a brother or male relative or friend walks with you. Jyoti Pandey and I, and nearly every woman I know, have already tried that. But it will never be the solution, because we are not the problem. Jyoti Pandey’s senseless death has proved that.
The problem is the way culture perceives women. It is that when a man gets away with staring at or catcalling a woman—and society doesn’t say, “Enough!”—there is no stopping him from groping her the next time. The problem is that we ask the woman what she was wearing, and we don’t tell the man it’s simply wrong to grab her.
In the United States, massive strides have been made by focusing on the perpetrator rather than the victim. The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (rainn.org), citing statistics from the Department of Justice, reports that sexual assault has decreased by about 50 percent since 1993, but also that a sexual assault still occurs every two minutes. The change that is still required here does not just involve telling people about right versus wrong. Like in India, it involves an overhaul of how we portray women and men in society.
A few weeks ago, I was walking home on a relatively crowded street in Chicago. I happened to be wearing a T-shirt that said “Halftime” on it (a reference to a college retreat at the halfway point of one’s college career). A group of young men were standing on the sidewalk, and none of them budged when I tried to pass, with the result that I sort of angled my way through them. As I did so, they made a few comments in voices designed to carry. One in particular, shocked me: “I’ll tell you what I could do with that ***** in halftime.”
For a moment, I felt like I was back in India. I didn’t expect such harassment here and had no rebuttal planned—kicking one of these men was out of the question—so I quickly walked on, appalled and angry. I have no doubt, however, that these very men would jump to defend a woman whom they knew or were related to. I was an outsider in this neighborhood. They knew that and took advantage of it. So it comes back to it being permissible to harass a woman if she is somehow unconnected to the men involved.
The degree and frequency of assault—verbal and physical—may be different in India and the United States, but the resulting effect of distrust, anger, and fear is similar. And in both places, change cannot happen by addressing only the worst instance of the crime or by focusing only on the victim. Change must take place sooner, and at the smallest attestation. It is also not enough to simply lament these crimes and say we would never do such a thing, because we are held accountable not only as individuals, but as a community as well. If we allow these smaller infractions to take place, the bigger ones become more likely. It is always a matter of degree.
The prophet Amos speaks of the collective malfeasance of a community that allows pregnant women to be raped and their bodies ripped open, killing the unborn babies inside. In a scathing rebuke in Amos 1:13, he condemns the entire community. In John 7:53-8:11, especially John 8:7, Jesus tells a group of people getting ready to stone a woman for adultery that the only one who has the right to pick up a stone is a person who hasn’t sinned.
What both Jesus and Amos are pointing to is the danger of viewing one’s self as somehow separate from the wrongs that are perpetrated around us. What does Jesus mean by sin there? Is it any kind of sin, or does Jesus have something particular in mind? I’m not sure, but I like to imagine that Jesus knew that many of the men had sinned against women, and that they couldn’t condemn someone for sexual wrongdoings if they too were guilty of anything remotely similar.
How many of the men who gathered to protect me that evening many years ago had commented on some other woman’s body as she walked by? How many of them would forget about their sisters and mothers and wives as they gestured obscenely at a woman? How many of them might have grazed their hand over her lightly if they were in a crowded place? How many of them would do that to me today if they didn’t recognize me as a young girl they helped once? It’s all a matter of degree.
This article appeared in the January 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 1, pages 30-32).