As a child, she was introverted, shy and aloof. She hardly communicated verbally. Her mind used to freeze in fear. She was slow in reacting to people and situation not knowing what to say or how to feel. She always kept to herself and her books and crayons. The only time most people heard her voice was when she had her Carnatic music lessons thrice a week. Her voice was so mellifluous and her pitch reached such great heights that her Neighbours used to come to her home just to hear her sing. She was a quiet child but she always had a strong presence. People knew her. It was difficult for her to be invisible even though she was almost non verbal.
The earliest encounter with sexual harassment that she could recall was when she was in the fourth grade. She was living in Muscut. Her maternal uncle’s 21 year old brother in law had just moved there from Delhi and was homesick for some delicious homemade Indian food. He always craved for rasam and her parents invited him home every weekend. They all lunched together. After lunch, her parents used to retire into their bedroom for an afternoon nap and he used to hang out with her and her four year old brother. They used to watch cartoons, Pink Panther, on TV. As soon as he heard her father snore, he used to make her sit on his lap and forcefully feel her up, nibble her lips and French kiss. This happened every Friday and didn’t stop until one fine day, when he moved away to Dubai. Even today, after years, Rasam gives her a bad taste in her mouth and she gags when her husband tries to kiss her on the mouth. The very thought of someone’s tongue in her mouth makes her cringe. It’s dirty, she thinks because of her bad memories.
In 5th grade, she joined a new school. She used miss her school bus sometimes on the way back home from school or get into the wrong school bus. New environment or deviation from routine used to distress her and it took her a little more longer than others her age to get used to things. So her mother specifically requested the bus driver to make sure she gets into the bus and sit right next to him. Chaco, the bus driver, smiled and said to her mother in Malayalam, “Don’t worry ma’am, I know your worries. I have a daughter too her age. I’ll make sure she is home safe every day.” Her mother even paid him a little extra to keep an eye on her. He kept an eye on her every day alright and his hands too. He made her sit right next to him near the drivers seat and unbuttoned her crisp white school shirt, he then put his hand into her shirt and carcassed her body with all that baby fat in it. Sometimes he used to put his palms up her divided skirt and feel her thighs and finger her vagina. Sometimes he squeezed her all over so hard that it hurt. When he stroked her thighs, the sensation that ran through her body made her want to puke. All she could do was freeze in fear. Wanting to shout, wanting for him to stop, but not one word would come out of her mouth. Her mother never wondered why her shirt was unbuttoned here and there everyday. This continued until she got too scared to go to school and suffered from a complete meltdown. It was then that she told her mother about what had happened and the driver, Chaco, lost his job. He had begged and pleaded to her mother to not have him reported to the authorities because he had a daughter at home whom he had to feed. He resigned from his job but was not reported to the authorities. What angered her the most was that her mother kept asking her again and again if she was telling lies. Her mother confronted Chaco in front of all her friends, their parents and made her swear in front of Chaco that she was not telling lies. When he denied, her mother forced her to describe what he did to her, in detail, in front of everyone. Later, kids at school made fun of her and laughed. Her mother behaved as though this was a great matter of shame and this made her feel even worse. As though she was dirty and as though this was all her fault. This ordeal was more trauamatic than the actual experience itself. After that she stopped telling her parents anything about herself anymore. Even now when someone, especially men, playfully touch her back or shoulder, she freezes and cringes because that’s where Chaco used to touch and massage her first before his hand explored further down her body and towards the baby fat in her chest.
A couple of months later, there was news of young children being raped and murdered at different parts of the town. The rapists, Omani men, used to then throw their little lifeless bodies on to the mountains behind the buildings, for the coyotes and vultures to devour. One day she was home early from school and was on her way up to her apartment. An Omani man in a white kandura spotted her at the garage and placed his hand on her mouth, held her tight and started to nuzzle her neck. Then he dragged her behind a rust colored mercury ford. She remembers this as she was so brilliant that she could name every car in the world. Yet, she froze and lost her ability to scream or react. She lay silently on the cold dark grey soothy floor behind the car in the garage as the Omani man tried to remove her under wear. She could only stare at the black handle of his traditional dagger in a silver scabbard, tied around the waist of his attire. Then she saw cobwebs on the ceiling and began to count the sound of the water drops dripping down from the drain, somewhere nearby. All of a sudden, a car came into the garage, a white Toyota Cressida, the Omani man then left her there and ran away. The car parked, Reena Aunty and Joseph uncle got out of the car and saw her school bag and water bottle on the floor of the garage. They called out her name and she couldn’t even make a sound. When they found her behind the car, Reena Aunty scooped her up and took her home safe to her mother. Even now they don’t know why was she sitting there, stunned, behind that old Mercury Ford, with her underwear half way down her legs. They assumed she urgently wanted to answer nature’s call. The next day, a body of a child, brutally raped, was found in the building next to where she lived. If not for Reena Aunty and Joseph Uncle, she could have been that child. Maybe that child would have been spared? Is she in this world on borrowed time? She wonders, even now and gets nightmares.
She was 11 and it was summer vacation. Her father took them to a family picnic in a farm house organized by the company that he worked for. Everyone were in the swimming pool. She couldn’t swim and needed floaters. Her floaters were in the car. Her father told her to fetch them. She happily ran to the car. As she was about to take her floaters and turn around, her father’s boss caught hold of her. This time she didn’t freeze and tried to escape from his grasp. He slammed the door and her budding breast got caught in between. She screamed in pain. She almost passed out. Everyone came running and her father’s boss, Mr Thyagi, said, “her fingers got jammed between the door”. They put ice to soothe the pain on her fingers, the wrong part of her body. She still has a scar near her nipple even today.
She matured too early and got her period at age 11. She was the first one to grow breasts amongst girls her age. She was just 11 or 12 years-old. As if going through puberty wasn’t enough, few girls from her class,(mostly ones with no breasts, yet), teachers, relatives and her mother started pointing out how she was not doing a good job at disguising them as the society had conditioned them to be ashamed of the female body. This one time, when she was in 7th grade, a teacher (a woman) called her mother to school and told her outright that She needed to buy a looser shirt, and a longer skirt for her school uniform because there were hormonal boys in class. She was not even spared from women’s gaze. She spent most of her school days hunching, fidgeting, wearing way too many slips on top of her bra. Even now, after decades, she has body posture issues because of all the hunching she did in order to prevent people from pointing out how sexual her pre teen and teenage body was.
She was so traumatized that she had enough and hated being a girl. She started to think and behave like a boy. To her mother’s dismay, She cut her hair short and started playing sports. She excelled in throwball, cricket and relay. She made the track team and was the sports captain of her school. She stopped wearing dresses and wore only pants. She began to develop a whole new personality. She started to hangout only with her goofy male buddies. Because she didn’t like being a woman.
Even that didn’t help. She was in 12th grade and was half way through her Sanskrit exam. The invigilator grabbed her hand in the middle of the exam and started to press her palms and carass it. She looked at him in shock. He said, “I was only checking if you were cheating and had notes written in your palms.” He then smiled and asked her if she had Chits hidden under her skirt and if she had to be checked. She merely nodded no and went about writing her paper again. When the results were out, she had barely managed to get a passing grade on that paper.
She used to take the public transport to school and college. She faced many incidents where men rubbed their male body part on her in crowded buses. Groping and pinching became a normal everyday occurrence in temples, crowded streets, share autos and local trains. This only stopped when her father finally got her a scooty one fine day.
Even when she started working, she wore only pant suits to work. Because she noticed that men respected her more at her male dominated workplace when she dressed and behaved like them. She felt inferior, vulnerable, uncomfortable and unsafe around men and their attention and gaze when she dressed like a woman or behaved like one. That’s how much traumatized she was because of all her experience.
Then one fine day she got engaged to her then boyfriend. They went on a trip to celebrate. That night she got the shock of her life when he played porn on TV and asked her to “Suck his Dick”. His eyes were glued to the television. There was no romantic hand holding or foreplay. There was no chemistry or even an iota of passion. He didn’t even kiss her let alone hold her hand. He didn’t even ask her to undress. She sat on the bed, he stood next to her, groped her clumsily and grabbed her head and pushed it towards him, shocked to the core, she pushed him away, got up and refused. He then got angry and said, “What do you think sex is like in real life? Like all your chic flicks and romantic movies? Enough of fairy tales. I love you and have done enough for you. So in return I ask you nothing but just do what I ask you to do in bed. Prove your love to me. Enough of your feminist rants. Your actions should speak louder than words in bed”. She then removed her ring and threw it at his face then took her bags and slammed the door and never saw him again. She stopped watching rom coms and chick flicks so that her expectations of love or romance would never be high ever again. Even now she freezes and cringes when someone mentions the word “Porn” or at sexual jokes or at intimate scenes in movies. She is not an old fashioned prude or an uptight bitch as people call her. She is just a traumatized woman.
Then she met a new coworker, in his late 40s, at her workplace, who had just moved to US from a village in Tamilnadu, India. He used to keep making fun of her at the work place, every day, about her body, calling her fat and peering into what she ate for lunch and commenting about her food habits. He made a lot of statements in a joking manner like how she was always chewing the cud like a cow. When they moved to a new office building and were trying to figure out a place to sit, he said, “Oh! Sandhya is so tiny she would fit in anywhere .. you are the problem .. you will need a huge place” and then he laughed out loud. It was so embarrassing for her when he said that in front of everyone. He kept asking obnoxious questions all the time like, “what do you do at home? Don’t you cook or do house work? What does your husband eat? You ordered lunch from out again??” Everyone snacks at work .. and when She used to go to take a snack, he always commented, “do you really need that? Are you sure you are hungry? I don’t think you need more of that.” Then once when her husband came to pick her up from work, She introduced him to her co worker and later he said, “Saar is so handsome, if you loose weight, you would look like a perfect couple.” All this in a joking and sarcastic way as though he was cracking one big joke. He always keept a constant tab on how many times she took a break or went to the restroom. He then wanted her to hire a “booth babe” for a software conference at Houston. The American lady who was organizing the event for the company that she worked for got offended by his request and refused to hire one. So he asked her to hire a “Booth Babe” for the conference instead. The worst part was he was sitting right next to her and commenting on all the photos of booth babes online in order to select the perfect one. He behaved like a lap dog to the CEO and gossipped about every little detail, every little thing that she did that he felt was unproductive according to him. She wanted to quit but she badly needed the job and the money. When she finally quit, she was so traumatized that she never wanted to work for a corporate ever again.
She then faced a dirty old Indian man who constantly touched her thigh and rubbed against her shoulder at a party. She was shocked and wondered if this was normal? Her Mexican and American buddies never treated her like that. So the thigh touching was definitely not an unspoken social norm. She froze in fear. She dint know how to react and just left. He is a father to a teenage daughter. She didn’t know what was more offending. Him thinking whether middle class women are cheap, easy and discontent gold diggers as he tried to impress her with his flashy new Mercedes Benz, sprawling new mansion in the middle of Silicon Valley, his family wealth from back home in India and his contacts with various celebrities or the fact that he kept rubbing her thighs and shoulders without consent. It was disgusting.
She didn’t know who were worse. Pedophiles or married but available men who think middle class women are easy.
She felt guilty thinking if she had led them all on but she was just being herself like how she was with all her male buddies right? She felt dirty and ashamed.
She faced many Indian men who made inappropriate advances at her while she smoked a cigarette waiting for the Caltrain. They all asked her if she was “that kind of a woman” or dialogues like “I thought you were a modern woman”. Then she stopped smoking around unknown men.
What else has she got to stop in order to protect herself? Why can’t the world just let a woman be herself? Does being herself means she gets hit on and sexually harassed?
She has faced all this and going forward she will face much more.
Who is she? She is you. She is me. She maybe some woman who you may or may not know. She is 50% or the world’s population.
If reading this made you cringe, do your part to make this world a safer place for us women. Be respectful to women.