My daughter was molested last week. Cathleen, sixteen, was returning home from a school sport event and just outside the playing field she boarded a vikram, a small jitney that carries six or more and is one of Dehradun’s popular forms of public transport. The vikram was empty when she boarded, but a moment later a man got on and sat next to her. Very coolly and deliberately, and staring right at her the whole time, he reached over, laughing, and grabbed her breast. Cathleen shouted to the driver to stop, got down, and hailed a taxi to take her home, where she collapsed sobbing in my arms.
She couldn’t quite say what it was about this particular incident that upset her so. It’s not as if she isn’t used to it: it happens, in one form or another, all the time. She has stopped walking from school to the bus stand because of the rude comments, gestures, and occasional groping that all young women here in India are assaulted by in the crowded areas of town. She even prefers not to go out for walks alone in our own neighborhood, though it is known as the safest area in the city and, as she has grown up here, there isn’t a family who doesn’t know her by name.
I guess that day she simply had had enough. At her age, it’s difficult to be constantly on guard, to be vigilant and suspicious, to watch every man warily and to be prepared for inspection and appraisal by any one of them who chooses to do so.
India, particularly the north, is a difficult country for women. Although myths of goddess worship, reverence for motherhood, and respect for women abound, the reality is very different. From the womb itself, girls are abused: sex-selective abortion, although banned by law, is so prevalent in some areas that the male-female ratio (steady in almost every country in the world) has been affected. Girls are less well educated than boys, get sick more often, are taken to the doctor less frequently, earn less as adults, and endure miserable marriages because a woman on her own is too easy a target.
What would it take to change things? A good start might be for girls to talk openly about what their lives are like. When Cathleen tries to discuss the issue of harassment with her school friends, they advise her not to speak about it. “What will people say?” they ask. They have a point. Girls who speak up are seen as too forward, and anyway, they probably get what they deserve. “What were you wearing?” people question Cathleen. “Why were you on a vikram alone?” And she really cannot win: if she travels with other girls, they are all made targets; if she travels with boys, she is considered under their protection and left alone, but then her reputation suffers.
We have solved her immediate problem by my dropping her off at school every morning and by arranging for her to come home in a school bus that picks her up right outside the gate in the afternoon. For other outings and events, we are resigned to making the effort to drop her off and pick her up. But, as she points out, what about all the girls who can’t afford such luxuries? And what about her own independence? Her brother was traveling all over the city on his own by the age of twelve, and it made him sturdy, self-reliant, and resourceful. Are we acting any differently than the parents who refuse to allow their daughters to go anywhere after five in the afternoon?
Daniel Berrigan once said that, to him, debating the arms race seemed like living in the stone age and sitting around the campfire grunting over how many heads would be cracked open the next morning. I feel like that about this situation. Can it be possible that in a civilized society, girls cannot feel safe walking home from school in the afternoon? Do we really need to plan an awareness campaign to convince people that our daughters have the right to be out in public without fear of harassment and abuse?
The answer to both questions is yes. As the director of a school for handicapped children, I spend a great deal of time and energy educating the public about the need for people with disabilities to be included in the community. One of our fundamental beliefs is that if we structure society so that it works for our most vulnerable members, it will work for everyone. Women, and particularly feminists, do not like to see themselves as handicapped, but disability activists understand that it is society that handicaps and that different societies select different conditions as unacceptable. I believe that my work for children with traditionally understood disabilities will ultimately benefit Cathleen and her friends, but in the meantime, I’m going to enroll her in a kickboxing class.
Related: The Unwanted, by Jo McGowan