- Posted August 24, 2013 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Speaking up about sexual violence
India, Sexual Harassment and Mental Illness
RoseChasm went back home and has since been diagnosed with a personality disorder and PTSD. Instead of politically, I’d like to think of this in terms of mental illness. Mental illness needs to be respected more for what it teaches us about our world. As many have pointed out, there are Indian women who go through this all the time. There was also RoseChasm’s fellow traveller TwoSeat who wrote about her experiences on the same trip. Since RoseChasm is white and TwoSeat is black, it seems that was the primary reason for TwoSeat’s different view. But I’m a fan of multiple primaries, and I suggest that the other difference between RoseChasm and TwoSeat is that they’re two different individuals.
RoseChasm came here to work on her “Indian civilizations program”, which I find orientalizing (wow, spellcheck just made that a capital O, now I’ve seen everything) and objectifying. Then she writes this piece about “India”, a single entity I don’t believe in on the best of days. How bizarre would it be if an Indian woman came back from the US with an eating disorder and wrote a piece titled “USA: The Story You Never Wanted to Hear”? RoseChasm was objectified, and the effect of her writing is to objectify back. So I’m not happy with her interpretation of events. There’s a certain kind of humility required not to return that objectifying gaze, very hard to acquire if you think in terms of parity.
I know a lot of Indian women who have seen all that RoseChasm describes and worse. They’ve been intimidated, have had their worldviews changed by the sheer volume of “eve-teasing” (the word itself tells you something about how it’s downplayed), and have possibly dressed differently at various stages of their lives to accommodate it (I know I have). Some have decided to pick their battles: They forget the staring, and fight the rest. Some, like the NGO Blank Noise, don’t back down from anything, and have been criticized for their classist view of upper-middle class women vs. lower-middle class men, and the stares that spring from that relationship.
Many women still leave their homes without hesitation, go to their jobs, meet their friends and through experience develop instincts about how to respond, if at all, to this auto driver or that man in the bus. (Some will run away at the first sign of resistance, some will be turned on by it. This is a fact all these women know.) They also live with a risk, and try to make it as calculated as possible. Because the alternative is to live in fear.
But many do not. Many women drop out of schools, colleges and jobs because the commute is too fraught, or even because there’s a particular gang that lies in wait for them on the road to school. Those who can afford it, get a car and stay in it unless they’re at home, in office, or some other safe place. This, as Lakshmi Chaudhry points out, is a prison too.
All this is still an external view of the effects of “eve-teasing”. In the privacy of her self, though, each woman has a different amount and proportion of rage and fear. Each one is afraid of different things. As RoseChasm puts it:
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. Walking to the fruit seller's or the tailor's I got stares so sharp that they sliced away bits of me piece by piece.
In this I happen to personally concur. I’ve been groped, grabbed, flashed, stalked, “footsied”, whistled at, cornered, had my clothes pulled at, listened to a lot of words. The usual, and not too bad compared to some women. But the part that I’ve internalized more than most is the staring. For some reason I seem to be more afraid of that than the rest when I’m putting on my shoes and leaving the house.
This is where mental illness comes in. Many women are stared at and made uneasy and uncomfortable. Only some of them feel that they, as people and not as women, are being “sliced away […] piece by piece”.
I believe that everything RoseChasm says happened to her is true, and also that it was more than enough to traumatize her significantly. She just happened to internalize and to be extra vulnerable to the particular gaze that some men in these parts of the world directed at her (and not, for instance, to the internalized gazes that induce eating disorders).
I’d like to emphasize this because I’m mentally ill, too, and I’ve been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia because the same gazes drove me crazy too, and made me relatively housebound. And I’m not white or black or foreign. I’ve experienced the same as the average Indian woman and it happens to have affected me in a different way. This, and the phenomenon around RoseChasm, is called the individuality of the human mind.
But it doesn’t stop there. In fact, it only begins there. The top-heavy disclaimers in italics before RoseChasm’s report aren’t any different from a disclaimer one might have made about a “mad” person’s “rantings” 3,000 years ago. I say that paranoia, and mental illness in general, are one of several special, disregarded keys to understanding a culture. The individual mentally ill person suffers, and I never want to forget that. But this suffering offers us an insight into our way of doing things. Because the especially sensitive ones perceive a problem before most others do.
There is a new, modern aspect to these stares, as RoseChasm points out: it’s the cell phones with cameras in every man’s hand. Men are constantly taking photos of white people and especially white women. Can I mention here with a pinch of salt that some people used to believe that a photograph could steal your soul? This sounds like the Margaret-Mead-in-Papua-New-Guinea school of anthropology, and of course I don’t like it much, but I’d love to exploit it for my metaphor, because it goes along with the “sliced away bits of me piece by piece”. Cut any good paranoid schizophrenic or “personality disorder” and they will bleed this. The cameras represent the gazes themselves, which can steal your sense of self (aka soul, if you like), if you’re sensitive in that way. There is nothing in the world that seems more natural to me (even when on antipsychotics!). I don’t want to call people with personality disorders or paranoia prophets, because they have a right to call themselves what they want, but privately I like to think of them as such. This is something that psychiatry will never understand, because it primarily (and possibly solely) wants to improve functionality. But man does not live by functionality alone. A few delusions of grandeur are necessary.
What about solutions? There seems to be a yawning chasm between staring men and objectified women. Neither is human to the other. So humanizing helps. I try to do it as much as possible, engage auto drivers etc. in conversation, so that when I see a random lower-middle class man looking at me, I know there are others like him who aren't like him. Also, I'm beginning to stare back, finally. This is my way of humanizing myself for them. Some men drop their gazes, I like to think because they see the human looking out of my eyes. Some don’t. It's good to learn this in real time as opposed to imagining an a priori immutable stare and so never leaving the house. But there will always be someone wanting to play power games. That will never change.
This is what I personally took away from RoseChasm’s essay. The world knows more about the stares now, and that’s good. I don’t know if we can do anything about it, but it would be beautiful if our great-granddaughters appeared human to men, and vice versa.