By Meghalee Mitra
A couple of days ago, a stranger stopped me on the street to pay me a compliment. In the course of a two-minute one-sided conversation, he suddenly hugged me. I didn’t say a word, forget hitting back or screaming. I simply froze. When he began pestering me for my number soon after, I sheepishly jumped onto a running bus. As I took my seat, I couldn’t reconcile with the fact that someone could so casually devalue consent. But what hurt me far more was my inability to respond – to give that man a piece of my mind, to ask him to leave me alone. Would I rather risk being run over by a speeding bus, than be rude to a potential predator?
This isn’t the first time I haven’t hit back at a harasser. My politeness with men who hardly deserve any, has only added to the complexity of what I think constitutes as harassment. If anything, I owe myself an apology for many many years, just like a lot of women who blame themselves because they “did nothing concrete about it”. In that moment, the creep becomes a much smaller issue than our refuge in politeness. My friends and I have taken turns to wonder about this conundrum on countless nights: Why are women nice to creeps?
I suspect it’s because politeness is the only language that we have observed the womenaround us fall back on. It’s what we have been taught to use since we were little girls – programmed to dilute the deluge of not only creepiness but also any sort of unpleasantness with meek smiles. My mother would always lock herself in her room when my grandmother’s tirade got too loud. Her motto – like a great percentage of our mother and aunts – has been to “let it go”. I got so used to internalising this polite behaviour that over time, I forgot that I was allowed to respond differently. So when the molester in my family went about his business, I’d feel disgusted, but still touch his feet for blessings in public. Like me, most of the women I know respond to the creeps populating their “Others” folder in the same way – they either ignore it or laugh it off. We rarely confront our transgressors and even women who do, often spare a thought for their feelings, even though we aren’t mandated to.
Think about it: A common trope in the Indian household is discrediting bad, often inappropriate, behaviour with iterations of “Arré , woh toh bhai hai” or “Uncleji se aise baat karte hai?” Growing up, we’ve been repeatedly led to believe that our own sense of being lies at the lowest rung of the ladder; that we must respect and bow before everybody but ourselves. So what if a stranger elbowed my breast? I am not going to disrupt an entire auto line over it, right? For far too long, we’ve been conditioned to be conscious of making too much noise… and that a dick pic or some slight groping is too small an incident to create a ruckus.
This inherent need to be kind and accommodating – especially at our own expense – has left claw marks in our personal spaces.
This inherent need to be kind and accommodating – especially at our own expense – has left claw marks in our personal spaces. Even the #MeToo wave that has unfolded in the past weeks is replete with numerous instances of women giving people who abused their trust, the benefit of doubt. The testimonies of the several women who have levelled allegations against singer Kailash Kher and actor-director Rajat Kapoor are telling of how easily women take to discrediting violations in favour of the well-being and reputation of creeps. “As women, we tend to doubt our own judgment and let things pass,” said the woman who has accused Kher of harassment.
Instead of shaming a harasser, what women do instead is try to avoid a situation where they will be harrassed. In a Guardian essay titled, “I’m tired of Being Kind to Creepy Men in Order to Stay Safe” columnist Daisy Buchanan speaks about how she has imposed a curfew on herself and tries to be in bed by 11 pm and how a friend stopped running because of the number of men who will shout “compliments” at her. “Women should be enjoying more freedoms than ever before, but many of us are frightened, and we’re running out of options. We can submit to our sense of obligation and be polite to the harassers who might kick off if we ignore them, or we can cage ourselves in.”
But here’s the thing that women, whose default reaction is to stay in to stay safe, are hardly told: There are no brownie points to be earned from being polite. It’s only going to be detrimental to other women. And here’s something we are need to take a lesson in: aggression.
From where I stand today, in the middle of the #MeToo revolution, it doesn’t look so difficult. It needs a little bit of courage to shrug off an unwanted hand on your back or tell someone who has sent you an unsolicited dick pic to back off. High time we replace that meek smile with a death stare. And if need be, scream, “Leave me alone.”
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