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Sexual assault, immoral society, and the importance of self-defence

(The mass-molestation incident in Bangalore has once again sparked the conscience of men and women across India. While on some levels the argument has been about victim-shaming and male-bashing, the need of the hour is to rise up above such petty issues. This article was originally written by Sandhya Ramesh on her blog, in response to this incident in 2012, in which she chronicles her experiences with sexual predators, and society as a whole. Most importantly, she describes how women can get over the beasts in our towns and cities. The article at no point blames women for the atrocities on them, but makes the point that till the society and law and order systems do not improve, women will have to learn how to defend themselves.)

The first time I was touched, I was all of six years old. My then-best friend used to go back home in an auto rickshaw, and I, in a van. We used to play outside school while we waited with the other kids to go home.

One day, my friend told me that her auto driver wants to see me. I, thinking it was some sort of an adventure, accompanied her. He sat in the auto and made us sit on either side of him. Then, he kissed us – no jammed his tongue down our throats – in turn and asked us to go away. I was confused. I knew something felt wrong, but I couldn’t understand it.

I knew men liked touching women, I had seen it on TV. But those women had breasts and thankfully I still didn’t. My mouth stank of cigarettes. My friend offered me water from her water bottle and taught me how to clean my mouth the way she did every time he had his fun with her. I went home and told my mom about what had happened. From the very next day, my friend was coming home in the same van as me. I don’t really know what happened to that man.

The second time, I had breasts. And my uncle’s car driver knew it, because that’s what he was touching. I was wearing a full salwar kameez, complete with dupatta. It didn’t take him super human effort to brush aside the dupatta. This time, I knew exactly why it was wrong, he was fired within the next hour.

Then, when I used to travel an hour by train to college everyday, I’ve had men in the crowded station grab my ass, pull my arms, try to trip me by putting out their leg, fall on top of me with their lips somehow accidentally ending up on my mouth; men who bump into me in the general compartment of the train with such force that I end up falling into the lap of other men who were sitting, and once, a very muscular boy who was five years younger to me, grabbing me by the waist and hoisting me up in the air. I’m sure my tiny pummeling fists had no effect on him, but the bus conductor’s punch on his nose did.

My mom used to tell me to carry a safety pin in my hand to scratch any man that tried to touch me, because a girl always knows when she is being touched without her consent – even if it is on her arm.

I have countless number of female friends who have gone through very similar experiences. I once had a neighbor whose daughter, back when they lived in Delhi, was “kidnapped” by two construction workers and taken to their huts two blocks away so that a third could profess his love for her. That, at the end of the day, was harmless and did no damage. But I know of a girl who was raped repeatedly by her father’s boss’s son from the time she was ten. I’m not giving away prizes for guessing which city that was in. This girl came from a very conservative family and I do not believe she owns a pair of jeans to this day. I also know of one other girl who was so brutally raped 10 years ago while she was walking back home at 5.30 pm from her coaching classes by a bunch of drunk college men, she didn’t speak for a month and has been so scarred, that to this day, has never been in a relationship and intends to remain unmarried and adopt a daughter.

Majority of women, all over the country, have been victims of groping and fondling at one point or the other. I realize ‘majority’ is a strong word. But when I confided my stories to female friends for the first time, I got to hear more stories, and many that were more horrifying than mine. The point I want to make here is, men who rape don’t look at clothes or age or what time of the day it is. They don’t care much for sobriety either – theirs or the woman’s.

Today, I can deliver a fully powerful round house kick to the toughest of my friends, but not all women are capable of even building up the psychological strength to resist. Do you know why? It’s because women aren’t taught how to attack men who attempt to rape them; we are taught how to avoid getting raped by covering ourselves up.

The first time I was groped, I was wearing a pinafore with socks pulled up to my knees and I stood barely taller than the guy’s hips. The second time, the only part of me that wasn’t covered was my face – I had full sleeves on. The multiple other times men have hooted, whistled, grabbed and pulled what they could hold, I’ve worn a salwar, a saree, and mostly jeans. I’ve constantly been teased for being too fair by Indian standards, so I’ve always been conscious of putting my legs on display, so I almost never wore skirts or capri pants or shorts.

Indian society today has such confused idealisms and opinions about sex that it is becoming increasingly difficult for teenagers and uneducated citizens to understand just what and how much is acceptable. On the one hand, we outrage against rape, and on the other hand, we glorify different kinds of sexual acts in our music videos, words and imagery that leads young men to believe women enjoy being treated nastily. This is where the educated adults of the society step in and teach their children and spread awareness about what is right and wrong. Women dressing how they want drinking alcohol and dancing with men they like of their own volition is not something to be judged, but men harassing women who have no interest in them by singing and dancing and chasing them against their will is. There’s no two ways about it — it is blind and wrong to encourage men chasing after unwilling women in movies, it is foolish to tell women to cover up to be safe, and it is highly irresponsible to not teach daughters how to be safe and sons how women are not safe.

There are two issues that need to be addressed here. Firstly, rape is WRONG. As someone who understands the distinction between consensual sex and rape, it is our responsibility to stop rape if it occurs. It is also our duty to push for the government to understand that what women wear and which part of the sky the sun is at are not factors that govern a rapist’s mind. It is also important for individual women to accept that very fact, which brings me to my next point, what women should be taught if you really want to teach them to prevent getting themselves raped.

Women need to learn how to defend themselves, irrespective of what they are wearing. It is our responsibility, man or woman, to encourage women around us to learn some self defense and carry a pepper spray. Look for self-defense classes in your area. You can get a mace or pepper spray at Amazon or eBay.

I never carried that safety pin because I was afraid I might get in trouble for hurting someone. But I’m not seventeen anymore and I am not afraid. Public brawls in India are perfectly legal, if you go by what you see around you, and hence a woman hitting out at a man in self defense is NOT wrong. Techniques like the ones in this short video are very powerful and easy to learn:

There are isolated cases where the man comes back with more thickheaded trolls, but that is (as far as I know, please feel free to tell me if I am wrong) an exception, and it always gives you time to be better prepared.

I am writing solely for the women in cities who have the capability to read this off their computers or phone screens; and not for women in villages who run the risk of becoming an acid-attack victim if they defend themselves. I have not lived in a small village, and what I write does not apply to girls who’ve been working as laborers since they were fourteen, or women who are stalked by spurned lovers and ex boyfriends.

Educated Indian women are constantly asked to build themselves up to be dainty princesses who will one day be whisked away by their NRI prince. If women’s equality applies to working rights, it equally applies to the capability to protect oneself from getting raped, no matter how they are dressed. Women in cities have many self defense classes and products at their disposal, they just need to be searched for and bestowed attention upon.

And Delhi and Gurgaon are definitely cities – cities where men are still not afraid of raping. If rape was prevalent in cities only after 8 pm and only women who wore short skirts, went to bars and drank alcohol were victims, I’m sure women would have learned years ago and there would be virtually no rapes today.

Women need to help prepare themselves and men who rape need to be stopped. The point is not open for debate.

Preventing women from going out would be counterproductive, if one goes by the police’s argument. If rapes occur after 8 and you ask women to try not to be outside after 8, the few women who still are outside are at a higher risk of getting raped. The reasoning, while in good intention, defies all logic. The police could increase their own employment rate by increasing women’s security after 8 pm.

And to the Delhi and Gurgaon police who still refuse to see reason, I ask, “Aap ki maa behen nahi hai kya?”

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