Some weeks ago, I took a train from Lower Parel station at about 9 in the night. Platform 1 at Lower Parel has an awkwardly formed entry point, at the juncture of track and approach road. That night at this point, all human entry had stopped, briefly, and the crowd had swollen to a circle around a knot of quarrellers. I edged around the circle and walked up the platform, towards the ladies’ compartment. At this point I started to hear a woman shouting. Not screaming or yelling or protesting: this was a voice raised in an articulate harangue.
I turned and looked out for where it was coming from. I could see the circle I had left behind disengaging, streaming in its natural direction upwards. The voice was coming from a thin woman of middling height, hair neatly clipped, sari neatly pleated and pinned back, handbag and lunch bag neatly clasped in the usual way: flattened, close to the body, guarded with elbows and shoulders. She was talking as she walked up the platform, to everyone within listening distance.
As I listened to her I began to understand what she was saying. I’m still not sure if she was at the centre of the quarrellers’ knot around which the circle had formed, or if she had been an onlooker. A man had tried to grab her as she stood or walked there. Like so many women do — more than reporting on gender crime leads us to believe — she turned around and collared the fucker, ready to make a scene. She did begin to make a scene. She was ready to take him to a cop and turn him over.
Then a circle of men surrounded her. They didn’t do what you’re thinking. They didn’t touch or fondle or curse her. But they did harrass her in their turn. They tried, in the tranquil wisdom of the crowd, to get her to quiet down. They told her to let it go. They told her it was late and there was no point holding up the foot traffic. They told her he had learned his lesson. They pleaded for peace. They allowed him to slip off.
Sexual harrassment may be brute force, but patriarchy’s self-defences are complex and endlessly adaptable.
My fellow commuter, the woman with whom I would take the next northbound train, was angry and upset. She didn’t cry or shake or pipe down or act as though she were embarrassed. She put on a heroic show of bravado. She told those men exactly what she thought of them. She said she was ashamed to be among them. She said they would know what it was like if it ever happened to their mother or sister. (Why would a mother or sister come home to a man like the men in that crowd and confess that they had been harrassed?) “Sab hero banne chalein hain,” she said to them. “Sunne ka hain? Suno na. Door mat khade raho, hero-log. Achcha story bol rahi hoon main.”
A bunch of women gathered around her by this time. The men seemed unable to understand how to act. Were they to stay and listen to her chastise them? Were they to walk away towards the general compartments? Did they want to listen to the story of how she had been groped? Did they want to hear what she really thought of these hero-log? Was the prurient drama of an angry, sexually abused woman worth edging close to her, now in the middle of another small circle of glowering women travellers, some of whom were beginning to add their voices (“Sab aise hote hain, haraam-khor”; “Dekh kya raha hain? Kuch bolne ko nahin hain?”) to hers?
Silent, sheepish, they sloped off. The train came in and they got on and got away. In that crowd, I’m fairly certain, was her original abuser too.
I haven’t stopped thinking about the mouthy, furious sari-lady in the days since the Guwahati molestation (what an inadequate word) crime and the reactions to it on the Internet, especially the ones that exhort us, with grace and courage, to fight it. We know that. We know that it is especially useful to hear that we should “fight it” if we are privileged upper-class women, because we are taught not just to keep quiet about sexual violence in “our” spaces — our homes, in-laws’ homes, friends’ homes, our Twitters and Facebooks — but we are ill-equipped to defend both ourselves and others in public. Our tongues freeze up. Our tear ducts go into overdrive. Our elbows and knees stop working. We lose not just our Malayalam and Marathi but also our Hindi and Urdu, and first and last our English. Our vocabulary of abuse, already so heavily weighted in favour of sexual innuendo involving our harrasser’s female relatives, falls short of the occasion. We are embarrassed. We must practise overcoming embarrassment.
Then, possibly, some men, in some crowd, at some time, will stop abusing us and melt away. Okay? Okay.
I got into the same compartment as the haranguer that night, and many others who had stood around her. The mood was not one of triumph. We know we are in the minority. That night, not one woman in that small sea of tired, overworked faces told the lady to quiet down and let it go. That won’t always be the case. But our unanimity didn’t make a difference in the end. My lady didn’t get an apology from a single one of those men, and much good may it have done her had they done so. She didn’t board the train feeling like she had won a fight. Perhaps every one of the men who heard her tirade rode the train that night left with a new feeling: instead of the satisfaction of having defused a situation, they may have left feeling implicated and guilty and out of control for the first time in their lives. To whose advantage, I’m not sure.
What does it mean, to “fight back”? We don’t talk much — not like this — about structural upheaval in the context of sexual violence. What are we going to do — take up arms and bring on the revolution? Feminists reject violence, don’t they? We are progressing from a culture of dignified silence to one of articulate protest, aren’t we? Isn’t our whole project a process-oriented one of making things better? We won’t go to war because war is the cornerstone of patriarchy. This won’t go all the way to the wire because this ordering of gender and power is fundamental to who we are, who we love, our world.
Instead, we talk incrementally, about “fighting back.” This is bad in the most basic sense. The social expectation of “fighting back” is an evolved form of victim-blaming. I know this even as I place my faith in collective action, in visibility and storytelling and shaming and contributing to a broader culture of responsiveness. And even saying this makes me feel despair.
We may avoid or truncate sexual violence by assuming the aspect of warriors. But what are our chances of dismantling rape culture like this? Fair? Middling? Unrealistic? We know whose problem this really is. And for all the talk of raising male children well, of teaching men not to rape, of rewarding cisgendered hetero men for holding themselves back from the daily criminality of patriarchal behaviour, which we do every day with joy and relief, feminist rationalism can only go so far. If this is the way to stop hurting women, the language of self-improvement must be taken up by others. Embarrassment is not only ours to overcome. The paternalistic kindness of onlookers, so ready to ignore things in the hope they will die down, so ready to smooth things over so that everyone can go home, so ready to accept fault but so loath to make amends, creates more victims, more survivors and more attackers.
A horrible supposition: people vulnerable to sexual violence can’t actually end it by “fighting back.” If “fighting back” is what we have to do, then men, even the kindest, most decent beneficiaries of rape culture, will have to wade in, be implicated, admit guilt, give up control. And it will not feel like a victory.
The bolded. I don’t even know what does it mean to be a “feminist against rape culture” anymore. Pretty torn when thinking of collective action-oriented “responses to rape culture” vs individual actions in situations like these. ‘Fighting back’ assumes one has the ability to even respond and/or process what just occurred. In instances of molestation like the one above, most times there is very little time, and if you even manage to call out your attacker, as you rightly said, the next task to handle is the crowd’s judgment of how to adequately express your anger, wrath, disgust and whatnot. There’s a judgment scale out there somewhere, that gauges how much of each emotion is “enough”, and when you cross that, suddenly you’re out of the equivocal-victim-in-this-situation spot.
At the center, we work with women in abusive marriages; steel hearts and tongues to say, “Stay safe” instead of “walk away”. Everyone cannot “fight back” or “walk away” — I didn’t “fight back” for seven years, I ran. Still do every time I can manage — and yet. “Not fighting back” isn’t and (oh god, I hope) NEVER makes it to any mainstream image of feminism/collective organising against rape culture. On bleak days, I hope the mainstream hype of “angry, man-hating feminist” endures — despite its obvious problems — there has to be *something* that can hold people accountable, or fuck, just let people and systems know that there is *something* in place to catch the mess.
In praxis? Sometimes we say “Kill that behenchod if he hits your daughter again” if that is what she needs to hear, knowing she (or her daughter) will most likely not do anything. Sometimes we fantasise with the women about killing the abusers brutally, in intricate detail while re-bandaging their wounds from the latest ambush. We laugh, thinking of the absurdity of it all. The idea that “fighting back” is a possibility is what keeps people through; it keeps us wanting to believe that there is a better tomorrow. So we keep pushing the “fight back” rhetoric, while applying “safety first, bravado later”. Not perfect — far from — but it helps us survive.