By Karishma Shah
When you wake up to a headline that reads: ‘Horror on school bus—cleaner arrested for molesting a three-year-old’, you ask yourself only one question. Is it ever going to be safe to be a girl?
Today, a little over a month since the gang rape in Delhi, we hear another story. This time a toddler was assaulted and molested by a school bus cleaner.
I graduated from that very school. I spent 13 years of my life travelling on those buses. I feel disgusted, freaked out and ashamed. And it doesn’t end here. So many girls in our country go through their lives being teased, touched, taunted, and tortured.
A few months ago, I was sitting at a café complaining to a friend about the injustice I face in my own home because my brother is given more freedom than me. He’s younger than me. I am more mature than he is. But why don’t I get treated the same way he does?
She raised her eyebrows and bluntly responded, “You know squat about injustice. You get more freedom than any other girl I know.” She was right. She shared some of her family secrets that have disturbed me ever since, and I have learned now not to use the word ‘injustice’ so loosely.
She told me her mother was sexually abused as a child. So was her sister. And if that wasn’t enough, her six-year-old niece was touched inappropriately by their male helper. Three generations of women have faced sexual abuse despite being born in a normal middle-class, well-educated family in a big city like Mumbai. So what does that tell us?
Someone recently asked me, “As a girl growing up in India, do such incidents shock you?” My answer was yes, they do. I lied. These stories don’t shock me as much as they should. And that is what is scary.
As girls growing up in India, we have been raised with fear. When we go to the market, we have been warned to protect ourselves. So many of us have been lured at, whistled at and teased. We have been taught to stay away from drunken uncles. Our mothers have asked us if our pedicurists have touched us inappropriately.
So many times I have felt naked in a public place, despite being fully clothed. I have felt weak. I have felt powerless. And like many other women, I too have become accustomed to this feeling of fear.
The discrimination between a boy and a girl and the distinguished difference in power starts in our home. We often see our fathers being treated with a certain privilege, which our mothers don’t get. We see our fathers being served hot food and we see them leave the dinner table with their plates lying there. And then we see our mothers pick up after them.
We see teenage girls being encouraged to learn how to cook, while boys are excused from the same. We see sons share a drink with their fathers, a sign of manhood perhaps, while stricter curfews are imposed on daughters. We have grown up watching the men in our lives elude a certain kind of power and we have seen the women accept that as a way of life.
If this is what girls in educated families in metropolitan cities grow up believing—and far too many have witnessed their fathers talking down to, or hitting, their mothers—then I wonder what hope is left for the uneducated, less aware people in rural areas?
If the girls in our country are taught to protect themselves, then the boys should be taught about the repercussions of mistreating a girl. If a girl is taught to stay away from a drunken uncle, then a boy should be taught about the limits of alcohol so he doesn’t land up being one.
If people feel a girl might protect herself by enrolling in a self-defense class, then that indirectly implies there is something she needs protection from, or defense against. This only eggs on the ideology that men have more power over women.
Instead, we need to understand that along with education, young boys need to be instilled with a truer meaning of equality, and power. They need to learn to grow up respecting their mothers and sisters, so that it becomes second nature one day to respect their wives.
If a day comes when a little boy will have the courage to tell his father, ‘Can you please clear your plate after you finish dinner, and while you’re at it, can you take mom’s as well?’—then we can be assured that the women of future generations may have the possibility of a more equal, fear-free life.
Image by Kashif Mardani