6 weeks have passed since Delhi burst into active conversation about gender and sexual violence after a young woman was gangraped and murdered on a moving bus. So much conversation that, for a while, I needed to be quiet. I needed to listen and absorb and reflect. I needed to write to make sense of what was happening to and around me, but I also needed not to be public with much of that writing because everything around me felt too cacophonous already. Also, if I'm being really honest, because I was still grieving in many different ways and somehow it was difficult to be public with that grief. But I was writing and talking, constantly, to close friends. One of them encouraged me to pull my thoughts and emails into a coherent piece that he hoped I'd be able to publish as an Op-ed somewhere; I sat down to write it, and I wrote all day, and I ended up with something so much longer than an Op-ed but so important for me to write. Now, 6 weeks have passed, and the initial fervor of the crowds that were teargassed at India gate has given way to something else, no less important, but definitely different. I am working with some others to try and build a space to continue engaging with young people on this and other issues in a more sustained way, and i am heartened by the variety of initiatives around the country as India starts pushing itself to ask important questions of itself. All of this makes me ready, finally, to be public with this writing that was written simply to make sense and get through.
On a cold winter night, in the middle of a busy marketplace in New Delhi, a group of young women led songs of protest and freedom. A few banners hung behind them, candles flickered in one corner, and their amplifier only barely managed to make their words audible. Even in a city experiencing some degree of protest-fatigue over the preceding weeks, there was something palpable about the energy of this group, something that made one want to stop and listen.
It was nearly 11 PM when I joined the group, accompanied by my mother, aunt, and grandmother. Together, we sang about nights free of fear. We listened to a 12 year old address the crowd, announcing that no one had the right to touch her body without her permission. We lit candles and joined a procession on the road at midnight. A few hours earlier, I had been in bed, a little unwell, but when my mother proposed driving us to the Take back the Night Streetside New Year’s Party, I had to go. I have never been prouder of, or felt more supported by, my family than on Dec 31 2012, when 3 generations of single women in my family decided to welcome the new year by taking back the night together.
On our way home, we took a short detour to stop by a memorial organized at the bus stop where a 23-year-old young woman and her male friend boarded the wrong bus on December 16, 2012. By the time we arrived, only a small group of people remained; we stopped anyway, lit candles, said a quick prayer. I stood there for a moment, instinctively making the kind of quick judgment women in Delhi learn to make about the safety of every situation and place. I looked at the road around me, searching, I think, for some sign of danger. There was none. The streets were reasonably well lit, there was traffic on the roads, and nothing about the spot suggested any kind of threat. Yes, I would have boarded that bus. No question about it. In the moment I said that to myself, I felt isolated and sick to the stomach. This was the city I called home.
I did not watch the news on December 16. I was on an overnight bus going from Bengaluru to Hampi. When my mother asked me repeatedly how many other passengers there were on the bus, I told her there were only a handful of men, but I was sure more would join soon. I laughed off her fears, reassured her I was safe. Thankfully, she hadn’t yet seen the news either.
When the bus dropped me off 12 km away from my designated drop-off point, and 2 hours earlier than its scheduled arrival time of 7:30 AM, I could only look around me at the deserted predawn streets and wonder what to do next. Not feeling safe standing alone in the streets, I hailed the first autorickshaw that was willing to take me, and in a bid to appear more confident than I felt, bargained the driver down to half his asking price. I made a fake phone call to my mother (I was out of cell phone coverage area, but I have learned the importance of creating the impression that someone knew where I was and had the autorickshaw’s license plate number). And then, I settled into 45 minutes of riding alone in the dark, through deserted country roads, not even a streetlight around, with no way of knowing if we were headed in the right direction, more aware of my own vulnerability than I have ever been. Aware, also, of how much I have learned to fear, even to expect, sexual violence when I am out alone in the dark. Only after I had checked into my guest house and shut the door behind me could I stop holding my breath.
Later, as friends from Delhi began calling and emailing about the horrific gangrape that had just taken place in the city, asking what I thought about the debate on capital punishment, I found myself unable to respond. I told them I couldn’t think yet; I needed to grieve first. As I grieved for the victims of that brutality, and as I grieved for my city and my society where this is far from an isolated incident, I found myself also feeling grateful to the auto driver who got me safely to my destination, as well as to the men in the bus where I had spent the previous night. And as I realized I was feeling grateful to men simply for not violating me even though they had the opportunity, I felt disgust but also a new understanding of how much I, as a young woman growing up in Delhi, had internalized the violence and the misogynistic messaging all around me.
By the time I returned to Delhi, the protests and demonstrations were in full swing. No longer the spontaneous outpouring of grief and anger that had brought out thousands of women on the first day, the demonstrations had now grown into something new, something different. India Gate had already been closed. The violence, tear-gassing and lathi-charge had already scared several women enough to keep them away from Jantar Mantar. The President’s son had already declared the protestors to be “highly dented and painted ladies.” The metro stations near the sites of the protest had already been shut down, taking away women’s ability to travel to the protests in what many of us consider the safest form of public transportation in Delhi. There had already been several reported incidents of molestation at the protests (according to the New York Times, 42 cases were reported to the police in 2 days). Women, ironically, had begun to feel unsafe at the protests for a safe and gender-just city; fewer and fewer women were coming out to the protests.
A friend and I decided to go. As we reached Jantar Mantar, the only site in central Delhi where the protests were still allowed, our first impression was simply deep sadness at the way the protest had been hijacked. When we got there, there were at least twenty men to each woman present, possibly more, and while I think it wonderful that Delhi's men are finally out protesting against sexual violence, I couldn't shake the feeling that most of them were there with their own agendas. Many were there to represent political parties, waving national flags, and asking for the government to be brought down. Few people seemed actually concerned about women's safety, and almost no one about women's empowerment.
We decided it may be better to join one of the silent protests instead, but as we walked to each silent group, we found most of the messaging too disturbing. Several voiced the demand for castration and capital punishment. More wrote about how death was “too small” a punishment, how the rapists deserved worse. One man stood there with a placard that read “The victim was sent to Singapore for better treatment. Send the culprits to Saudi Arabia for better justice.” Others more explicitly called for public stoning and televised torture. My friend and I looked at each other and shuddered. This was not the society we wanted to build; this was not the messaging to which we wanted to lend our presence.
Someone had pinned up several copies of a poster titled “Why does rape happen?” We stopped to read it. It started out stating that rape happens for the same reason we honk at traffic or urinate in public. I never fully understood the causal links the poster was making, but I think it was something about respect for public spaces. Surely, we said to each other, women are more than public spaces. We moved away.
Several people (men as well as women) carried placards of the “She could be your sister, mother, or daughter! Wake up and save women!” variety. One man walked around with a sign that read “I am not Rahul Gandhi. I have the guts to save my sister.” We rolled our eyes and squirmed. We wanted to engage in conversations about how that protectionist attitude towards women is part of the problem; we wanted to tell people that we didn’t want to be saved. For one reason or another, though, we simply weren’t able to find the right words, the right spaces, the right openings. The conversations didn’t happen.
A group of over fifty men passed us with placards containing messages like “Rape the Rapists.” I wanted to shake them. I wanted to tell them they were part of the problem. I wanted to tell them that their aggression and vengeance scared me just as much as the crime had. But nothing about their words or body language told me that they were there to listen to women; much as I hate to admit it, I was afraid of them. I stayed away.
We returned to one young woman we had seen earlier in the evening, standing alone with a message about taking every act of violence against women seriously. As we spoke to her, we discovered that this college student had been standing protesting alone for days now because she wanted to be there but did not want to associate with any of these groups. One other woman joined our conversation about how isolating the rest of the protest was, how much we appreciated finding each other. Another young woman walked up to our group, started listening in on this conversation — the only conversation she could see happening among four women talking about the violence we experience. We widened our circle to include her, but before she could say a word, a young man who was with her tugged at her arm and pulled her away.
As darkness fell, we started lighting candles. A few more friends arrived with paper and pens, and we decided to create our own messaging. My friend created a “I am not your mother, daughter, or sister… but you should still care” placard, and I created one that read “I am not here for vengeance; I am here for solidarity.” For a while, we stood in one line, holding our placards and our candles.
After a while, we decided to sit down in a semicircle, and then somehow, we started singing. Tu zinda hai, tu zindagi ki jeet par yakeen kar; agar kahin hai swarg toh utaar la zameen par (a protest song translated roughly as: You are alive; believe in the victory of life/ if there is a heaven somewhere, go bring it down to earth) to begin with. Then several renditions in Hindi and English of We shall overcome, specifically the stanzas about “We are not afraid” and “we are not alone.” Then Itnee shakti hume de na data/ man ka vishwaas kamzor ho na (roughly: “Give us so much strength that the confidence in our hearts doesn’t weaken”). A few other songs too. The singing drew people’s attention to our little sit-in, and several people stopped by to light more candles or leave diyas in front of us.
At some point, one man sat down in our group and started his “Down with the prime minister” sloganeering. After some internal debate, I found the courage to politely inform him that his agenda was not ours, that our message was different from his. He told him he was supporting us. I asked him if he was willing to listen to our message, which was not about bringing down the government but about the need to come together in solidarity and start asking difficult questions of our society. I told him I would rather he join one of the groups that shared his message if he wasn’t there for ours. He looked surprised, but left us our space.
Other women and young children joined our singing. One girl, not older than twelve, changed the "some day" of the "We are not afraid" to "this day”; from that moment on, we sang “We are not afraid, this day.” Every time one of the male-dominated political sloganeering groups would pass us with their chants, we would sing louder, work at drowning them out in our women’s and children’s chorus of we are not afraid, we are not alone, and we shall overcome, in Hindi and in English. I have never been part of such a powerful, joyful, obstinate sing-along.
By the time we left, I felt better. I felt proud that we had, in some small way, taken back our space, our protest. Proud that, even as we mourned, we had been able to talk about hope, about moving forward, about fearlessness. Above all, I felt proud that we had been able to sing instead of being silenced.
In the days that followed, I had a nightmare about a friend being abducted and raped. Another friend told me she had been crying in her sleep. A third friend emailed me to say she cried for hours when the victim died, then felt awful and selfish because she knew how much of her grief came from the fact that this could have been any of us.
For whatever reason, in a city where hundreds of rapes happen every year, this particular incident has struck a chord, has channeled a movement of women starting to express their fears, tell their stories and demand justice. Sexual and gender-based violence is suddenly a part of public discourse like never before. Suddenly, I find myself surrounded by stories of fear, assault, abduction, molestation. Suddenly, the newspapers are full of other rapes — a 2 year old raped and killed by her uncle, women raped by the army, schoolchildren raped by their hostel warden, so many stories. Suddenly, women are coming onto television to tell their stories of sexual abuse, many of them refusing to have their faces blurred or hidden, insisting this is not their shame. Suddenly, people are talking about sexual abuse in its various forms, including marital rape and childhood sexual abuse, both of which our society has never honestly dealt with.
Suddenly, I find that my own women friends and I are telling each other our stories of molestation and abuse, often for the first time (and there are so many stories we find ourselves reluctantly classifying them as "serious molestation" and "small incidents”). Suddenly, my men friends are calling to ask what to make out of everything and hearing stories they have never asked about before. Suddenly, there is a conversation. All of this story-telling and story-listening feels incredibly important and powerful in a society that has long hidden these stories and refused to acknowledge them. But it has also been intensely painful. I have known for a while what a disturbingly misogynistic society I live in, but I have never felt the horror and pain of that knowledge so acutely.
And it is in this story-telling and story-listening that I have grown angry with the critique about the class connotations of this protest — the insinuation that these protests are somehow less valid because many of the protestors are middle class women identifying with another middle class woman. As much as we all need to build our capacities for empathy across all kinds of boundaries and oppressions, surely that can't be at the expense of allowing ourselves our grief when we can relate. Surely we, as women who have experienced sexual violence in various forms and to various degrees, are allowed our pain and our fear too. Surely we are allowed to demonstrate and protest to end that, even if that is all we are doing.
Of course, that isn’t all that we are doing; that isn’t all that this moment is about. It cannot be. This moment in our city’s and out country’s history is brimming with the potential to become so much more than the aftermath of one act of violence, and it is important — vital — to keep pushing the limits and broadening the scope of whose pain and whose violence we will recognize and speak up against. None of that, though, should ever make a woman feel guilty about her ability to empathize and identify; no one should ever feel the need to apologize for her tears and her fear.
On January 1st, I participated in a New Year's pledge-making event organized by the self-declared “Painted and Dented ladies” of Blank Noise. The event challenged us to go beyond blame games and to examine our own roles, make our own pledges towards building the city we dream of in 2013. We stood outside a busy metro station in Central Delhi, holding our placards with our pledges, then walked around the marketplace, attracting several stares and a few questions. I couldn’t help noticing that the men who stopped to ask questions asked them almost exclusively of the one man in our group (a few other men did join us later). After walking for a while, we agreed that we needed to sit down and talk, that placards were not enough.
In the 4 degree evening, our group of 15-20 sat down on the damp grass of Delhi’s central park, and we were immediately approached by a policeman. He was not allowed to let us protest there, but he agreed to let us talk if we did so softly, put away out placards, and pretended to just be a group of friends. We agreed. A few of the men in our group got up and left.
Over the next hour, the rest of us shared our pledges and our concerns. We talked about our personal lives, but also about gender based violence in parts of society that we may not belong to. We talked about our experiences of molestation in public transport, but also about sexual abuse within families. We talked about pepper sprays, but also about the role of inadequate street lighting in making women, particularly women from lower income groups, especially vulnerable to such violence.
In the weeks that followed, I was part of other similar conversations with young people – conversations that gave me my first glimmer of real hope within the protests. Two young men, both college students, told me that their response to this incident had been simply to refuse to participate in conversations among their peer group that were derogatory to women – to call their friends out on such conversations an make it clear that they were not amused by the jokes or the banter. One said he and his male friends were so accustomed to talking negatively about women that no matter where their conversations began, they always seemed to end up there; in refusing to be part of those conversations now, he'd lost several friends, but was very sure he'd done the right thing. This was the most heartening part of the movement for me – these young men who were starting to see their own role within this complex matrix of violence, who were starting to recognize that, although they may not rape, their attitudes towards women were part of the problem.
I don’t pretend that the conversations have offered any concrete answers just yet, but it felt like a beginning. We have started to move from blame to taking apart the systems we live in; we have started asking difficult questions of the ways in which we bring up girls and boys. As women, we have challenged the men to understand our experience of isolation when we are molested. As men, they have pushed us to understand some of their fears. We have begun a dialogue about gender, across genders, among strangers. We have begun to talk to each other about what it would mean to be allies. That feels like a beginning.
And that was my pledge too: I pledged to open real conversations about gender and violence with men around me, especially when it gets difficult or uncomfortable. And I pledged to hold on to my hope and joy, to refuse to surrender them to a place and a time where it is so easy to feel afraid and to despair.
The last few weeks in Delhi have been traumatic and empowering in equal parts. For every day that I have spent feeling powerful and able to impact change around me, I have spent other days in tears, overwhelmed by the weight of all of the stories about gender and violence that are surfacing. For every time I have felt deeply, personally insulted by the barrage of misogynistic comments being made by our political and religious leaders, there have been times when I have been able to laugh at these remarks and openly refuse to “know my limits.” For every conversation about patriarchy that I have been able to facilitate with friends or strangers, there have been conversations from which I have had to disengage because I am still grieving and the misogyny hurts too much. For every time that I have lowered my eyes and brushed quickly past a group of young men on the sidewalk, there have been times I have stepped on to the road feeling more assertive about my rights to public space than ever before. And for every time I have been angry at a man for trying to take over or hijack this protest, there have been times when I have felt reassured by the fact that, for the first time, men around me are asking, listening, caring.
Ultimately, the protests and demonstrations have to give way to a more sustainable and sustained dialogue about gender in Indian society. Ultimately, we have to be able to connect the dots between the many ways in which patriarchy oppresses both women and men; we have to start recognizing rape and molestation as part of a much bigger matrix of how women and men relate to each other and to themselves. The judicial and policing systems may (and hopefully will) undergo some important reforms soon, but the deeper change, the change in mindsets and behaviors, will take years, perhaps decades. And after these six weeks, I am more aware than ever of just how challenging the work of creating that change will be. But the work has begun.