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Are you safe in public and private spaces? Seeta and Geeta (names changed)

I was 10 and travelling on a public transport bus in Chennai when I felt something big press against my backside. I felt horrified for some vague reason. It would take me many more years to recognize that the ‘thatha’ (grandfather in Tamil) standing right behind me had had an erection against me. Someone squeezed my boob when I was walking with my mother in a crowded market. I was 14. I yelled my head off, but I couldn’t tell who had done it, as they had already walked past. Boys 2 years my senior at school secretly admired my breast size. How did I get to know about it? One of them proudly told me my nickname was ‘BB (my name)’. When I was a graduate student, there used to be a postdoc who would stare at my chest when talking to me. He did that to all the women in the room.

Friends and relatives have come put their arms around my shoulder and not let go. How did I know it was inappropriate? I have seen the same discomfort on other women’s faces. In fact, we girls/ women know a creep and have our own secret joke fest about how to avoid you. We discuss you and dissect how desperate you must be. Sadly, my experiences with inappropriate behavior continue even as I turn 49. Men who hold my hand too long and rub a thumb across my palm, or those who hold on too long during a hug, or even stare at my fitted clothes. What scares me more is when I see these same men stare at my 16-year-old daughter in much the same way. The sick obsession with women never seems to go away. Do you wonder why we strongly embraced the “Me Too” movement? Because we have all been there and are really hoping that somehow, miraculously, you guys will stop making us part of your sexual fantasies!!

- by Seeta

I was 22. New to a city in an entirely different continent than the one that I was born in. I was in London, United Kingdom for my masters and as anybody new to any country, travel was a big to-do on my list. And I loved London. On my off days, I would take the day pass and roam around the city all alone. It was my first taste of independence and I loved it. For the first time in my life, I had the chance to roam around freely and do the things I wanted to and what my family wanted me to do. Since I hadn’t made any friends yet, I was also solo. I would do lunches and museum trips and my music would be my company.

On one such late evening, I found myself loitering around Charing Cross. They have an iconic cinema that hosts a lot of movie premiers and to my luck, I found myself at a random movie’s premier starring Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel. I was so excited because I was actually right by the press and I saw Nicole Kidman, in the flesh, only a few feet away. As time went by, a lot of people started gathering. I hadn't realized until it was too late that someone was right behind me…rubbing his erection on my back. Through my layers and my star-studded shock, I didn’t realize it sooner. I was raging inside but on the outside, I froze. All my past trauma caught up in my throat and all I wanted to do was go home. And by home, I mean, back home to Chennai, to my room, to familiar grounds.

I somehow found the will to remove myself from the situation and whilst I was walking away from my spot, I couldn't stop myself from turning around and seeing who it was. I turned around and this random man, so nondescript, was just staring at me…and smiling. He knew what he had done and he was proud of it. I ran back home faster than ever. I went home and removed my coat and I still remember that it was one of my big purchases when I moved to London. It was a navy blue trench coat. I removed the coat and checked the back and found a dried white stain on it.

I threw my favorite coat in the trash.

A random somebody had the power to ruin my independence. I stopped hanging out alone past 5 pm. I limited my escapades. I never bought a blue trench coat again.

When I shared it with one of my friends (who is a man) I was told to avoid such places.

What places? Movie premieres? Out in the open? Amongst 500 people? Public spaces? Public transport? Public?

We’re never safe anywhere. Be it amongst a sea of 500 or even in our homes, where we are policed for our clothing choices. Where/When am I ever safe? 7 years later, I realize I should have asked him that. Instead, I quietly and sadly agreed. - by Geeta

The pervasive fear that women experience in both public and private spaces is an unfortunate reality that underscores the systemic challenges we face. Despite progress in various domains, a massive sense of vulnerability persists, casting a shadow over our freedom and well-being. We often navigate an intricate web of concerns, from the subtle yet ever-present specter of harassment in public spaces to the insidious threat that may lurk behind closed doors in supposedly safe-havens.

This constant undercurrent of fear not only restricts our physical movements but also impinges upon our mental and emotional well-being.

This fear doesn’t discriminate with age. Women across ages are united in this sense. We all feel the same fear while walking past a group of men. We all feel the same fear when we’re alone in an elevator with a bunch of strangers.

Until societies collectively address the root causes and actively work to foster environments of genuine safety and respect, the fear will continue to overshadow the fundamental right of women to move through the world without compromise.

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