When I was a girl, I had a pen pal in New Delhi. I hadn’t thought about her in years, until today when I read A Letter from New Delhi in The Washington Post. The author poignantly describes how a young female college student in New Delhi, Avantika Shukla, must carefully consider every moment of her day in public in order to avoid harassment and possible assault. I was a young college student once and often experienced similar problems. Today, at 46 and living in Washington, DC, I still do. Only now I have to speak regularly with my three teenage daughters about them. My pen pal might be doing the same thing, I thought. And, while I am not hiding in my house, or fearing for my life, I am talking to daughters about what to do and how frequent harassment feels. As with rape, there is nothing Indian about how street harassment works. Before you respond in outrage or with patriot indignation, “She can’t possibly compare being female in the United States with being female in India,” hear me out because I would argue that you need to change the scale of your consideration.
- My daily life is often similarly “peppered with difficult decisions about where to go, what to wear and how to act.” For example, unless I am feeling particularly energetic and carefree, I will not go for an early morning run by the Potomac River. I know that many women do and love it. However, having once been followed for 45 minutes by a police man on a slow-cruising motorcycle who eventually stopped me “just to talk,” having paused with a daughter for a quick drink of water only to realize there was a man crouched in a nearby underbrush watching us, having been told more times than I can remember to “smile” or that I had a nice (insert your body part here), well, you get the picture. A recent sample study indicated that up to 24% of women in the US avoid exercising outside ever for these reasons.
- As the young woman in New Delhi exits the gate from her home for the day she ignores leers, jokes and comments made about her and her body. My daughters and I? Walking the 30 feet from front door to car? “Smile for the camera, ladies,” as a truckful of men whip out their phones and take pictures of us. We, like Shulka, ignored them. This is such a daily occurrence for girls and women regular occurrence that it has a name: creepshots. What were we going to do, except, ultimately internalize the fact that now a truckful of unknown men had photographs of us all, taken without our consent?
- Shukla attends a women-only college where nearby policemen “stare at the students all day…It made us uncomfortable.” In addition to the incident I describe above, I have been stopped several times by police officers. Once, at a street corner, with three small babies in car seats crammed tightly into the back of my insanely small car, a policeman pulled me over because he wanted to “make sure [I] understood the proper way to secure car seats.” I was wearing a whole piece bathing suit and a wrap for the 10 minute drive home from a local pool. He made me get out and open the back doors, lean over and undo a seat then resecure it several times while he watched my technique, despite my assurances that I knew exactly how to strap in my children’s car seats. He explained that it was my lucky day – he wasn’t going to give me a ticket for not turning my signal on far enough in advance of the corner.
- Shukla wants to attend school at night, so that she can become a corporate lawyer. It means she has to take a metro to another part of town. My oldest daughter regularly takes buses and the subway. But we aren’t comfortable letting her do it alone at night yet. She’s already been touched on the street and, as a tall, pretty and confident young woman, is regularly commented on. She doesn’t feel threatened usually and it does not stop her from being independent, but she is grappling with the conflict of feeling flattered and understanding what those feelings cost. She, like all of us, is developing her own safety rules. And please don’t insult me and say something like “men get mugged.”
- Shukla and her sisters “rein themselves in all the time.” All women do this. Everywhere. I have never been physically hurt by a street harasser, although I did once punch a man in the neck after he grabbed my arm so he could “get a good look at me.” This was nothing. A passing annoyance. But, often, when they don’t rein themselves in, they pay a price. In India, Sonali Mukherjee or, the 33-year old woman who, in San Francisco this week, was slashed and stabbed in the face and arms. There are many more stories like these.
- Since the gang-rape of Jyoti Singh, Shukla’s “freedom has shrunk further.” What do we think has happened to the millions of girls in the United States and elsewhere in the wake of the Steubenville gang-rape in which a young girl in Ohio was drugged, raped, urinated on and dragged from one house to another while more that 50 people were present? If we don’t think that this makes a difference in the lives and thoughts of young American girls we are more delusional as a society than even I am wont to believe.
- At night Shukla’s father waits for her at the bus stop so she doesn’t have to walk home alone. We don’t have to do that. The bus stop is less than 50 feet from my front door. When my daughter can’t catch that bus, we talk on the phone so that I know when she is starting her walk home, especially if it is dark. She really wants me to stop reminding her not to wear her earphones while she walks. As Shukla explains, “Earlier, I would plug my headphones in and listen to music while I was in a public place or transport. Not anymore. Now I try and stay alert.” Do you wear the headphones or pretend to talk on the phone? Or do you take off the headphones, hide your phone and risk the unsettling unpleasantness of a quiet “Take care of yourself, baby”? Hard to know.
- Once in a while my husband forgets himself. It’s late. We’re tired. “She should get a cab.” At first he thought I was absurd for suggesting that a teenage girl alone in a cab at night, even for short trip, wasn’t a good idea. He’s 6’3″, 185 pounds. He takes cabs whenever and where ever he wants. He’s also white, which is a whole other cab matter. But, once we talked about it we agreed and one of us goes and picks her up. This week a driver in DC was convicted of raping three women who got into his taxi. We were really happy when we found an online car-finding service that we could rely on in a pinch. Only two weeks ago, however, a family accused, and has indicting footage on a videotape, a driver (from the same service) of raping their teenage daughter when he brought her home one night.
If you think that I’m exaggerating, vain, oversensitive, or that female members of my family emit some sort of irresistable “harass-me” phermone, consider reviewing tens of thousands of stories from women all over the world available through Hollaback, Stop Street Harassment, Everyday Sexism, Bell Bajao, the Pixel Project, or from any of these more than 100 global safe spaces projects. On the other hand, you could just look at the Twitter hashtag #shoutingback, which for the last two days has been a continuous scroll of similar sad and sometime astounding stories.
India is among the worst places in the world for girls and women today. I realize that there is a vast difference between living in Washington, DC and living in New Delhi. I’m not writing this to say that what women in India is experiencing is not “real” or not qualitatively and quantitatively different. I’m not walk around nervous-nelly fashion, feeling anxious and oppressed. But, unlike 69% of American women asked, I make eye contact on the street. I confront harassers with humour or anger, if I feel secure enough. I’m a lucky, cheerful, person, living in what is arguably one of the best places and times for the greatest number of women in recorded history. But, even then, we are not even remotely close to where we need to be. I want my daughters to run by the river whenever their father or male relatives and friends feel comfortable doing it. People who think we are “equal enough” lack the imagination necessary to envision this transformative change: We should be free and safe and not have to deal with the issues related to simply “walking while female.” Everywhere. So, I write this to express solidarity with girls and women across the globe, with whom I can finally, finally communicate, and to point out the problem with people pretending that what is happening to this girl in New Dehli isn’t happening to their own daughters, sisters, mothers, wives everywhere.
If you a man and feel “gender-tarred” by what I am saying, I understand. My gender is portrayed universally as the lying, scheming, untrustworthy bringer of doom, dishonor, disease and despair to men. It makes a person feel defensive to feel judged by association in these ways. But, consider these two sides of the same coin. It makes zero sense to blame feminism or people (yes, there are men saying what I’m saying, plural) like me for pointing out an obvious fact: in order to ensure our safety as females, all males must be considered at least slightly suspect because of the hateful acts of a few. The same system generating harassers and rapists at warp speed is the one that results in science-denying, all-male congressional panels. It’s the system that insists you are little better than a rutting animal who can’t control yourself when you see an attractive person. Whereas some women feel that harassment, rape and domestic violence is the price they pay just for being female and human, that’s the price all men pay for being men, even those without a violent bone in their bodies. Most men I know are kind, empathetic, and work hard to do the right thing. Doing the right thing now means allying yourself overtly with your sisters, daughters, mothers and female friends to extend the privileges you have – to safety, to public life, to power – freely. More girls and women would stand up for themselves, would stop conforming to self-defeating standards, if they had the least bit of encouragement that men are actually aware of the adaptations they make and are trying to help them. And not just at the harassing moment in which you witness harassment, but, more importantly, when you don’t: when you stud-bait other boys and men, or when you say, feel perfectly comfortable commenting freely on women’s bodies – some of you on national television – in such a way that every little boy (and girl) watching understands that you think women are trophies.
Violence against women, everything from “harmless” catcalls to gang rape means one thing which cannot be said enough, and feel free to nuance the hell out of this fact: NO WHERE IN THE WORLD DO GIRLS AND WOMEN FEEL SAFE. Not Steubenville. Not Birmingham. Not Cairo. Not Rio. Not Johannesburg. NotSydney. Not Brussels. Not Shanghai. Not Kuala Lumpur. Not Los Angeles. Not in Delhi. Not in schools. Not in churches. Not among the strictest of the strict. N-O-W-H-E-R-E. And, while I have friends who are reluctant to allow their sons to walk alone, they acknowledge that the potential for individual harm to boys does not roll up into globally evident and systemic sexualized, domestic and political violence against men perpetrated primarily by women or even by other men. We cannot rely on our current judicial, political, legislative or medical systems to deliver just outcomes. That’s why we have to rely on Anonymous to do the work our systems consistently and repeatedly, all over the world, failing to do. That’s why women and their male allies are participating in Slutwalks, Meet Us On The Street protests, and anti-rape marches. That is why One Billion Rising has thousands of grass-roots events making up its global strike against violence against women in February. It’s not like I’m sitting alone in my office dreaming up some half-baked theory because I don’t want to clean the house.
Women’s rights are human rights and their achievement is a genuinely global issue. I refuse to allow people to divide and conquer women by suggesting that we are too stupid to understand subtleties (maybe even intersections…DUH) related to the local, regional and national manifestations of oppression. Violence is multi-dimensional but violence against women doesn’t recognize geographic boundaries drawn on maps used to allocate resources. The only way you can argue against the idea that what we experience in Washington, DC different from what Shukla and other women are experiencing in New Delhi is to acknowledge the profound degree to which women, with our objectified bodies and our devalued labor, our property-based honor and our body-bound shame, are considered and treated as public resources to be managed by men. The words “our women” aren’t sweet nothings, slyly muttered with barely hidden malice on a dim street. They are obvious, loud and clear and they mean everything.
Street harassment, the “gendered contestation” of public space, is simply the very tip of the iceberg of violence used to subjugate women as a class. It is the daily, casual, entirely normalizing regulation of girls and women. Whether they live in DC or New Delhi.