By Mary Ann Chacko
The short film That Day After Everyday, written by Nitin Bharadwaj and directed by the famous and much-admired Indian director, Anurag Khashyap, takes on the issue of sexual harassment in India. The infamous Delhi Rape case last year (in addition to other incidents of gruesome rape in India) that made media headlines across the world has suddenly made ‘sexual harassment’ the pivot in gender discourse. The message of this film, which encourages women to learn martial arts for self-defense, is to stop living in fear, for ‘strength lies not in the body but in the mind.’
Growing up in the city of Cochin in Kerala, India, sexual harassment in public places has been a part and parcel of my life. Public transport was my main means of travel. In buses in Cochin seats set aside for ladies were in the front and close to the driver, while men took their seats further behind. But during rush hour, especially when we returned home from school in the evenings, the buses were packed and the passengers stood in the aisles. I would try my best to find a place up front but sometimes one got pushed to the back by the crowd. Then the struggle usually began. My senses would be on an alert mode to detect any unwanted touch. As portrayed in the film, there would be men who pretended to fall over you in the rush, men who took advantage of the crowd to grope you, and pushed their elbows into your breast. Of course, I would yell and scream. The men would look at me as if I was crazy to be accusing them—duh! Didn’t I see the rush! The women would look at me and nod sympathetically. By the time I got off the bus, I used to feel sexually violated, humiliated, and enraged.
While walking on the streets with my sister, cousins, or friends, we would suddenly hear someone calling ‘shh!shh!’ from an alley. Your reflex action would be to turn and look and what did you see? A random guy with an erect penis trying to grab your attention. And what did you feel? Disgust and rage! There have been times when my sister and I would run after these guys to hit them with our backpacks or throw stones at them. Then they would hurriedly pull up their pants or drop their mundu and run, while my sister and I laughed victoriously. When we got together for vacations, stories of us, girls, taking on guys who tried to grope us or flash their penises were very popular among our cousins. My penchant for loose and unshapely clothing and training myself to swing my arms as I walked, to give myself a rough and tough look, developed in those days as self-defense tactics.
In light of my experiences, however, I think the message of the film—that women learn to protect themselves from sexual harassment by learning martial arts for self defense—is an impractical solution. The notion that we can beat up men who harass us and, thus, put an end to sexual exploitation does not attend to the fact that we live in a PATRIARCHAL society. Beating up men in such a society is not going to change the mindsets of men, who harass women; it will only provoke greater violence towards women.
Yes, beating up a man who has harassed you can fill you with a sense of achievement—so well expressed in the film in the scene where the three women discuss how one of them had punched a guy’s private parts in the bus when he tried to fall over her. I too have experienced that short lived sense of elation. But then what? How many men will you take on? What if tomorrow you are walking home from school or work and the guy you beat up brings five more guys with him?
Sexual harassment will stop only when men realize that the sole purpose of a woman’s body is not to pleasure men. Sexual harassment will stop only when men look and see not the body but the individual who is looking back at them. In a patriarchal society men will have to work alongside women to stop sexual harassment. Pitting women against men will not get us anywhere.
This film, however, is not just about the importance of equipping women or women equipping themselves with skills for standing up to the men who harass them. This short film can also be read as a classic illustration of the dominant discourse on women’s empowerment propagated by international organizations, national and state governments, NGOs, academics, and other private actors. Today, women’s empowerment is increasingly viewed primarily in terms of economic empowerment while the ‘traditional’ roles assigned to women are viewed as shameful and to be overcome. The optimism that brings together diverse groups to champion the cause of women’s empowerment is based on a few assumptions. I would like to note one of them here. Women’s economic empowerment is assumed to function like a ‘virtuous spiral’ (Linda Mayoux), that is, empowering a woman is believed to hold the key to the welfare of families and communities, to national development, and finally to fulfilling the promise of equality and freedom from want world over. In the film, we are shown the challenges faced by two women, who attempt to cross over into the male dominated public sphere, while the husband in one case and the mother-in-law in the other serve as gate-keepers of this private/public binary. But these women leave behind the ‘claustrophobic’ private sphere only to walk into the sexist public sphere. I have already elaborated my views about how the women tackle that sexism in the film. But the story does not end there. The street fight demonstrates the merging of the economically empowered woman with the socially empowered one. The emergence of this ‘new and empowered woman’ is, in turn, sufficient to transform her family or the private sphere from a regressive space to a liberated one.
What feminist scholars (eg. J. Devika) remind us, however, is that the assumption of economic empowerment leading to social empowerment and the transformation of the patriarchal society is a spurious one. This came home to me powerfully while watching Aamir Khan’s reality talk show’s episode on female infanticide. Contrary to popular perception that it must be the poor, illiterate and the “ignorant” who kill their daughters, Aamir’s exploration of the issue revealed that female infanticide was more prevalent among the educated, upwardly mobile, urban households.
Here I agree with the feminist scholars who insist that while both women’s economic empowerment and the fight against patriarchy are equally important, they should be tackled separately.
Mary Ann Chacko is a doctoral student in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her dissertation examines the Student Police Cadet program implemented in government schools across Kerala, India with a focus on adolescent citizenship and school-community relations. She is an Editor of Cafe Dissensus. Read more of her work on her blog, Chintavishta.
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