Stories of sexual assaults on women in crowded places happen to every girl every day in India.
This was at a traffic signal near Sion railway station in Mumbai a few years ago. I was on my way home in an autorickshaw, exhausted after a long work day, and happened to let my guard down. That is, I let my peripheral vision take a break I was sitting on the backseat of an autorickshaw, which was standing still and waiting for the light to turn green.
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There were people walking past on the divider, as always jaywalking and jumping across a busy street. I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my chest. Someone had reached out and squeezed my chest. I had tears in my eyes, augmented by the pain, humiliation and the helplessness.
I got out and looked around. There were people moving — too many people. I tried to fight back tears and look for the culprit. But I couldn’t figure who it was. The traffic light turned green. My rickshaw was holding up the traffic, the rickshawallah said, ‘Madam, chalo’ and I returned to my seat. I was crying. The autowallah didn’t ask me if I was okay, or why I jumped out of the rickshaw suddenly. But he did give a sly smile when I paid the fare. He knew. He saw. But he did nothing.
An Everyday Story
Like lab mice in an experiment, running in a maze of glass and concrete, the Delhi metro at peak hours is a mad rush. You can see the shiny, cool interiors of Connaught Place swarming with people. There are so many hands, legs and a sea of humanity against you in no time.
I was running late and didn’t have time to weave my way to the end of the platform to the ‘women only’ section. I jumped inside the train, hoping the two empty seats for ‘ladies and senior citizens’ will be vacant. I hoped my body would not be in full access to the crush of black pants, and formal shirts that the end of the workday brings. I didn’t get the seat.
I had to stand, staring into space, or trying to stare somewhere far away, because eye contact made with some creep could give him the wrong idea. I heard my stop being announced, and as I reached to the door, I felt someone feel me up. A firm hand. Was it that old uncle who I had genially nodded at? Was it the boy with the headphones on? Who was it? Why didn't someone stop him?
These stories go on. The incidents I mentioned are nothing new. They are not exclusive to me. They happen to every girl. To every wife, woman and child. Consent is an alien word in an overcrowded space. There is no consent indoors. There is no consent or safety from this kind of assault in a public space either. Even while we read about the #Metoo movement on our phones while we commute, we are still keeping our peripheral vision on high alert to prevent an assault. The wounds from decades ago are reopened when we are again touched without our consent.
Predators Love Crowds
We learn to walk with a hunch, to keep ourselves out of harm's way, of probing elbows and fingers. We learn to walk in fear of spaces or people because when you are a woman, in a train or a bus, a crowded space is free for all zone for assault. You can shout and scream.
You can slap a man if you catch him red-handed, and there will be support for you. But the next day you are up against a fresh set of faces. These are men who leer, who stare, who look at your body instead of talking to your face. This happens in schools, colleges, offices, weddings, trains, buses, trams … everywhere. How do we stop this?
There needs to be new signage in public spaces. Apart from ‘No Smoking’ ‘No Spitting’ ‘No Leering’, we need to include — ‘No Touching or Staring At Women’. We don’t need to levy a fine for the last signage. Just a quick march to the police action. And we should photograph these assaulters — the fathers, husbands, brothers who claim to protect their girl child, but behave like animals themselves — and paste their photos in the same public spaces. That will teach the “casual” everyday sexual assaulters what it feels like to be humiliated in public. As they do the same to unsuspecting women, every day.
First Published: IST