Bengaluru molestation: #StartAConversation to fight for your right to loiter

Being a woman (or a man who does not enjoy the privileges of masculinity) is difficult. It’s 2017 and it’s not easy, let me assure you.

Just when it was okay to toot the 2017 horn, women were handed a punch with the recent molestation and sexual harassment that women in Bengaluru had to endure on New Year’s eve. As feminists, our mouths feel bloody because the battles never seem to end.

Sexual assault survivors, or people who have undergone molestation are never taken seriously enough.

A prime example of this is how soon after the Bengaluru molestation incident was being talked about on the internet, a hashtag — #NotAllMen — started trending. It did not take long for men to begin seeking validation and praise for not committing crimes.

While the internet has brought significant changes to the discourse, it has also become a place where solidarity gets discouraged, divisive politics tend to look more appealing. The internet offers a safe space for politically incorrect garbage that parades around as opinion. And opinion cannot pass off as analysis or a well thought out argument, but the internet does not go by the standards of peer review journals, so anything goes.

The need for a conversation

Now, in an environment fraught with easy opinions and noise, how can we have meaningful and progressive discussions on gender?

Take for example, the recent twitter 'dialogue' — a collaborative conversation between Why Loiter and Girls at Dhabas (a movement in Pakistan) on the issue of cross-border feminisms.

It is here in these spaces — both physical and virtual — that it becomes imperative for us to align with ideals that promote equal citizenship for women and use whatever resources we can to further the only agenda that matters — of equality.

In an earlier article on Firstpost, we discussed how the internet has made it easier for women and men to co-opt into the feminist debates: "Social media has connected those involved in feminist movements to become more aware of each other and subsequently communicate and collaborate with each other, which is extremely important for the women’s and overall feminist movement to stay relevant and therefore thrive."

Talk is not cheap

While it can be argued that the internet is not an inclusive space, especially when a majority of women don't have access to computers of telephones, it becomes imperative to take cognisance of the class divide. This is where the original grassroots collective action help. Those with access to these online debates can take their lessons to the ground — where it really matters.

Blank Noise, the hugely popular online community understands its ability to influence and change the direction and one of their endeavours is to penetrate the non-English speaking community through performance, video and sound. Sameera Khan, co-author of the book Why Loiter has seen her work inspire a group emerge in Mumbai with the same name. Neha Singh who started group voluntarily linger and loiter in the public spaces that Mumbai has to offer. Conversations that happen online are not just staying online, they are taking various shapes and forms creating serious impact in the lived experiences of women.

Be more visible. Image Courtesy: Blank Noise

Be more visible. Image Courtesy: Blank Noise

Khan says: “Reclaiming public spaces isn’t just about asserting your rights as a woman, but also as a citizen." The right to loiter and to enjoy public space is not frivolous. "We have to simultaneously fight multiple battles on several fronts. The fight for your rights to public space compliments the fight against domestic violence and sexual harassment. The fight against violence in the city and the desire to seek pleasure in the city are two sides of the same coin. These are parallel struggles, there is no hierarchy," asserts Khan.

It becomes important that movements like Why Loiter, Blank Noise and Girls at Dhabas mushroom across the country. Fighting for your right to be visible in a public space should be a priority, now more than ever.

Every time lights are shone on the dark dingy alleys of sexual harassment, the bias against the female gender becomes clear, what becomes even clearer is how much of the bias is socially sanctioned and therefore considered the norm. Why doesn't it surprise us that the likes of Abu Azmi and G Parameshwara normalised the molestation in Bengaluru? And they are not the only politicians who have made ridiculous statements, many others have. And, they are saying it, but a majority is probably thinking it and not saying it.

And that's hugely problematic.

Question those who deny your right to an equal citizenship. Image Courtesy: Pintrest

Question those who deny your right to an equal citizenship. Image Courtesy: Pintrest

It becomes imperative to question our space and position in society in strategic ways — asking uncomfortable questions, sitting our friends down at a cafe and talking about the reality of our lived experiences. Are we not experiencing life that's not truly free? Khan tells me how we reach clubs, bars or public places: "There are many girls who won't put on the dark lipstick at home, they put it on at the pub. Many of them don't leave the house without a jacket or a dupatta...They might also dress differently dependent on whether they are using private or public transport. Basically women strategise in some way or the other every time they leave their homes, so to talk down to them and wag your finger at them and tell them 'do this, do that' is patronising."

Before a woman get's molested, she has already strategised enough and more for her safety. Women get molested, leered at, touched against their will and raped despite following strict internalised rules already, we are not unsafe because of our clothes. We are just unsafe.

No other crimes elicit the kinds of reactions that crimes of a sexual nature do. Instead of focussing on the perpetrators and the heinous act, the focus shifts to victim/survivor. What was she doing at that place? Why was she with a man at the time? Why was she wearing such clothes? Why did she act in that particular manner? Why was she out so late? The structure of investigations into sexual crimes is fallacious.

So how can we fix it?

Talk.

Loud and clear.

Cut through the noise (that's never going to go away, but it's no reason to give up)

Ask questions, especially that begin or end with 'so what?' At the risk of being prescriptive, it is important that we do not lose sight of what's important and the only way we can change the discourse is by immersing ourselves in it. Talk to your friends, talk to strangers, talk to other women and men. Take cognisance of the everyday strategies you indulge in — what are the extra things you had to do that perhaps a man did not? Ask yourself why, talk to your friends about it.

Khan, during our conversation, spoke about the joy of experiencing 'khula aasman' (open skies) a few times, when she went walking alone at night in Mumbai recently, she wrote: "My mind (was) full of the possibilities of what a new city of the future could look like if more women accessed public space in the city and accessed the night in particular."

This 'khula aasman' might seem a distant dream but we have to start somewhere, how about a conversation?