Archive for December, 2006|Monthly archive page

Wish I had some answers

Many weeks ago, I read this via India Uncut. An ex-Pachaiyappa’s girl, I know a thing or two about ‘eve-teasing’. My first reaction was sputtering rage – instead of turning the girls away, wouldn’t it be even more convenient to keep them in little pens, till the male er, “students” need a break and could use a distraction or two? Why don’t they ban the men instead? Arrggghhhh

I started writing a post about it the same day, but as I always do when I start to write about this particular topic, I stopped. There didn’t seem to be any point in ranting about it. Usually, am too angry to be coherent. OK, so a mere lack of coherence doesn’t stop me from blogging, I know – but to me this topic is too serious, and too personal to idly rant about, without at least trying to make some sort of sense. Why a change of heart now? Not sure – I suppose this was another incident too many.

If women always withdraw from the problem (and in this case, the withdrawal isn’t even voluntary), isn’t it foolish to hope that the men will someday learn to not behave badly? We don’t ban McDonald’s although their outlets also present a form of temptation to a lot of people. [1] What makes the authorities of this college think their case is any different?

All societies have rules that reinforce good behaviour and discourage bad behavior. In the case of ‘eve-teasing’ this seems to not work at all. Is it because only one-half of the lessons get reinforced? Every girl in Madras knows that she’s “inviting” trouble if she’s going to walk through Pachaiayappa’s College Hostel after dark (or before dark for that matter). Just as every girl in Delhi knows that it isn’t the best idea in the world to go to India Gate for ice-cream at 2 in the morning. Every city has its own rules. These rules aren’t exactly handed out as part of your welcome-to-the-city package. But we women somehow manage to hear of them, and in many cases heed them.

Wonder what the heck is being done with the men? Are they not being told often enough, or are they not listening? They seem to have figured out (at least most of them,anyways) that driving on the wrong side of the road is not a good idea. So it’s not that they are incapable of understanding a rule and behaving accordingly. It is impossible for me to believe that any parent actively encourages this particular behaviour in their child. It can only mean that while we all emanate a general sense of ‘respect women’, we don’t seem to do such a good job at expressing why ‘disrespecting women’ is as big a no-no as driving on the wrong side of the road is.

As far as I can make out, there are two ways of getting people to not act in certain ways – through fear of punishment, and by shaming them.

Fear: With this particular form of sexual harassment, fear of legal forms of punishment haven’t been working. Madras, for instance, goes through its phases of “under-cover ops”. Those unlucky or stupid enough to get caught in the act are probably taken to the police station and kept overnight (or is it for a few days? who knows what happens with these cases). Everyone jokes about undercover cops for a while. And when the operation stops, we’re back to square one.

Increasing the severity of the punishment is not a fix, because legal punishment can be meted out only to those who are proven guilty. A crucial step to that is to get women to report these incidents. And frankly, I don’t see that happening. As an ex-Madras resident, I didn’t “report” a single incident. If I felt particularly bad about something, I’d come home and curse for an hour or so, and that consisted of a generic rant against idiots (when I got to the part about wanting to castrate all men, my parents usually figured out the reason for that particular rant, as I did rant a lot). I didn’t feel comfortable explaining the details to my parents. I sure as hell wasn’t about to give a detailed explanation to some bureaucrat.

Besides which, almost every woman I know, including myself, will examine herself first – ask herself, “Did I do something to attract this sort of behavior?”, no matter how illogical the question is. Women almost always manage to find some way to answer that question in the affirmative. Finding faults with yourself makes it so much simpler – if you can blame yourself, you’re still operating under the assumption that you have control over the situation, and can therefore you can “do something” to avoid it in future.

So fear of of legal punishment doesn’t look very promising. The only other form of fear I can think of is one involving some sort of spiritual punishment. All religions seem to do a pretty good job of inculcating a deep fear about some event that will take place at an unspecified point in the future. But I doubt that announcing that eve-teasers will go to hell is going to solve the problem. How about starting a rumor that that eve-teasers’ dicks will fall off? As much as I wish that were actually true, I doubt that this would be successful either. As religion knows, threatening people with abstract forms of punishment (or offering them abstract carrots, for that matter) goes only so far – at some point, people expect the threat to be carried out, and let’s face it, we can’t make either of these two things happen.

Shame: Call it wishful thinking, but what I’d really like to see is an increase in the shame associated with committing an act of “eve-teasing”. Partly, I want the men who engage in this act to feel as small as it makes those at the receiving end feel. And partly, I believe that guilt / shame may be a more effective and efficient means of enforcement as opposed to other options that involve more paperwork.

Am trying to imagine what it must have felt like when a group of stone-agers (or whoever) first came up with the collective decision that, say, farting in public is bad. Am sure it must have ruffled a few feathers, but they did manage to get most people to get the idea. Let’s go with something more recent – talking on your cell phone in a movie hall. This is a behavior which evolved recently (so there’s no reason to chalk it up to “oh, it’s always been a bad thing to do. No one knows why, we just try not to do it.”) and about which, as a society, we’ve managed to come up with and enforce some “rules”. If you do it, the worst that can happen is that you might get thrown out of the hall (and this is what I imagine will happen, as I’ve never seen it actually happen). More likely, you’re going to get shushed by your neighbors. In order to avoid a little shushing though, most of us are willing to turn our devices off, or be courteous enough to to walk away when taking a call we “have” to take.

At any rate, we seem to have come to a collective agreement that none of likes to be a victim of this particular bad behavior. Is the fact that men simply don’t know what it feels like to be at the receiving end [2] the reason why we are unable to come to a unanimous agreement in the case of harassment? If that’s the case, our chances of reaching that that unanimous agreement are slim to none, which shoots my “shame” theory out the window as well.

All of which leaves me with zilch. I am as frustrated as I was when I began this post. That harassment is about power and will continue to happen as long as one gender wields more power than the other sounds like a nice enough conclusion – it is suitably abstract, and expresses the right degree of despair and disapproval and very distant hope. But I don’t want to conclude that way. Why do women have to put up with with this till whatever unspecified future time when the gender tables might just turn? What can right-thinking men and women do today to make this stop as soon as possible? I so wish I knew.

[1] This isn’t necessarily true, because that’s exactly what the city of New York is doing by banning trans fats in restaurants [Link]
[2] The old line about perpetrators having mothers or sisters of their own doesn’t work because something that might happen to someone else is not the same as that something happening to you.

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Emergency travel

When you hear someone say that they’re traveling in order to be with a friend or relative who is ill, it’s difficult to imagine anything other than fear and a sense of urgency. You imagine them muttering prayers, negotiating imaginary deals with their personal gods, willing their car or train or plane to go faster, fearing the worst, even when trying very hard to not think of the worst.

I found that fear and urgency didn’t even figure in the top five most dominant feelings, at least not for me. What I experienced was an almost preternatural calmness. After making up my mind that this wasn’t one of those worrying-from-far-away-is-good-enough situations, I booked my tickets. Printed out two copies of the confirmation email. Let my office know that I needed to take some time off. Took the subway home. Packed with half a mind on the weather as I imagined might be like when I got back. Wrote out the rent check, but decided to post it from my destination, as it was only the 18th. I made only one call – to my friend to arrange being picked up at the airport. I received many calls – updates from the hospital. Encouraging now, or not so encouraging ten minutes later.

As talk veered towards “decisions” which would perhaps have to be made, I made up my mind to be a decision-maker, instead of the person being taken care of. While it is an attractive proposition to be taken care of, the idea is entirely too risky – what happens if you don’t find some one to make decisions for you? Far less uncertainty if you’re the one calling the shots. Of course, you may not be in a position to make decisions. But I didn’t want to go into that just yet.

I returned to reality, as I realized that we’d already reached the airport. We must have beaten the rush hour traffic. As I entered the waiting area, I realized that I hadn’t brought anything to read. The realization brought a small relief – that was surely a sign that I had indeed panicked. That I wasn’t made of ice, as I was starting to fear.

I didn’t want to buy anything I might like or anything I’d been planning to. In case something bad happened, I’d always remember the book as being the one I bought on the “bad” trip. So I picked up something by Stephen King. He’s morbid to begin with. I could add more dark associations, but they’d be redundant. And I didn’t like his work very much, so I knew I could afford to hate him, or worse, feel quietly discomforted by him for the rest of my life.

I wondered how many other people in the airport were there because they had a family emergency as well. How many of them had been made to silently fume in frustration as the rest of us got a cab first or blocked the subway doors. There I was, once again imagining that people always panicked in such situations. I hadn’t, well, not really. So perhaps, there was no one correct response to these things.

One more phone call. I was told to calm down and not worry. Someone would pick me up at the airport. I made the responses I thought were expected from me. I expressed relief that the person who was ill was being attended to. I thanked the caller for being there, when I could not. After hanging up, I wondered if things would go as smoothly if I were the one who was ailing. In the very worst case, mostly likely not. I lived alone, with no one to even call 911 if I were to collapse. I had to admit that living by yourself was risky. But you couldn’t get married just because you needed someone to dial 911 for you. I considered and rapidly rejected the idea of a pet. A dog might raise an alarm by barking the apartment building down. But like the marriage idea, who could live with a dog just in case you die or come close to dying? Besides, the only pet I’d ever seriously considered was a fish, and a fish would be no help at all.

I felt guilty thinking about fish. I should have been muttering prayers, or glancing impatiently at my watch. I made a half-hearted attempt at praying. I felt the futility of it – if there was a God, he wouldn’t have let things come to such a pass, so how could He suddenly fix everything now? And immediately felt guilty about that. Doubt the existence of God when it’s your emergency, I told myself. Don’t do this now, not on someone else’s time. So I prayed again, a little more earnestly this time.

Emergency travel is an oxymoron. Unless you’re physically running, traveling can’t exactly be done in a hurry, can it? A car or train or plane only goes so fast. And no matter how fast you’re moving, the act of traveling is in itself almost stationary. You can do little else other than sit and wait. The only thing that is shorter with ‘emergency travel’ as opposed to regular travel is the time you have to plan the trip.

Perhaps I’d be as mistaken about hospitals as I’d been about traveling. Perhaps by focusing on the minutiae of the act of being in a hospital, I’d be able to keep fear at bay. Perhaps not. I’d find out soon enough.