It begins at a very young age: ‘sit properly, don’t spread your legs’ they tell us when we are small girls. ‘Girls do not laugh loudly’ they tell you. Then it goes to ‘pull in your chest’. It never stops. Rather, more restrictions get added, there are more things you have to keep in mind if you are a girl/woman. You grow up carrying the weight of all that you cannot do believing you are lesser of a human being because you are not a man.
We grow up boxed in outside and inside the house: the things you cannot do, the things you cannot say. And because you are conditioned from a very young age, you grow up without asking why all of these restrictions are being placed. Sometimes you try but no one tells you exactly why it is the girls who have to follow a set of codes, be seen in a certain light. Within the family, adult women are never given a space to take part in the decision making with the refrain, ‘nupi angaang gi wa nattey’ (it’s not a matter concerning woman and children). You grow up being told it is you who have to toe a line if you do not want anything wrong happen to you.
And yet despite all the care you take, all those ‘wrongs’ happen. It will come in the way a male stranger leers and whistles as you walk on the road, sometimes passing comments on your body. And yes, as girls we all know the difference between a simple flirting comment and those that are lewd. The thing is when it is a case of harassment on the streets in the public domain: it is a bit easier to get people to take notice. All one needs to do is shout or confront the said person and passers by step in to rebuke the culprit.
But the thing is: you grow older in age, move on your own in social circles and when the harassment or inappropriate behavior happens, it takes on a different hue. Because such things are never discussed openly, the first reaction in a woman is actually of not being prepared to process that something has happened. In Manipur, instances of rape get attention from the public. It brings people together. But till the time there is an actual case of rape, everything else is swept under the carpet, partly because there is no real understanding of Sexual Harassment if the physical element is not in the picture even as the law is clear what it covers: Section 354A of the Indian Penal Code defines Sexual harassment as ‘bullying or coercion of a sexual nature, or the unwelcome or inappropriate promise of rewards in exchange for sexual favors. The critical factor is the unwelcomeness of the behaviour, thereby making the impact of such actions on the recipient more relevant rather than intent of the perpetrator.’
Sexual harassment comes from a position of power where the perpetrator has the upper hand in terms of the privilege he wields over the person at the receiving end: it could be on the basis of his senior designation, his age, or just his position vis a vis the person, the inappropriate behavior is aimed at. Such unwanted behavior is not something that is easy for other people to recognize including the person at whom it is aimed at though the reasons are different. Most people will tend to look at episodes of harassment from ‘but there is nothing wrong in what was said’ or ‘but nothing happened’ while the person at the receiving end will start with not being able to process what is happening. It is here that the social
conditioning of women that starts from a young age come back and make them unsure, starting from ‘did I do anything even unconsciously that has made this person feel that I am okay with this unwelcome advance?’ It is this aspect that many women remain silent despite the distinct discomfort that they face involving men: knowing that there is no room to air such an experience which will only lead to calling attention on themselves while doing nothing to ensure that such things do not happen again.
In 2008 I faced two situations that left me uncomfortable but unable to do anything about it. The first was when I was selected for an International Conference to be held in Goa where I had been selected to be a Rapporteur. The organizers asked me to seek my travel and stay sponsorship from an agency that addressed the entire NE India region and which were sponsoring 10 people. The person heading the agency was from Manipur and the Conference Organizers sent me the letter of invitation that I had to send in along with my application for the sponsorship. The application was sent by E mail and within a matter of minutes, the said person called me. My immediate reaction was that the call was a follow up of my application and indeed it was, but the nature of the follow up went on this lines: ‘I saw your application and you are a deserving candidate. Now tell me, have you been to Goa earlier?’ I replied saying no and the next question was ‘Goa is fun. We should explore it together after the Conference ends. What do you say?’ My reply was that I was going to Goa for the conference and not to explore it as a tourist. After a week, when the list of sponsored candidates came out, my name was not on the list. I could not even articulate the unfairness of it all and the fact that I had not been selected because I had said no. I was more affected by the fact that there was no system where I could flag this. A few years later, I got to know that he had said something inappropriate to another woman from Meghalaya who slapped him, leading to an internal inquiry after which he left the agency before he could be sacked. It was only after hearing about the incident that I could tell other people who knew the man what had happened with me too.
The second incident happened during the course of an online chat at night during the days when signing in to your E mail put your chat status as ‘available’. The conversation started with a ‘hi! You are up late’. My response even as I didn’t owe him one was ‘yes, I read and write better when I work late hours’. The conversation went on for a bit where he asked something and I answered only what he asked, meaning that I was only being civil to him and not really looking to having any conversation with him. Then came a part I am sure many women who are reading this now will recognize: ‘Would you mind if I said something?’ Before I could say a yes or no, the chat message popped up with, ‘hypothetically if I told you like a brother that you are sexy, would you mind?’. I answered with a very lame, ‘I don’t know why the word sexy is supposed to be something bad. It’s connotations can be of the intellect.’ The response that came to this actually laid bare his intentions : ‘nang shamban khaaba yaamna hei ko’ (you are adept at putting up a protective wall).
Over the years, there have been situations I have had to navigate through as I am sure every other woman and trans woman has had to. We stay on guard, on the defensive and wary. We stand on shaky ground asking ourselves what has made the men around us doing the things they do. We also ask ourselves whether we are over acting and over sensitive. And then, we take solace in knowing that we escaped unscathed, that nothing happened. But it is this ‘nothing happened’ that gives men the satisfaction of knowing that we will not do anything about what ‘could have happened’ and which emboldens them further. But there comes a time when enough is enough. That time starts now.