- Posted August 23, 2013 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Speaking up about sexual violence
Why are you staring at me?
In response to a University of Chicago student's post about sexual harassment while studying abroad in India, my story is about the every day experience of being a woman in India, and learning to (re)adjust to the unpleasantness of the staring Indian man.
The most devastating part of moving back to India after living in North America for seven years has been coping with the staring Indian man. My 16-year-old self was too young -- or perhaps already hardened -- to the stares, but my 24-year-old self has repeatedly felt infuriated, debilitated and repulsed over the past year. As I read Michaela Cross’s story about her experiences as a study abroad student in India, I am forced to recall instances of harassment from my own life -- being masturbated at when I was the only person running in a public park in Delhi at 11:00 a.m., crying with my school friend after a hotel staff member broke into our room and groped her, fending off countless men who ask to take photos with me when I travel, and being stared at every single time I leave my home. Regardless of whether I’m wearing shorts or a loose salwaar khameez, or what time of day it is, there are always men on the streets whose fulltime occupation seems to be to stare at women.
What saddens me most about Michaela’s story is that it is not exceptional -- for women who live in India, her experience is a part of our daily life. It is something that we have been forced to accept as the cost of spending time here. It is worse for women who are poor, or lower caste, or live in villages. It is even worse if you are a female orphan, a migrant laborer or a sex worker.
When I left the U.S. to move back to India last August, my friends told me I was crazy, that my life in Brooklyn was too good to give up. But I wanted to know what it would be like to live as an adult in the city where I grew up. I wanted to inhabit the place I loved and missed deeply and, at the risk of sounding naïve, do something that had a positive social impact. I had not considered how unpleasant it is to be a woman here, but when I came back, it came as a shock that I was not prepared to handle.
Michaela’s words are powerful, so I will rely on her to describe how awful it is, even in Mumbai, arguably the most liberal and cosmopolitan city in India: “There was no way to prepare for the eyes, the eyes that every day stared with such entitlement at my body, with no change of expression whether I met their gaze or not… I was prepared for my actions to be taken as sex signals; I was not prepared to understand that there were no sex signals, only women's bodies to be taken, or hidden away.”
I recognize that feeling only too well, and find myself wanting to stop one of these men and scream, “Why are you staring at me?” On some days, it makes me so angry that I cut my run short, or get into a taxi instead of walking. But when I am back home and the rage subsides, I find myself feeling sorry for the leching men. I pity the man who masturbates at women on the street because he will probably never know what it feels like to make love, for his partner’s pleasure and his own. He will look at the wife his parents chose for him as a home keeper and child producer, but never as an intellectual or emotional companion.
India is still a country where physical contact between men and women who are not married (or otherwise related) is taboo, where sex before marriage is a sin, and where women are seen as men’s subordinates. A girl child is still a burden and a widow is still the bad luck that brought upon her husband’s death. And instead of demanding to live differently, women who live or travel in India have come to take precautions that perpetuate a vicious cycle of violence.
Don’t go out alone at night. Don’t walk alone, don’t take public transport alone, and don’t take taxis alone. Don’t run after dark. Don’t make eye contact, look down and hope that he will look away. Don’t talk loudly in public or draw attention to yourself. Don’t wear revealing clothes.
It’s not about the dark. It’s not about our clothes. At the cost of making a generalization, it’s about a much deeper malaise in the way that Indian culture views women. I do not deny that women across the globe are victims of unwarranted male attention and sexual harassment, nor do I ignore the fact that plenty of Indian men treat women with respect and love. But living in India as a woman requires us to harden ourselves to rapey male eyes at the very least, and verbal and physical assault at the worst.
When I woke up to respond to Michaela’s post on the morning of August 23rd, the newspaper headlines screamed, “22-year-old photojournalist gang raped in Mumbai.” This story is too eerily reminiscent of the 23-year-old physiotherapy student who was gang raped in Delhi last December. These stories are also not exceptional -- they are among the hundreds of cases of brutal assaults on vulnerable women in India every day. As a reporter, I have spent the past four months interviewing sex workers and their children in Kamathipura, one of Mumbai’s red light districts. All of the forty women and girls I interviewed shared stories of verbal and physical abuse. Almost all of them told me they had been raped, often by their own husbands or fathers. Without wanting to trivialize Michaela’s story, it happens to all of us, all the time.