By Mary Ann Chacko
This is a piece I started writing in August 2015. But, as it often happens, the fire went out of the piece and I laid it aside until recently, when an article in the New York Review of Books stoked that fire and I picked up the piece again.
In August 2015, Maryanna Abdo, an American, tweeted about a man who masturbated at her in broad daylight in Mumbai. When her attempts to confront him and take him to the police station were foiled, she took his picture and tweeted about this incident. Way to go! It is also noteworthy that a couple of men came forward to help her even though they were unsuccessful in nabbing the offender.
As a woman, I admire Maryanna’s proactive response to the harassment. The tenor of the responses to her tweet, however, surprised me. First, her respondents were predominantly men. They were overwhelmingly sympathetic to the harassment Abdo faced; a response I greatly appreciate. Some responses applauded her courage. In fact one woman tweeted:
“U hve nailed it. V hve given D perverts D chance by keeping quiet. U hve our support.”
Many expressed disgust that such an incident should have happened; some even went on to apologize to Maryanna for having had to face such harassment on Indian soil:
“We as fellow Indians ashamed, of such a gory act, & appreciate u for being tough, All the best, we are with u”
Others hoped that she would not generalize such behaviour as representative of Indian culture where guests and women were, in fact, respected as gods and goddesses. Her tweet also caught the attention of Maharashtra Chief Minister Devedra Fadnavis, who ordered an immediate police probe into the incident. While I applaud Maryanna’s response and find the sympathy meted out to her heart-warming, the support and moral outrage her tweet generated simultaneously irked me. Even as I try to articulate my impatience, I fear that my concerns might be regarded as petty and parochial – am I letting what I see as Maryanna’s ‘white privilege’ blind my sense of solidarity with and for women?
Men flashing were a part and parcel of my life as a young girl in Kerala, who took public transport to her school and college. Growing up in Kerala, my first sightings of men exposing and pleasuring themselves began when I was a school girl. These men mostly stood in alleys. When we, my sister and I, crossed the alley, we would suddenly hear someone calling us-shh, shh, and we would turn, only to set our eyes on the man flashing his penis. Most often we just ran away in shock and disgust. But sometimes we retaliated. We ran behind the man with stones or sometimes with just our school bags as weapons. And, of course, the man dropped his lungi (that most convenient of attires!) and took off. Afterwards we would have a good laugh about it with our cousins. They appreciated our courage and it filled our hearts with pride that we had stood up for ourselves.
Returning to Kerala in 2014 to conduct my fieldwork, I found that things hadn’t changed much in God’s Own Country. One day I took a night train to Bangalore city. By 9pm all the passengers in my second class coupe had laid down to sleep. After twisting and turning for a while in a vain attempt to sleep, I suddenly noticed the man opposite me looking in my direction. Then I saw that the man had unzipped his pants and was stroking his penis. For a moment I froze. Then I looked again to make sure I was not imagining things in the dim light. I was not. Once I had ascertained what he was up to I turned away.
Waking up the next morning and having to face the man again in the intimacy of the coupe was embarrassing. But I decided I was not going to sit there and squirm. I started talking to the man as if that was the most natural thing to do. He was a married Army personnel. We both got off in the Cantonment station. He asked me if someone would come to pick me up. I lied in the affirmative and we parted ways.
When I read about the harassment faced by Maryanna Abdo and her reaction to it, I could not help but think of my own reaction in the face of a similar incident. Like her, why didn’t I retaliate in the compartment that night? Had I become insensitive and numb to sexual offenses of this nature after having grown up seeing them? Or was mine one instance of third world woman’s ‘negotiation’ of life in a sexist society? Does my silence make me complicit in the act? Would my silence and friendly chat embolden the man to continue his antics unlike the man confronted by Adbo, who might now think twice before exposing himself before a woman?
Looking back all these months later, I realize that pretending as if everything was normal and making the effort to look the man in the eye and talk to him was my way of resisting his attempts at seeing me as a sexual object. It was my way of reclaiming my humanity while also trying to shame him. I don’t know if I was successful in shaming him, but that I didn’t run away in fear or embarrassment from my harasser as though I was the one at fault helped me feel human and strong. Yet another reason for my silence could be based on previous experiences where retaliating to harassment has been an isolating experience: men and even other women look at you as if you are responsible for the man’s actions; as if you led him on. Unlike Abdo, I have not had experiences of people supporting me. Or maybe I didn’t react because I had unfortunately normalized such sexism in everyday life in Kerala. Or it could be that, as opposed to the disgust that a ‘good woman’ is expected to feel in the face of such exhibitionism, I, lying down in that darkened coupe, like the spectator in a darkened cinema hall, experienced the erotic pleasure of looking whereby the roles were reversed and the man or the exhibitionist become the sexual object and I the “bearer of the look” (Laura Mulvey).
The reasons for why I responded the way I did, or failed to respond as many of you might argue might thus be varied. But what bothered me about the moral outrage on twitter following Abdo’s tweet was that Abdo’s foreignness and ‘whiteness’ had made her victimhood and her courage so obvious while I have struggled to retain my humanity in the face of sexual harassment, have been anxious to share these experiences with others for fear that the blame would be placed on me instead, and nobody had ever reminded me that I am supposed to be treated as a goddess for being a woman in India. Even as I struggle to articulate this sense of injustice, I acknowledge with deep respect all those women who constantly bear the burden of having to prove their victimhood and whose everyday pain and exploitation remain invisible until well-meaning feminists, NGOs and state actors take up their ‘cause’.
Acknowledgements: I am deeply indebted to my friend Leya Mathew for her incisive comments on an earlier draft of this piece.
Mary Ann Chacko is a doctoral candidate 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.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘The Beat and the Hungry generation: When losing became hip’, edited by Goirick Brahmachari, poet & Abhimanyu Kumar, poet/journalist, New Delhi, India.