Wednesday, 22 October 2014

'Want to fuck?'- an American woman's bittersweet memories of Indian streets- Kat Lieder

I have a vivid memory of the first time I was aggressively sexually harassed on the street in India. I was 19 years old. I had been in India for less than a month. I was attending a Hindi-language program in Jaipur and was proficient enough in Hindi to converse with my host mother about politics and watch films without the subtitles on. It was a hot day in July, and the sweat dripped down, pooling in the small of my back and causing my kameez to stick to me. I had my dupatta draped over my head, hiding my red hair and protecting my skin from the sun. I was walking home with a friend, another white, female student. A car with four men in it pulled up beside us, coming dangerously close to running us off the road, and one of the men leaned out the passenger-side window. “Hey,” he called. It was not the first time someone had awkwardly tried to engage us in conversation. With my pale skin, I stuck out like a sore thumb in a part of Jaipur where tourists never visited. But this man wasn’t done. “I want to fuck,” he called. “Are you ready?” What kind of response was this man hoping to get? Certainly not a “yes, certainly, take me here and now,” right? Instead, because I was angry and hurt and confused, I shouted back at him. “Behen chod!” Sister-fucker. “Go away!” He pulled his head back into the car, and it took off. We continued walking, shaken, but feeling victorious for having scared them off—until the car came back around the corner and drove straight at us. The part of Jaipur we were in had no sidewalks; there was no place to get out of the way. We stood there helplessly as the car came bearing down on us, the men inside shouting obscenities. The car didn’t hit us. I’m here writing this, after all. Instead, it stopped a few feet from us and then trailed us all the way home. As we walked through the front gate of our host-mother’s house, the men sat in their car on the street, their eyes on us. I felt vulnerable, outraged, frustrated by the way the situation had escalated, by my inability to do anything. And I had a strong realization that the streets of India were always going to be like that for me, a place where I had no control, no power over how I was treated, over who looked at me and how they looked, over what they said.
This incident was a long time ago now; I turned 27 this past summer. But it stayed with me for years, making it extremely difficult for me to trust the good intentions of any man who spoke to me on the street. Which is why, when I encountered a group of young women who dared to take up the radical challenge of Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, and Shilpa Ranade’s Why Loiter, who made a point of loitering in a public space in a way that women almost never do, even in the supposedly liberal city of Mumbai, I asked to join them. I am a Ph.D. candidate now, studying theatrical responses to the gang-rape of Jyoti Singh on a bus in Delhi in December 2012. To me, the act of loitering seemed like a perfect act of protest against such atrocity. Women should be free to move through space as men do without being terrified of the potential for sexual harassment and assault, and the best way to make that argument is to do it, to take up public space and make it our own.
We were meeting near a chai stall in northwest Mumbai on a hot, late afternoon in July. I met a member of the group outside a large mall, hopped into an auto-rickshaw with her, and we were off. I am always nervous about finding my way around in new places in India; it’s that same fear of vulnerability, of helplessness, that I get from being regularly sexually harassed. So when it took us a few minutes of wandering to track down the group of women we were meeting, I began to worry. What if we couldn’t find them? Was this an ok neighborhood in which to be lost? Were we safe? I hate that I think these things, hate that I have to think them, to put my concern for my physical safety above my desire to explore new places and meet new people. We did, eventually, find the group and sit down together on a step to drink chai and eat some snacks. People stared. As we expected them to. But there was a safety in numbers, a feeling of power we shared as a group of ten-or-so women laughing and talking with one another, trying to feel and perform the same sort of nonchalance that men have in public space. We were just hanging out.
The chaiwallah seemed delighted by us, whether because of the extra attention we drew to his stall or because he knew our organizer, Neha, relatively well. He offered us free cups of chai and glanced back at us regularly to see if we needed anything. A group of men wandered up to the stand and looked confused about where to sit since we women were taking up the prime seating location on the steps. Eventually, they sat down next to us and started talking with us. A few of us darted out of the group to take pictures as the street scene unfolded. As afternoon drifted into evening, our loitering party began to break up. Nervous still about traveling home after dark by myself, I accepted an offer to share a rickshaw with another woman and we left.
It isn’t as if this one act of loitering, of protesting through placing our bodies in spaces in which others aren’t used to seeing them and demanding that we be treated as if we belong there, is going to change my approach to public space in India. I’m still nervous and on edge most of the time when I am out and about, waiting anxiously for the next incident of harassment. I’m still extremely careful about being out after dark. If alone, I record my auto-rickshaw’s plate number, call a friend, and loudly give them the information. However, these women give me a lot of optimism for the future. I hope that more women like them stand up, draw strength from one another’s sisterhood, and demonstrate that they have just as much right to public space as men do.


21 comments:

  1. thanks Kat for shareing you experience. Isn't it strange that it requires us to use up so much of our courage just to be...

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  2. Cheers to hope that innumerable zeroes keep adding to the right of ten to strengthen the thought and act!

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  3. Thank you Ankush for your encouraging words. Spread the word...

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  4. Awesome initiative. We know that all public spaces are our spaces but we need to claim all spaces as our spaces. Good work sisters.

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  5. Surprised to see mention of a rape victims name, was that allowed?

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  6. Ah I see now that it was disclosed. Great initiative, and I'm angered and saddened, though not surprised (even more saddened to not be surprised), to hear of your experience. Good luck.

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  7. Hi Tara, strange that in the entire story the name of the rape victim is the only thing that generated a comment from you. It was disclosed ages ago. :)

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  8. I loved the concept. I think it is us, the women who will have to take the initiative to force change.
    Would like to get involved in the initiative. Pl suggest.

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  9. Loitering is good, not only from safety perspective, but also in terms of increasing camaraderie between the members of a group. Only thing is, that it's tough for women to stay in groups late at night in our society, which is the prime time for crime. In India, girls are expected to be at home by 8 (max.). Still, it's a nice initiative, esp. to put the wagging tongues to rest in the day time.

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    1. Hi Sumit, thank you for your encouragement. our reason for loitering past midnight is exactly to get rid of the fears that you have mentioned. There should be no fear for women and men to loiter in their cities no matter what time of the day or night it is. And this can be achieved only when night loitering by any gender is seen as normal. To achieve this normalcy we have been loitering in the night and hopefully others will join us.

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  10. This reminds me.. me n a group of female strangers went on a trip through a travel club.. just to experience what u did here.. n as u said strength is in numbers..I urge n encourage more of 'us' to join us
    kudos n cheers to u guys

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    1. Sounds very interesting. Why dont you write your experiences of this travel journey and mail it to us at whyloitermumbai@gmail.com. And we shall publish it on our blog.

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    2. Thanks for the offer. Would love to :)
      Will definitely get in touch with u about it :)

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  11. Great n encouraging initiative

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    1. Thank you Shilpa. If you are in Bombay you can join our group. Mail me your number on whyloitermumbai@gmail.com and I will add you to the whatsapp group where we keep updating people about our next session.

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  12. India is a country of rapists, barbaric youth, illiterate and messed up youth.. who know nothing about females. Females are treated like animals. I am Indian myself, but I am a gentleman and educated. I advise no foreign female to visit India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Middle East, Iran, Iraq. These places are HELL for women.

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  13. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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