Sunday, December 5, 2010

Take it Easy

We Can End All Violence against Women
Last Wednesday, I was at a fuel station close to my work-place somewhere in Kenya. There was a big fancy 4X4 vehicle parallel to my vehicle but I could not see who was inside because the fuel booth was in-between. The service person set the fuel quantity and put the hose in my vehicle’s fuel tank and disappeared. This is usual; during peak hours, the service persons serve many drivers simultaneously. I fumbled with my bag, phone and music. The vehicle parallel to mine moved ahead just a bit, stopped at an odd angle, and a man sitting in the front passenger seat smiled and the one driving said something. I didn’t quite appreciate the smile but gave a polite smile murmured, ‘hello’. Synthetic politeness is not my forte but I live and work in an environment of ‘oral and visual civility’ so in order to be culturally adaptable I try to conform. Anybody with less air in the head can see through my polite pleasantries though. But that day even before my lips could return to the normal state, the man from the passenger seat was out and leaning on my window, asking if I need help. Baffled, I asked him, ‘help for what’? He replied in broken English, which in summary meant that these service persons at the fuel stations often cheat and fuel can overflow if left like this and that I should let him help me with this task. I shook my dead politely, thanking him for his offer but clarifying that I am not a damsel in distress. He insisted and my politeness was waning. Finally, he seemed to have shaken off the insistence and put out his hand saying, ‘pleasure meeting you, Miss ...’. His other hand offered me his visiting card. My right hand was holding the wallet so I extended my left hand to take the card saying, ‘oh, thank you’. Lo and behold, he kissed my hand. I pulled my hand back ensuring the card does not drop. The man went back to his vehicle and began talking with the man in the driving seat, both speaking rapidly in Russian loud enough for me to hear and make out the language but just that much I have no skills in Russian. While talking, they kept looking at me, head movements a bit too fast and not right, I thought. Suggestive? I considered the possibility of them following me and damned myself for leaving the work so late every day. Then decided that if that happens, I will just hit them with my vehicle as if I were driving an armoured combat vehicle, not a mini something. By now the fuel tank was full and the service person took the fuel card and went to make the payment on my behalf. The two men in the other vehicle looked at me and smiled together. I looked away. The vehicle moved a bit closer in such a way that if I wanted to move, I would have to reverse the vehicle and meander my way through to the exit gate. The man in the passenger seat was saying, ‘sorry, I forgot your name; please repeat’. ‘I never told you my name’, I replied. He insisted a few more times using the same sentence. Finally, I smiled the sweetest artificial possible and said, ‘no more, stop’. He repeated what I said. I responded, ‘correct and now move away’. The man driving the vehicle looked angry and the one in the passenger’s seat looked a strange red his face. I noted their vehicle number. By now the service person was back with the receipt. I put the card and receipt in the bag and saw the vehicle moving away. The visiting card indicated the man in the passenger seat was a first secretary in one of the Eurasian countries’ embassy. I assume the other one must be another top-notch from the same embassy. The vehicle number confirmed that it belonged to that embassy. I toyed with the idea of reporting to the diplomatic police but decided to let it go and thanked myself for buying a vehicle at last. I already have a record of making a mountain out of a mole like the last time when a British Military-man threw flying kisses and made some obscene gestures. I reported it to the police as well as the Embassy in addition to the people I know. Nothing came out of the noise I made, except, the advices to take it easy and enjoy life.
Purple Ribbon Campaign to End Domestic Violence
A few years back, while on a short trip to the buzz city of Haryana, my sister-in-law and I were left with a choice to either wait for a car to pick us from where we were or take the crowded bus across the road. We decided to take the bus. A passenger sitting on the bus engine box, moved to create some space for one of us. I asked my sister-in-law to sit there. I stood facing her with a mass of passengers behind me. Ten-fifteen minutes later I felt somebody was brushing up against my back. I turned back quietly, looked down at the swollen part of the trouser and said underbreath, almost hissing, ‘I am going to cut it’, smiled and looked up. It was a man in his early twenties; from the tools he was carrying in one of his hands, he looked like a mason or a mason’s helper. The man banged the bus wall once (which in the National Capital Territory, signals the driver to stop). The bus stopped and the man ran out. My sister-in-law didn’t notice a thing but I suspect the man who stood next to the man who brushed up, did. He stood like stiff reed, maintaining whatever distance that was possible.

About two and half decades back, as I was walking home from the college somewhere in Bihar and wondering about a small assignment of selling a set of books that would get me about 20 rupees, I saw a motorcycle with two middle-aged men on it coming too close to me. Too late for me to move anywhere, I was already next to a boundary wall so completely cornered. The man at the back seat grabbed one of my breasts, both roaring with laughter. They fled off. The incident was seen by the house-helper’s brother-in-law, who dutifully reported it back to the people supposedly responsible for me. I was whipped-whapped for inviting this treatment and for bringing shame to the family. I was so angry with myself for not pushing the motorcycle and for not noting down the number. I spent the next few weeks searching for that motorcycle with a bottle of kerosene oil and a matchstick box in my bag. Every motorcycle looked that motorcycle and almost all motorcyclists looked like those two men. I reasoned with myself that I can’t burn the whole city because I am upset with two of its citizens. The bottle of Kerosene oil was put back in the store and the matchbox in the kitchen.

Nearly three decades back, I stood in a crowded public bus in either Himachal Pradesh or Uttar Pradesh. A senior from the school kept winking at me. I screamed at him but no avail. My class-mate advised me not to ‘speak’ so loudly. I screamed at the driver and the conductor to stop the bus. Both looked back, realized what’s going on and shouted at me to be quiet and not be a nuisance to the others. I could have clubbed them all to death if I were not that puny little character without a club.

White Ribbon Campaign:
Men working to end men's violence against women
These four incidents constitute not even 0.1% of the incidents that occurred from my childhood to the middle-age. Yet, we struggle to produce data to substantiate that sexual crime against women and children is a reality. The data is writ so large, all over the daily lives of ordinary women and girls that it has become invisible.

In general, the negotiations for the acceptance of violence against women and girls, illustrate the continuous struggle, which has gone on for centuries for the recognition of women and children as persons entitled to certain rights and equality. Currently, it is almost acceptable to talk about violence against women and children and about sexual crime but it comes to time for society, state, neighbourhoods and families to prevent and protect, their attitudes change. Few institutions, if any, are willing to do what they need to do to prevent sexual crime from happening and protect the survivor from the double whammy of having suffered the crime and then being blamed for inviting it, leave alone willingness to take punitive action against the criminal.

Sexual crime form part of the culture of almost every society that I know. The songs, rites and rituals, and audio-visual and written tales often abet the crime through humour, directive or messages of reprisal if actions amounting to sexual crime are branded so and not taken in ‘good’ spirit. Sexual crimes are committed on a regular basis throughout the life-span of a woman. External social environment, laws and time taken to deliver justice, legal and judicial attitudes, etc escalate or de-escalate the severity and incidence rates. The nature of proof required, the manner in which proof is required, the attitude to the survivor and the support mechanisms for the survivor determine the reporting.

Another barrier to reporting of the incidents is that only rape is regarded as a sexual crime. Other sexual crimes are not regarded as a violation of the laws or the rights of the survivors. Therefore, sexual crimes other than rape hardly ever get enumerated.

Sexual violence is not treated as a grave crime in law. It is regarded as more of a moral crime. Moralist phrases like 'outraging modesty', 'spoiling honour' and 'soiling chastity' are not uncommon in the legal vocabulary. Apart from reducing gravity as a crime, such jingos put the burden of a moral character on the survivor. If a girl or a woman does not appear to be modest, respectable or chaste, she is branded as the one inviting the male lust as if men's entire brain is just the hypothalamus and the only thing that can drive them to some action is their libido. Discrimination in law through inferior treatment of the issue or contradictions in laws is more of a norm than a discrepancy so the legal and justice institutions and their functionaries fail to give due recognition to the seriousness of the crimes. There are no accountability mechanisms to nail the police, lawyers and judges if they treat sexual crime with less seriousness or no seriousness. The inferior treatment of the crime in law and by the legal and justice related duty bearers, perpetuates under-investigation and under--prosecution of sexual crimes.

Would you still say I take it easy? You may but would I? No.

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