We ignore the problem till it stares us in the face
|January 4, 2013||Posted by Shehla Rashid under Kashmir, Politics, Shehla Rashid in Print, Women|
A version of this article appeared in a local daily, Rising Kashmir
When I was in the seventh grade, I used to go a neighbouring colony (or “lane” as we call it) to attend tuition classes. I could hardly, if ever, find teachers who impressed me. This time I did. On my way I would often get pestered by a certain guy. Usually, it never got too bad. But a part of the route that I had to take was kind of isolated. I ignored him for a long time but he didn’t stop and I reported the problem to my mom who, in turn, told my dad. So, dad & I laid a trap for him and he was caught. He was beaten up in his very lane by my father. But in the aftermath of this incident, I had to stop attending tuition classes for several months for fear of reprisal.
Srinagar is a very small place and people dress very modestly. If there’s one word to define Kashmiri culture, it would be either modesty or simplicity. And, so, there were no “mini-skirts” involved in this incident. I would also cover my head with a triangularly folded, square “headscarf” back in 2006. I dressed quite modesty (by any standard) during that one year. But the groping, frotteurism, “comments” and bullying was no different than ever before or ever after. In fact it was during this time that I turned particularly violent in reaction to an incident of groping, my speech turned incoherent while shouting at him. I remember this incident very clearly because I actually caught hold of the guy by his “pheran” (long warm robe) and slapped him in the middle of Lal Chowk (commercial hub of the city). I remember this incident very clearly because of two things- the response was absolutely spontaneous and I lost it, I completely lost all my grace and sanity and attacked him. Second, I remember what I was wearing very clearly- a long, loose, very light-colored “kameez salwar”, a thick long sweater that nearly touched my knees and a very long duppata covering every inch of my hair. (What I’m basically saying here is that that was my most boring look EVER). After that, I always had a ready response strategy and never lost my grace. I learnt that no one is ever going to stand up for me, so I did it myself when someone would harass me on a bus, on the street, even though I was taught to “IGNORE”.
While I was in college, about two years back, I complained about severe harassment by a group of seniors who had made it difficult for me to even walk freely inside my campus (almost all of them Kashmiri; the half-Kashmiri among them was a neutral spectator). At the same time, many (Kashmiri) boys in my college would not even look at girls, let alone harass one. I was at the receiving end of a lot of unsolicited attention despite maintaining a low profile. The percentage of girls in my batch was only 10, so it was hard not to get “noticed”. I would be dishonest if I said that I did not secretly enjoy some of the attention that I would get, but I either resented it firmly and visibly, or ignored it as if it never happened. So, most of the times, such “attention” would die a natural death after facing rejection for a while, which is okay, and I never had to react to the same.
In one particular case, however, it went beyond all limits of decency. These senior guys would always roam around in a group and pass comments (which I must admit were NOT of a suggestive or sexually explicit nature) whenever I passed them by. Again, I was used to all this and had learnt to ignore it, so I did. Yes, I ignored it for a while even though they would shout these comments aloud, in a loop, persistently and as long as I could hear them, even faintly. There were all kinds of other students in the college- the “senior girls” who would “rag” me even till the first quarter of my second year in college, the “Robinhood” who broke our car and then paid for it and made up, the teachers who never noticed harassment on the campus but would be immensely concerned about couples taking a stroll together after college hours. And there were a few of my friends who stood me by.
Even though my name was not initially disclosed as the complainant, it started becoming more and more obvious because they knew who they had been targeting persistently. What happened afterwards was my first experience with what is generally called “victim blaming” even though I don’t identify as a victim. The “senior girls” first approached me, apparently on the instruction of the offenders, and asked if I had complained against anyone. Obviously, I wasn’t going to give myself away, so they came prepared. They made up all sorts of stories including how my name was being “exposed”. I couldn’t lie to their faces. The entire college environment got polarised. My well-wishers asked me to get the Kashmiri girls in my batch on my side and ask them to pressurize the authorities into taking concrete action. Turns out they were on the side of patriarchy. My friends from Jammu stood me by.
The “senior girls” took me to an isolated classroom and told me stories about how ‘rumors’ were being spread about me- such ‘rumors’ included one in which I had complained about being sexually harassed by the offenders. Even though I would classify their “comment passing” business as sexual harassment as well, these ‘rumors’ were more imaginative. Except that these were only in their heads! I spoke to one of the members in the disciplinary committee about this and I said that if it is true that these rumors are being spread about me, I would rather withdraw my complaint than carry on. He, however, told me that these are intimidation tactics, meant to “demoralise” me so much that I decide to withdraw my complaint. He assured me that no such rumors were being spread. He was right. My blood boiled and I clenched my teeth. I wanted to yell at the “senior girls” who I now fondly remember as “doormats” at the top of my voice. How could fellow women do that to me! How could they take the side of a guy while trying to appear “helpful”? This thought alone gave me sleepless nights for quite some time. I was shocked, but also much more determined to take them on.
So, the next day, I went to my class as usual and, on my way back to the hostel, I found myself surrounded by a mob of fifty students who were all there to “convince” me to take my complaint back. Mr. Robinhood was one of them, and so was the main culprit. The “doormats” were also all there. As it became a public spectacle, more people joined in. I would be simply glorifying things if I said that I wasn’t scared. I was trembling and my pulse was racing. I was only a 19-year old girl back then. But I stood my ground. I did not move, did not cringe, did not smile and I did not relent. I put up an iron face and looked whoever wanted to talk to me directly in the eye, with my head held high and my body upright. I would still be lying if I said I wasn’t scared anymore. Mr. Robinhood asked me why I did not complain to him instead! Doormat aunties told me about an ex-student who was once sexually harassed by a guy and how she had to leave the college after making a complaint because it resulted in so much “badnaami” (loss of reputation) for her. It was also argued that the guy (main culprit) would not be allowed to appear in placement exams if I didn’t withdraw my complaint. As if I cared!
In the complaint that I had written, I mentioned that I had been ignoring this behavior since mid-last semester. So, the disciplinary committee members had apparently questioned why I tolerated it for so long; and why I would want to complain now! Tough one to answer. They wouldn’t ask same question of their daughters. The doormat aunties scared me for an entire day with possible repercussions and how the guy (main culprit) would now “do something to me” outside the campus. This was followed by the political disturbances of 2008 in Kashmir and a siege that lasted several months, so the matter died down.
These were my ugliest encounters with a deeply patriarchal system that does not encourage speaking up, in fact actively discourages it. We do blame obscenity, westernization and Indianization for all of our evils. In fact, I myself agree that “acid attack” is definitely an Indian influence. But I also can’t stop thinking about “acid attack threats” in Srinagar city during 2001-2002 which forced several women to don the “abaya” (Arab dress that covers the body from head to toe). These threats were apparently issued by some militant organisations and the “abaya” prices skyrocketed.
Obscenity should be condemned depending on our respective definitions of obscenity. However, even in content that is not obscene, there’s a lot of misogyny to which we have shockingly high tolerance. Most people of my age would remember the viral hit, “Sweety Beauty Draayi Duty” which was a light-hearted satire on working women in Kashmir. Though I agree that it is an authentic representation of some women in the government sector, I found it highly offensive even as a kid. I have seen my mother work very, very hard throughout her career. She has attended duties at the government hospital where she works even on major festivals, curfews, strikes, even when roads are blocked due to snow or flooded due to rain. Same is true of men working in the same hospital. So, it’s really about the nature of work- people working in the essential services departments tend to be more dedicated, simply due to the nature of their work, than others who have a more relaxed, mediocre work environment. Then why is it that the performance of women alone was under question? Could the same not be said of men working in mediocre work environments, which by the way include various hospitals marred by scams. Sweety Beauty was the direct outcome of a society failing to come to terms with its new realities, it was a very mild attack on the financial independence of women and, simply because it was a big hit, it ended up painting all working women with the same brush and in perpetuating the stereotype of a mediocre woman worker.
In an opening paragraph, I have mentioned that while some Kashmiri men harass women relentlessly, others do not even look at women. I’m much older now but, at that age, it was hard to come across a man who could talk to a woman without sounding all romantic or all impatient or too shy. At the school where I studied, girls and boys studied together (co-ed) till the 2nd grade when they were abruptly segregated into separate “sections” as they were called and talking to guys suddenly became a taboo. Till the second grade, everything was normal and all of a sudden we became conscious of “gender” as a social division, more so because there were two sections for boys and only one for girls! Even till the second grade, boys and girls were seated visibly apart and sitting with a person of the opposite sex was one of the myriad forms of punishment. Gender segregation, though not very strict, is a norm in Kashmir. However, there are some interfaces where men and women interact without barricades- buses, workplace, shopping centres, streets- and this is where the gender sensitivity (or otherwise) of a society is really put to test. How much can we segregate the sexes? Even if we achieve complete gender segregation, even within homes, that one interface where a husband interacts with his wife will still continue to be a site of gender conflict as long as the real problem is not addressed- misogyny, deep-rooted misogyny.
It may be very clear already why I am writing this. I’m deeply saddened by an acid attack incident in Srinagar and a rape incident in Shopian. This is definitely not the Kashmir I thought I knew. The Kashmir I knew was a few degrees better. These incidents are by no means comparable to my experiences but, minus the actual violence and the abduction, we all have faced this- I’ve been stalked as a 13-year old and I had to stop attending private tuition classes; the girl was stalked, abducted, drugged, raped, filmed and blackmailed before her family acted. So far, we have conveniently avoided discussions on misogyny because gender based violence was not very widespread in Kashmir, thankfully. However, the problem stares us in the face now more than ever and we cannot afford to postpone discussions on deep-rooted sexism and misogyny in our society and the shocking tolerance with which it is received. Rather than hiding the problem, it is high time we addressed it.