I am writing this, not as a woman in her 30s with a Master’s degree and a salaried job, but as the eight-year-old girl who was inappropriately touched by a man. I know nothing of sex, even less of what being born as a woman means. I know I have different organs compared to the boys of the household. For a few days a month, my mother doesn’t cook. I think that one day I will have this “privilege” of being excused from kitchen duty. I am completely unaware that when I start menstruating, it means I can get pregnant. The first period will arrive without warning when I am still at school. Class V. The last class. I will ask for permission to go to the toilet because I can sense something is wrong. When I walk to the school van that day, it will be with a stained navy blue skirt, and my face will be a brilliant shade of red. I will feel humiliated because everybody is staring at me. I will be exposed. I will be different from that day onwards.
But right now, I am eight. Yesterday, I was playing marbles with my friends. My knees were dirty and I smelled of the sun and sweat. Today, I am trembling. I don’t know what happened, or why it happened to me. I feel dirty although there isn’t a single streak of dirt on my skin. I am scared. I have been told not to tell anyone. And how was I supposed to even talk about it if I wanted to? Years later, a friend will confess to me that a neighbour came into her room while she was asleep and that he violated her. I will tell her I understand, yet I will still not talk about it. I will not be ready then, just as I am not ready now.
I am an eight-year-old girl who has just been reacquainted with her vagina. One day in the future, I will be coming home on my friend’s Kinetic Honda. We will be fifteen or sixteen at the time. Two men will drive past us in their bike. They will be much older than us, perhaps thirty. They will tease us and ask us what our names are. We will ignore them; by then we will have learnt that ignoring them and staying quiet is the best defence. “It is safest not to engage with men.” They will be provoked by this, much to our dismay. They will follow us, pestering us for our information, and they will drive right behind us till my friend and I have reached the entrance to my home. For a minute, I will consider screaming for help, but they will leave at last.
I am an eight-year-old girl who will carry a secret that hides in the shadows and jumps out at unexpected moments to shock her. One of these unexpected moments occur when she is in her 20s. She is walking in the crowd, covered from head to toe, trying to shield her body and remain unremarkable, when a man passes by and grabs her ass. The shock of this contact is too great for her to process immediately. Imagine this, if you can. Imagine walking down a street and minding your own business. A stranger suddenly reaches out and squeezes a part of your body. The first thing you’ll register is confusion; how can this happen? Every part of your body is sacred to you. You have grown up tending to this body, feeding it, grooming it, living through it. There is nothing as shocking as the sensation of having someone touch it aggressively without your permission.
“How dare you?” shouts this version of me. Long after the physical pain of the assault has left her, she remembers the smirk of satisfaction on her attacker’s face. This will be carved into her mind: the vehemence of her response was ironically his victory. She wishes she had slapped him; at least the feeling of doing something with her own hands will lessen her anger a little bit. A few years later, she will slap a man. She will not feel better. What happened before the slap has already happened.
I am eight years old and wondering if this is the last time, or the first. I will grow up watching movies in which the rape of a woman is a used to drive the plot forward and to develop the character of the hero. I will listen to uncountable news reports of rape. I will read about what happens to girls and women during war. I will take part in sit-in protests and write articles, but the song “Sanjenthong-gi Thongkhada” has already been written and sung.
This eight-year-old girl doesn’t know yet that violence against women is an everyday event, that what has just been done to her is an act of violence. To her violence is the physical manifestation of anger seen when somebody attacks someone, perhaps with a punch, a kick, or a weapon. That one time she saw a man chasing his wife with a kitchen knife was clearly an example of violence. She is told that the wife of her father’s friend once ran out of their house with scars all over her body, and nobody intervened while she was being beaten because it was a “domestic quarrel”. Something to be sorted out between “man and wife”. That is the type of violence she has learnt women suffer. Hereon the wealth of her knowledge will only grow.
What has just happened to me—the eight-year-old—is violence. What happens to that young woman who gets her hair pulled in the busy street of Nagamapal bazaar by a man is also violence. What happens to the old lady and her daughter-in-law selling bora and mimi singju opposite Thau Ground is also violence; the son/husband arrives dressed in a sleek shirt and jeans, his body mass somehow enlarged by his uncontrollable wrath, and he hurls a string of verbal abuse at them both. He calls them “kasubi” (whore), takes some money and leaves. What happens to two young female artists from Myanmar who came to perform at the Sangai Festival at Hapta Kangjeibung is also violence. They are fifteen and dressed in their traditional attire, and two adult men approach them for a photo. Before they can say anything, the men are standing on either side of them and inching closer. The girls try to leave, but one of the men grabs the hand of one of the girls, and holds her back. It is at that point that I finally manage to reach the spot; I have been watching the scene unfold while making my way through the crowd. I separate them and yell at him. He leaves without an apology, perhaps without even realising what he did wrong.
One might read this and say, “Why does she only have bad examples to give?” I wish these were the only ones I knew from personal experience. I could write about how a man who looked like he was in his 40s yelled at me that my trousers made his dick go hard. Those were the exact words he used, except he said them in our tongue. This happened near Kangla Gate. He was sitting behind his friend on his scooter. I was sitting behind mine on her Activa. My face was covered with a scarf and I wore a full-sleeve shirt. Perhaps, all he had to see to get aroused in public and be vocal about it was the idea of a woman.
I am an eight-year-old girl and I would like somebody to explain to me why these things will be allowed in my future. I would like to know why men will send unwanted messages to women with whom they have no relationship, to women who have told them to back off. I would like to know why I have to remain quiet and deal with this on my own, why I will have to be afraid of walking home from the main road to my house in the dark, why I will have to bend my spine so that my breasts are less conspicuous, why I will be called a “slut” for refusing to let a “gentleman” take my hand at the thabal chongba. I ask this, not as a feminist because I am not one yet, but as the girl who got pulled into a shady corner and had her prepubescent body assaulted. I could be any eight-year-old girl you know. You can give the answer to her.