You-are-not-like-a-father-to-me/ Dear world, allow me to be a slow girl
‘It’ started with a rape last year in Delhi, the shiny-grimy Capital of India. People: old, young, men, women, citizens, reacted in outrage. Then, a young intern with a Supreme Court Judge spoke up against sexual assault by a (now retired) Judge. Now, a young woman has spoken out against her editor, when he allegedly sexually violated her. The difference between the first incident and the other two is in the spheres. The latter incidents were harassment in the workplace, a space distinctly different from any other. The difference also lies in the sort of justice the women demanded initially: with the magnificent courage to speak out, they wanted retribution that lay outside of the penal system. This is an important aspect, one that needs further discussion.
The workplace is a sacred space for any young person, and this should not be different for young women. Sadly, it is. As a young woman who has faced all sorts of barbs, and non-consensual attention—I find it necessary to list the sort of ‘logic’ that comes a woman’s way. This is the sort of mind-bending triteness one hears after one has said no. It is immaterial whether the ‘no’ came as a text message, or in a soft voice, or after a drink at an office party, or in the form of a slap. It is important that the ‘no’ came. And this is what follows. These are the top five versions of bullshit.
- ‘You are like my daughter. How can you ‘misconstrue’ what I was doing?’ This particular line of ‘logic’ needs more emphasis. In India particularly, the canon of the ‘elderly/ older’ person is one head-boarded by patriarchy and power, and revved up by gaseous self-righteousness. I am personally tired of this line of attack. It nauseates me and challenges the very Indian notion of an elder person having more knowledge, wisdom and compassion. Every Indian middle class home has taught its sons and daughters to respect elders. As a Bengali, I touch the feet of older people, immaterial of how well I know them or my opinion on their particular intellect or capacity for wisdom. This is why the victims—or survivors—of assault by senior judiciary members—hit home so hard when they say, ‘that man was my grandfather’s age.’ It’s the worst sort of contortion of respect, when an older man twists this around to suit his brand of predatory lust. If you are like my father, then do you not understand the meaning of ‘no’?
- ‘You are from St Stephen’s, Oxford. How can you be such a prude?’. Again, this idea needs more discussion. I am speaking for the kind of girl I am, who to borrow an awful term, works hard and parties harder, or parties hard, and works harder, depending on how I am feeling that particular weekend. There are other girls like me, call them People Like Us, if you will. When we say no, we are at the receiving end of a sort of reverse snobbery. The most common things I have heard is, ‘but you do party, why would you say no?’. The ‘no’ could have been towards dancing with a colleague, or a sexual advance. Why is my private school education, my college and university education—all described by others as elitist, insular—being used against me? I am from a demographic that is well-schooled and well-brought up, and I take pride in this. Charges of elitism, of being liberal, of being a party girl, of being permissive, being a gin drinker, or a lounge lizard—which, it is claimed, add to the perception that I in fact, should say yes—are all peripheral. I am not a poor little rich girl. None of this distracts from the quality of my mind, which is the reason I have garnered my educational qualifications, not to mention my job. If you are in fact confusing an upbringing or educational qualifications with permissiveness, that is because you have melded my personal and professional spheres together, against my wishes. You have transmuted two different paradigms, most often violently.
- ‘The universe is telling us something/ we are meant to be soulmates/ I was waiting for you my whole life’. Various versions of this sort of poetic fallacy are bandied around. It’s a pathetic attempt at justifying the fall from grace of people who perhaps who were once respected, or at least one wanted to be neutral too. I have to re-work a Madonna song here: ‘He only sees what his eyes want to see’.
- ‘I was drunk.’ Girls have heard this far too often, and from far too men, for it to make any sense. If men claim that they drink, and go insane, and think with nothing but their genitalia, then what can one say, apart from, dear father-type-figure, please don’t ever drink again? Actually, no. that is not even the issue. The more serious issue is, blaming disgusting lust; or romantically, quaintly constructed “insanity” on alcohol.
- ‘I want you to do well’. This line bears no further explanation, other than it takes off from a combination of point 1 and further attempts to justify repugnant behaviour. It is however constructed to confuse the victim at the workplace. Is it possible that a man—let us assume he is a senior colleague, in a position of power—can actually want to violate a girl and wish her well? Is it possible he is like a chameleon? Do we need to give benefits of doubt when a senior, an elderly senior, says this? I’d like to bring out the analogy that I always use. If you are trying to touch me, or any other girl like me, you are stealing. You are stealing something from me, something I do not want to give you. If your harassment (any attention after the no has been said is harassment) is purely mental rather than physical, you are still stealing from me—my time, my mental peace, my right to exist as a woman in a peaceful and safe setting.
Towards a more nuanced sense of justice
I mentioned earlier that both women initially wanted probes, discussion and justice, that was internal, to use one sense of the word. Unfortunately, the word ‘internal’ has been horribly mal-aligned by Shoma Choudhary from Tehelka, because she makes the word internal sound comfortable, like a sunlit tea-party where a certain ‘misconduct’ was discussed to everyone’s ‘satisfaction’.
Nevertheless, this is an important concept. As a woman who has said no–infact, let me problematize this further—as a woman who is perceived within the lens of class, social standing, permissiveness and elitism—and having said no, I reserve the right to look for the form of justice that suits me best. Any woman does. If I want to resign from my job, because no amount of jailtime can sanitise a particular workplace for me, then that’s my call. If I don’t want to go the police, and I want my senior to be shamed within the workplace, or I want to depose only in front of a committee, then that is my call as well. None of this has anything to do with the affluence or social currency I am charged with having. It has perhaps to do with the fact that the injustice, the violation, the assault, call it what you will, came from a certain sphere. That sphere, a workplace, which should see me growing, help mould my confidence, my voice and my integrity, is a certain atmosphere. If I want my assaulter to be shamed within that stratosphere, that fraternity—one that is internal—then that is certainly, my right and my call. I don’t want this form of justice to be made into a comfortable idea.
I believe this form of justice—moral justice—needs more discussion and will enable more girls to come out, speak up, and take on life. This is why I respect ardently the women who spoke up against the retired SC judge, and for what they are standing for. I also further the need for them to have privacy, and for them to not be judged if their first response was not to file a police complaint.
Towards a better understanding of ‘strong’ and ‘weak’
In popular culture, in male protagonists who appear in film or books, men are depicted as quirky, funny, flawed, with hubris, multi-faceted. Usually women are depicted only in two ways: as either very strong—the Feminazi-I-will-castrate-you prototype; or as dolls, damsels in distress, relying only on male agency. Reality lies in the middle. In dealing with life, sometimes one is strong, and sometimes one feels weak.
But reality demands from women, superhuman powers. We must know how to dress, how to decode a touch, how to work hard, and how to stay away from someone if we think he is creepy or wanton. It asks of us to say no, once, twice, repeatedly and continuously, mental weariness be damned. It is asking almost too much from women who have to operate in workplaces which are sexualised or simply have mendacious men in power.
I will ask this of society: allow me to be slow. Allow me to complain, as I am capable of doing so. Allow me to come to terms with assault and ask for the form of justice that suits me best. And allow me to live life like a free woman, without the reverse snobbery society throws my way.
[Picture credit: www.rediff.com]