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Are you safe in public and private spaces?..... Part 2- by Meeta (name changed)

It was when I was in 2nd grade that my mother asked me first to wear a dress over my petticoat, she just said that I'm growing up so I need to cover up. I was so offended, confused and felt restrained for the first time. Everyday from that day on, the way I viewed the world shifted drastically. There is a prose in malayalam named ‘Jagarooka’, I've never resonated with a story as much as I did with that one. I think every woman will find it relatable. It talks about a young girl when she comes for holiday to her native, and during the vacation period just staying with her grandmother, she starts being skeptical about everything and everyone, and once she returns to her home and when her dad hugs her, in her mind she questions his intentions. 

The world is not the same for you and me. 

I come from a place where everyone knows everyone else, and all will be related by some ancestors. Every year we have this big festival at church, people from all over the world come to take part, we welcome everyone wholeheartedly. I loved these festive times, the main attraction were the tiny popup shops which had sparkling shiny earrings and bangles for teens like us. Each of them had a targeted audience with their wide range of products, the stalls with guns, play kits  and cars for the tiny ones, the food stalls, the ones for the grown ups. I was 10 years old, and I was so excited that day because I knew I could buy anything I wanted since my family was with me. I was wearing my newly bought white anarkali; it was the time when that dress was popular among our age group.

I rushed to this stall which had dangle earrings, my eyes and hands went running and feeling each of them in excitement, that I didn't notice this shabby looking 27ish old guy standing next to me. Just like me he was also running his hands over the earrings and at one instant his arms were on my breasts. Just one second of that and he turned back and started walking. I froze and stood there, I didn't know how to respond, couldn't scream or even call my family who were standing just 6 feet away from me. I to this day remember the check shirt and loosely worn pants and his shabby hair, and he didn't even turn back. He looked down and kept walking until he disappeared from my sight. The moment I regained my consciousness and was able to tell my mom that this guy groped me, he vanished. Then I heard murmurs of my cousins curiously asking each other what happened and sharing that someone touched me. I don't remember if I cried, but I remember feeling embarrassed, for being the victim. I never wore that dress again.

Though as a child it was shocking, I thought next time, it won't happen. But little did the little me know it was just the beginning…..

Another festive season…

Years passed and I was 17 years old now, I was a well experienced victim by this time. Casual sexual assaults were a usual happening, on bus or on road. I reached this state of mind where I would look back ten times on my way home from school even though it's barely a 15-minute walk. This was when the festive season happened again. Two guys from a popular TV show came to our church, and a crowd quickly gathered, excitedly watching the live show. Though many of my friends went into the crowd, I was hesitant to go in because the crowd had mainly men. Regardless of that, I went ahead and squeezed myself through the crowd to find a spot where I could see the show. Even within that crowd where there was no space for even a needle to go in, I felt a hand rubbing on my back. During such incidents, it is a dilemma that many women go through, 'questioning the intention of the perpetrator'. Did they do it accidently?, is it just my feeling?. The world shrunk into just me and the person who did it. My whole focus was to dodge this person's touches. I kept fending off by moving the person's hand, sometimes by covering my back with my arms, but nothing worked. 

The suppressed rage within me towards all those known and unknown perpetrators surfaced, I badly wanted to expose and confront this molester. He touched me again and I grabbed firm onto his fingers. I held them tight for 6 seconds. My mind insisted that I yank his arm up and to expose him, to humiliate him, to feed my anger and frustration for all those years. But my body just couldn't. I left those fingers, didn't even have the courage to look at that person's face, I stepped out of the crowd and headed home, once again feeling defeated

The stranger who did not get away!

The train was my main option for commuting during my post graduation years. It was a 6 hour trip, some days I had to travel at night and some others during the day time. It was one such clear bright day. Since it was around afternoon, almost all seats were empty. In the general compartment each of the seats accommodate around 3 people. A man around 55 came and sat next to me with his bag. I kept my bag over my body, as usual, it was my shield from unnecessary touches and 'provocations' from strangers. I was feeling so sleepy but knowing the dangers of falling asleep on a public transport, I decided to stay awake like I do even on overnight buses. The uncle started casual conversations asking where I came from and what I study. He talked about his daughter who is my age, and seemed like a good person, with neatly combed hair, well ironed dress and him grabbing onto his bag like I did with mine. However I just gave one word answers to his questions, pulled out a book and started reading it. Halfway through it, I dozed off. I felt something moving on my thighs. I woke up and checked but there was nothing, the man beside me looked totally unaware of what was happening. I felt the movement again, I woke up and this person was sitting extremely close to me this time. The seat had space to accommodate one more person, and I was confused wondering if someone had come while I fell asleep. The thought in my head was: ‘Is that why he is sitting so close?’ I looked at the lady across, staring at me. I was confused, and the “dilemma” occurred again. I pretended to fall asleep, and this time I was sure that it was not my imagination. I swiftly  moved my bag and he didn't expect that move. The man was so shocked that he couldn't move his fingers that were on my thighs. I looked him in the eyes, while he blatantly asked me "oh are you reading paulo coelho?".  I gathered up the courage that I had gained from all of my past experiences, for all the times I couldn't speak back or stand up for myself, I stared into his eyes and said, "that's none of your business, move back".  It was just that single sentence that took to keep him seated in his position, all through the journey; he got out of the carriage halfway somewhere and ran away. 

I was so proud of myself that day, and that feeling is unexplainable. I smiled and continued with my journey. But it took me 22 years and tons of assaults to overcome that lump in my throat and tell him to move back. Though there were witnesses for 3/4 of the assaults that had happened to me as a child, no one defended or consoled me. Most of the responses I got were "it happens, you just have to be cautious next time". I have seen school kids getting down from buses weeping. This wasn't the last assault I experienced in a public space, but this was the first time someone touched me and didn’t get away with it!

I had stopped wearing particular dress types, because they reminded me of times when I had gotten assaulted wearing them; the ones with stripes, the anarkali.  I always loved wearing t-shirts with stripes on them, but over time I started believing that those dresses brought on the assaults and I stopped wearing them. I know how stupid it sounds, but I was that desperate to protect myself. It took me so many years to realize that I was not the problem, neither my dress nor my body. It was the abuser. They weren't provoked; they were just showing their true selves….

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