March 25, 2015

Understanding feminism, sexism and sexual assults series: Part I

How would I have reacted? This was a thought which ran through some of my colleagues' minds. Apparently, there was a conversation about rape and who is responsible for it when I wasn't around at my work place. Someone (new kid on the floor) made some comments about how women are responsible for sexual crimes against themselves. This was not the first time when one (or more) of my colleagues made out-rightly sexist statements in our clean room, but according to some of my team mates, this was, err, different. Let me explain. As my feminist views have caused some heated debates between me and my colleagues, it was once a routine practice for some of my team mates to seek entertainment by provoking me into those discussions. After I started turning a complete deaf ear to them as a means of protest, this phenomenon has considerably subsided. Anyway, due to reasons which are beyond my comprehension, my colleagues started a conversation around rape and women when I wasn't around, perhaps some of them were joking about it, and somehow, suddenly they realized that this was different. This guy actually meant what he was saying: He is not kidding. And that's when some of them became curious as to what would have happened if I were in that room. They gave me a rough account of what happened when I came to the room. So, that's that.

How would I have reacted? My first, instinctive reaction when I understood what happened was relief coupled with denial. Relief, that I didn't have to be a part of that discussion. Thankfully, I wasn't there when it happened. Denial, because I wanted to shut myself to it, like a reflex action. Your instinct protects you from what hurts you. Being a part of that conversation would have hurt me because I would have been forced to confront the reality about the persistent rape culture in this world, yet again. I have routinely encountered different versions of rape apologia, be it in web or media or in person, and I didn't often shy away from criticizing/countering the same, but this was different. This particular incident gave me a brief moment of shock, and I don't know how I would have really reacted if I was around. Because somehow, it is... different to see those words take form and materialize in front of you from someone in person, someone you work with, someone you thought was somewhat like you, someone who you thought was well informed and educated, in short, someone you thought was, err, for lack  of a better word: n..o..r...m..a..l. Now, that a significant portion of population in this country holds similar views to this person is not news to me. That rape culture cuts across all demographics of the society through different versions of rape apologia is not news to me. It's just that having this conversation out of the blue, unprepared at workplace where you are supposed to maintain certain decorum, and tolerate differences of opinion to maintain good working 'rapport' would have been both difficult and painful. I have not yet attained the wisdom, if wisdom it is, to calmly dismiss this direct justification of potential crimes against me as difference of opinion.

The thing is - I don't know how I would have reacted. I may have lost my composure. I may have landed myself in a heated argument, I may have had hot tears flowing down my eyes, I may have been very, very hurt. How are you supposed to react to an argument which is so intuitively unjust? Why does this world so vociferously refuse to understand something which is so intuitively simple and obvious? I have often been told by well-meaning acquaintance that I react to these arguments very 'personally'. When being a woman is an integral part of my identity, I don't understand how I should react to statements which justify real and potential crimes against me, and my kind as a whole, remarks which are so intensely personal (if you really understand what they mean and imply), without attaching any personal emotions. Stating that women invite crimes because they participate in drugs, or accept lifts from random strangers, or wear certain type of clothes, or because of any* reason at all, is not impersonal to me: Because that would imply that any potential crimes against me would be justified if I participate in any of those stated activities, and that is not impersonal, whatever the intent behind the statement is, and however well meaning the other person is professing to be.

*Yes. I meant 'Any reason at all':
// Everyone has the absolute right to be not raped, irrespective of the circumstances. Even if they're doing something dangerous. Even if they're doing something illegal. Even if they've hurt another person themselves. Even if rape was a known possible consequence of their actions. 
If you feel inclined to protest or qualify that statement, you're engaging rape apology. 
The direct and personal responsibility for rape lies exclusively with rapists. // - Melissa McEwan (link)

I was too angry and sad. That's perhaps one reason why I didn't say anything in front of my colleagues, anything at all. I didn't ask for details, I didn't quote any arguments back. It took considerable time to process that information fully and look at it rationally, and decide on what to do. I considered talking personally to him but instincts guarded me against putting through yet another encounter with rape apologia. I have often noticed that my unwillingness to argue against sexist remarks purposefully made to provoke me has been used as grounds to question my feminism, so here it is: Being a feminist doesn't come with an unstated obligation of having to compliment statements which question your fundamental rights with rational opposition and tolerance. Being a feminist doesn't mean that I have to put myself through the agony of tolerating misogynist arguments with people defending crimes against me and my kind. It took considerable time for me to understand and accept this but finally this is my stance: Explaining why I am not responsible for any potential crime against me irrespective of what I do/wear to every sexist is not my stated job as a feminist!! I agree, and understand that spreading awareness and educating people about sexual crimes is a critical part of the solution, and I would do so, at my discretion. Being a feminist doesn't mean that anyone who comes up a sexist argument or a misogynist remark can own my personal time and patience. Individual men positioning themselves as intellectuals who can validate my feminism and probing my (feminist) principles do not own my personal attention. Individual men professing to be well-meaning and empathetic while making sexist remarks do not own my time and attention. Quoting Melissa Mc Ewan here:

// The men who think they are good men. The men who think that being our allies consists of saying it, but then turning on us like snarling beasts the moment we say they have made us unsafe. The men who think they have a right to tell us what it is that we need. The men who think they need to explain to us what feminism is, what womanism is, what womanhood is. The men who claim they don't even want to own women, and yet behave in ways, constantly, that indicate they believe that they do. 

You men that I am describing. You don't own women. // - link

Nor do you own our time. Or my time. And you know something? Even if I talk for hours trying to explain to you what causes sexual crimes, most of my words will fall on deaf ears. I firmly believe, from my own personal experience, that in this age of internet, with the alarming quantum of sexual crimes being reported and the amount of material around them, all one needs is a little bit of time, an open mind and some common sense to understand that a crime is the sole responsibility of a criminal. Lack of awareness is not the sole issue here. It is more to do with willingness to listen, try and understand. It is more to do with inertia to resist existing privilege bestowed on (straight) men by the society. Because in this world, it is easier to solely blame women for not doing enough to prevent crimes against themselves than simply hold criminals accountable. Blame women for not covering up. Blame women for not being careful enough. Blame women for making false accusations, as though women would have incentive to purposefully undermine the gravity of sexual assaults when the whole world around them blames them for being assaulted. Blame women for not doing a good job of explaining feminism to misogynists and rape apologists. Blame women for not raising their voice, and create a space which makes it impossible for them to do so. Blame mothers for all the sons who turn into rapists and for all the daughters who were careless enough to get raped or were terrorized into not raising their voice when they were being tortured, as though parenting is only mothers' responsibility and pretend that the original oppression which conditioned some mothers to be misogynistic never happened. Blame women for not putting enough efforts to prevent the crime, and absolve men of all responsibility, even when all sexual criminals happen to be men. Blame women for anything and everything which they do, and for anything and everything which they don't do. Just blame women and shrug off your shoulders. Does terrorism sound familiar, anyone?

While in all propriety, I note here that feminists and likewise, misogynists, can be people of either any gender, there is something distinctly different about being a woman and react to a sexist remark. Having a considerable portion of the human kind, right from your near and dear ones to random strangers, across every section of the society, including influential, popular and powerful public figures, advocate that you are somehow not equal, and tell you that you must deserve less than, is not an easy fact to live with. Facing and encountering different versions of justifications for potential crimes against you, in media, in person, at work, on the web, at home, from those whom you love and those whom you hate, in jokes, in literature, in movies, at a public gathering, everywhere is an inherent part of women's lives and I don't think any man can ever come close to contemplating this pain. It is difficult to not the see world in black and white, in absolutes, when you know that there is one absolute which states the simple fact that your life and your body belong to you, and everything on the other side denies you your basic rights. Unlike the wise cynics, feigning indifference or declaring that things will never change is not a privilege that the really susceptible groups (in this case, women) can afford, because the things which are so indifferently declared to remain unchanged are the stuff of their lives. In the context of sexism, if every woman were to believe and accept as the cynics advise that things are never going to change no matter what you say or do, most women would have little to look forward to in their life, because sexism is something which touches almost every facet of a woman's life. At least in this distorted world which the mankind has worked towards creating for centuries, that's how it works.

I often wonder how many men can even come close to imagining what it is like to be a woman, what kind of harassment that apparently 'normal' women - women they know, go through every day of their lives? I understand that every woman's experiences are different, and while each experience is a function of multiple factors specific to that woman's life and surroundings, I am still going to quote some of my experiences here - Because these experiences are affected by the fact that I am a woman, and cannot be divorced from my womanhood: Being a woman means that you may have to think twice before opening the door for the food delivery boy when you are alone at home. Being a woman means you may have to fear what is coming that night when you are alone at home, aware of the security guard's knowledge of your husband's absence in town. Being a woman means having to be scared of working late at night in office when you are alone. Being a woman means having to forego better education opportunities because your family believes the 'outside world' is not safe for you. Being a woman means discovering that no place is safe, after being groped/harassed countless times, on a bus, in a train, on a road, in campus, at school, in high school, at a party, in crowd, when alone, at a shop, in the theater, when you are 6, 8, 10, 14, 20, 30,...however many years of age. Being a woman means understanding that every woman you know has been sexually harassed at least once in her lifetime. Being a woman means going through the painful realization that most of this world de-recognizes you as a human and justifies crimes against you in multiple different forms. Being a woman means that anything which you do can be construed as 'inviting' or 'provocative' to justify crimes against you. All of this and more. And this is only in the restricting context of sexual crimes. Don't even get me started on the multiple other dimensions in which sexism manifests itself to affect the daily lives of women, right from being allowed to be born to burial rights.

What is astounding to me is that most men are stubbornly oblivious to the sexual harassment and the fears which we go through on a daily basis. This is probably a reflection of how little awareness there is about sexual crimes. This is not paranoia. Because that scary world which perhaps exists for men only in hypothetical settings like movies is more real to women - They understand the terror which other women live in. This is probably one of the many reasons why a woman is much less likely to joke about rape than a man. To be clear, I am not in the least implying that shutting ourselves up is a solution. All I am trying to explain is how fears play out differently in men's and women's minds, or rather, between any privileged and oppressed groups. This is for the benefit of men - men who are reading this with an open mind, men who are willing to listen, men who are really trying to understand: to give these men a glimpse of a routine life of a woman.

Acknowledgements: I am very grateful for all the feminists who authored the articles which I have quoted here and others, whose words have opened my eyes and helped me see things in the right way. Particular mention to Melissa McEwan (link), whose quotes I have heavily borrowed from, and Indian Home Maker (link), whose articles have changed my life.

Related articles:


  1. This is the best post on this topic I have come across. I thank you for writing this, with so much clarity. Being a feminist myself, I have not acted with such maturity when I have had those intensely personal but blatant accusations thrown at women. I have yelled, fought back and argued with people who have no willingness to listen. This post made me realize much more than I actually expected to.