It didn't take very long - that passage from innocence to the frightening experience of having her womanhood whispered into her ears in lewd abuses her 7 year-old mind failed to grasp, staining her body, flowing through her blood like a poison that she hasn't discarded, never will - that nothing could discard, not education, not age, not sympathy. There was only a disconsolate silence - a cold fear that speaking out would be terrible somehow. An inability to comprehend what was being done to her. An impossible numbness.
This is not my story.
Walking with her mother, down crowded New Market on what was meant to be a happy shopping spree, she confronted the first knowledge of what her body meant to other men - what it was to mean to her. She was not a person. Just a vagina, to be fingered behind her mother's back by a man in a tattered lungi, offering to carry the shopping for them on his jhuri. "Ten rupees only, Ma ji." And your 7-year old daughter to fondle for free. She pressed against her mother, turned her back to him. Then she was only a butt, for a crotch to be grazed against. For what was an eternity - a tangle of hands touching her, abusing her every being, using a language she did not understand. And her mother was shopping, oblivious. There was only respite in going inside a shop, away from that horrible man who was doing things to her and looking at her in ways that she had never been shocked into experiencing before.
She told her mother only when the man had gone away. She was scared he might kidnap them if she told him to back off. She was seven. Her mother kept quiet. Lesson One learnt - she was a vagina. and a butt. And the rest of her, was a disconsolate silence.
This is not my story.
The girl grew up. Her mother told her not to look strange men on the street in the eye. Told her to walk away without a word when there wasn't a crowd. To slap and scream and draw attention when there was one. Lesson Two learnt - this had just begun. And so she walked past rowdy boys singing to her and calling her "sexy". Sometimes she would glare, but then she stopped. The glares meant invitation - she did not want to be followed by them because she had cast them an angry glance. "Koto size?". "Shubi naki?" And again, that language she was now beginning to comprehend. She kept quiet. She did not want to provoke them. The help was talking about a girl who spoke out against a group of drunk men driving past her in a car, hurling profanities. They found her naked body the next morning, lying on the kerb- the hospital said "brought dead". She was the same age as this girl. So there was silence.
Silence. That time on the Metro when she was being a pair of breasts. Silence. That time on the bus when the nice man asked her to sit in the "men's seat" because the ladies' reserved seats were all taken. Or because he wanted to gaze at her body - undress her with his eyes. Show her what it was like to be a woman.
The man in the auto who smiled at her while elbowing her breasts. That man who said women were all born to 'create scenes' and 'falsely accuse gentlemen', the one time she had mustered up the courage to speak out. Those men who looked at her like she was a whore for speaking out against what was supposed to be done to her - she was a woman, and she was wearing pants and make-up. She got off - it hurt her pride to have such bastards see her tears. Lesson Three- there was safety in that unbearable silence. A silence that went against all her education - an education that, she'd been told, would give her a voice, would give her the power to be independent. But no, she was a vagina, a butt and a pair of breasts in the midst of penises and eyes that wanted to have a piece of her. Oh, but she was a whore.
This is not my story.
She couldn't do much that late evening at the Lake Road bus stop, when that orange-haired man biked past her countless times, only to finally stop and ask her if she wanted to "come". There was no traffic policeman. Nobody else waiting at the bus stop. The street was momentarily empty, except for some taxis on the opposite side of the road. No cars either, they were all stuck at the lights in Deshopriyo Park. She knew if she walked away he would follow her. She knew if she told him to go away he probably would persist. She also knew there wasn't much point in screaming - he was on a bike, and this was the main road. Cars were soon to come by - he couldn't forcibly take her or rape her on a bike. She was safe, then. She told him as calmly as she could,"No". That was all she could say, because at the back of her mind was the thought of the empty street. At the back of her mind, all the time, from the moment she steps out of the house - is the anxiety that, every single day, she can be raped. She reads the statistics in the papers. 1 woman raped every 10 minutes in the world. Or was it 10 seconds. So, everyday, on every empty street, there is that overbearing fear of rape. Assigning categories to the violation - it wasn't just bad enough, it could be worse.
Like that time when, she was walking through her own neighbourhood - the one place she thought would be safe. It was past 10:30 at night - unforgivable for a woman to be out so late at night, and so to make her pay for her sin, two boys followed her, discussing exactly how they would strip her, exactly how they would fuck her. How many times. She knew that language now. That time she ran. She was lucky, home was close by. But they had marked her out. They know where she lives. And even months later, every time she comes back home, she thanks God for having spared her from those men.
A confounding sense of guilt for being who she is crops up every now and then. This indignity, this continuing humiliation, was it really her fault, then? Education and exposure teaches her to push aside this guilt. She is a phenomenal woman - she should be proud for who she is. And men, of course they're not all like this. That is the only hope.
But still, she keeps quiet, because that gaze, those filthy hands, that ugly lump below the belt, and the language only too familiar by now, together have an immense power to torment.
This is not just my story. It is the story of every woman I have known. Many have dealt with theirs in far better ways than I have. Some have emerged empowered because they acted, they spoke out, they made a point. I salute them. And I heave a helpless sigh for that young girl who was raped and left to die on the kerb. I admire the woman who can slap the eve-teaser on the road. But it doesn't stop me from thinking twice before I decide whether I should wear a sleeveless kurta in an "unsafe zone". It doesn't prevent me from squirming when I am looked at in unflattering ways. It doesn't stop me from assuming that every other man on the street might harass me and so I should stay alert at all times. It doesn't stop me from feeling a little nervous when a man sits next to me at the movie theatre. Being alert at all times. Suspicious at all times. This is not how it should be, because it compromises those men I know who would never harass a woman. The few good men?
This is not how it should be because we were not born to be plagued by an unspeakable fear that haunts us the moment we step out of our homes.
This is my story, but I wish it wasn't. Like so many of us, doomed to a tedious state of perpetual watchfulness.
p.s.: - Thank you, Dee, for moving me enough to have me write this.
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