...and then

Monday, 11 April 2011

Indeed, a mother for all seasons

Once you’ve borne children, you can never go back to feeling perfunctorily sorry for something terrible that happens to children. The kind of sadness you feel on hearing some child somewhere has had to suffer something terrible when you don’t have children of your own lasts perhaps a few days, or maybe a few weeks if you’re deeply empathetic. But then it goes away. Not because you are mean or don’t feel deeply but simple because your life gets in the way and these things that don’t directly affect you tend to gradually hide in recesses that keep safe the things you can’t explain or do anything about.

But once you’ve had children, no matter how un-maternal you may feel or consider yourself to be, every child’s misfortune is dramatically superimposed upon your own child, albeit momentarily. Every mother’s pain becomes your own. I might sound like Captain Obvious right now but it’s the truth. Just like you’ll find a whole bunch of heads turning in a roomful of mothers if a there’s a loud “Mama”. A hopelessly ill child, stories of infanticide, of mothers who have just discovered their perfectly beautiful children are not entirely “normal” and don’t know how to deal with it, abandoned children, orphans: the list is long as it is excruciating. I’ve lain awake at nights after hearing of two women having killed their own daughters in infanthood wondering if I could have helped them in anyway; if anyone could have done something; wondering how those mothers live with themselves for the rest of their lives, understanding that the children got lucky and it is the mothers who are the victims of lifelong hellfire.

I read a piece by Shobha Narayan, a journalist who refers to herself as a story tellers (as opposed to demographer) who wrote women from cripplingly poor backgrounds have lived such hard lives that they have no maternal instinct. That they believe and understand the lives of their daughters and themselves will be unadulterated misery if these babies are allowed to live. And so they suffocate their little bodies a few hours after they are born, or lace milk with poisonous extracts that kills the little things in an hour (Narayan mentions this in a heart-breaking way in her piece where she says women in Usilampetti in TN feed their children milk laced with an extract of a plant and the infant “sucks on it greedily”.) If you’ve fed your child, or watched a baby being fed you’ll know how intensely dear that whole picture is – of a child sucking hungrily and greedily at whatever it is being fed, trusting its caregiver to appease hunger. It broke my heart completely to imagine these women doing that within few hours of giving birth. And living with it the rest of their lives.

A dead child in a washing machine, an orphan baby left in a dustbin, fetuses stuffed in a bag, children sold to prostitution, hundreds of dead baby girls: I have heard all this and more this past week. I have had no peace of mind. Largely because I can’t do a thing about it but talk or write or cry. Also because, at the risk of sounding dramatic, my heart bleeds for the mothers. I see my beautiful babies laughing, growing, thriving; I see my husband and I struggling to give them the best, I see my parents helping us out in wonderful ways to make them comfortable and it humbles me. What is a greater struggle? To live with the knowledge that you child is better off dead, or to live every day cosseted in your little world believing everything is well?

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Saturday, 9 April 2011

Stop calling it "eve teasing". You are being molested, not teased.


Last evening, I took my toddlers out to play. We stay out a long time because a) the outdoors are a great way to get healthy and find wonderful new things and b) I like to tire them out like that so they sleep well. Because, really, as a mum and a working one, there's only so much you can take in a day. But that's a different story.

It was a Friday (as you know it's the Arab world's Sunday). We usually play in a grassy little patch a bit away from my home. Today, as I saw it was really lonely there, I decided to stick around in the empty parking lot of a large government building near my home. I usually have my help or my husband with me because managing two toddlers who don't understand road safety very clearly yet is difficult. Today, it was just me and the kids. 

A while into play, a Honda Civic began to cruise up and down the road adjacent to where we were. I didn't pay too much attention because assholes like that usually drive away if they see you aren't interested. Soon I saw the car had turned into the parking lot we were playing in and had parked nearby. I calmly gathered the kids up and moved to the other side of the road, where there is a place to play but is pebbly. As soon as I did that, I noticed the car pull away and I decided that was the end of it. 

After a few minutes I noticed a man walking up and down the stretch of pavement we were playing on. He didn't pay us any attention so I thought it was a resident on his usual evening walk (I am new to the area). When it got dark, I took both the kids - carrying the younger one -- and walked towards home. Most of the area is pretty well-lit and busy; there's just one patch that's dark and dodgy. When I got there, my older child spotted something on the road and stopped to marvel over it and ask questions. I moved closer to the pavement as she started discovering more god knows what on the road. And suddenly stepped smack into this tall hulking guy standing way too close to me. It was the same guy who was walking. Silly as I am, and disturbed as I was by his closeness, I didn't quite realise it was the same guy who was in the car. He came forward to pet my son, who I was carrying, and I took a couple of steps back. He began asking them their names and the niggling warning bell got louder. Before I could grab my daughter's arm and head home, he had reached out again to touch my son's cheek and in the process brushed his hand against my chest. I saw red, gave him a hard shove and started shouting and charging at him but he fled and there was only so much I could do with the kids around. 

My blood boiled as I went home and told my husband what happened. He stepped out immediately to see what could be done and I saw the bastard drive past our house again. I don't know if he was keeping an eye or he just needed to go to the end of the road to turn around his car.

I most definitely intend to report this but I am getting feedback like expatriates will not be helped much in case it gets reported. I've been told to go through an Omani friend or colleague who is well connected. Have any of you living in Muscat reported any such incidents? I know a lot of women face such crap. But have you reported?


Eve teasing

I don't know how many women can safely say that they have never been molested in their lives. If they've been out in a public space, it doesn't matter what they are wearing, whether they are in great shape, whether they're lovely to look at or just plain, they will have been grabbed. 

Very often, when the question of molestation comes up, everyone loves to label a city safe or unsafe, depending on what frame of mind they are in. I find it astoundingly silly and baffling that the basis for deeming a city safe (or unsafe, as the case may be) depends on incidence of reported rape and other attacks. In a city like Bombay, which I will vouch for as more or less safe for women, for the most bit, I was molested in more ways than one.

Once, I stopped to ask for directions and this creep, who would have been barely 20, said he didn't know what I was asking about, stuck his hand out, grabbed my breast and ran. Unfortunately for him, my reflexes are still in decent condition. Couple that with roar-inducing rage, I chased him down, got him by his shirt and beat him up in every way I know. Kicked, slapped and punched him with one of these in my hand. Not only is that a hair-ornament, but it's my most effective protection against molestors. He got away after a bit but I think I damaged him enough for him to remember not to touch a girl for a while, unless she wants to be touched.

On the local train, if I ever got into the compartment where there were also men, more often than not, I dragged an offender out with me. The thing with these guys is most of them don't start on you till the train stops at a station, when the crowd is moving and shifting. They grab you just as you are getting or they're getting out, hoping you don't realise what happens. So I usually am prepared for an attack; drag them out and starting hitting him and/or abusing him till a crowd gathers and takes over. Which is why I love Bombay. A woman's word is gospel. At least in my experience. As opposed to Bangalore, where the men look at you as if you've just offended them by even existing. What a hostile mean city Bangalore has been for me. 

Another time in Bombay, a friend sat alone in the first class compartment a little late at night, going towards Town (South Bombay). For those who have done that will know why it's a bad idea. First class is the perfect option during peak hours but a really bad idea late at night because it's practically empty. Also after 8 p.m. (or is it 7?) men are allowed in ladies' compartments as well. So there she was hoping to reach home without any incident, when a man comes and plonks himself opposite her, whips out his penis and starts masturbating in front of her. I can't remember if I have mentioned this here before but it is the most disgusting story of molestation I heard from someone I know. I am not including child abuse and incest stories because that is way beyond molestation. 

Yet another time, I've been kissed by someone in a senior position who I worked for. He had joined me and a friend for dinner, conversation went very well. I don't know if we had similar interests or he was just being polite and attentive. But the evening ended with him insisting he drop us girls. I lived really far off from where we were having dinner and after much protest (I really was perfectly okay with going home alone at 1 a.m. Still am.) we decided it would be churlish not to accept and so we were dropped back. My colleague was dropped off first and as I lived farther, I was alone with him till we got home. We chatted about this and that, I got told I was charming etc etc. And then, just as I said goodnight and was about to step out of the car, after a cursory, polite thank-you peck on the cheek, I was at the receiving end of a full-on adult kiss, with a little tongue thrown in. To say that I did not expect it at all is understatement. To my shame, I didn't report it. Don't ask me why. Maybe because there was no violence, maybe because he was always so polite and gentle before and after. Maybe because he did major damage control after that, but I didn't report it. I am still confused today as to why I didn't.

And I am not even talking about things like talking to my breasts instead of talking to me, exposing yourself to me or texting me to say when you are drunk that you want to "fuck me" (a colleague in Bombay called Manoj did this. And he found my number through someone else. Unfortunately, I forgot his last name. His poor wife had gone off to have a baby or something), and being hearing lewd things being said as I or some other woman walked past. 

My questions are these: 

1. What is it that makes some men violate a woman's personal space and touch her? Who gives them the right to do that and think it's bloody okay?
2. What is it that separates a molester from a regular man? What makes two men look at a woman and react in two different ways: One checks her out, finds her appealing and stops with that, while the other one reaches out and touches her? What is that essential difference? Lack of control? Lack of decency? Bad upbringing? A disdain for women?
3. Do they also look at the women in their home with the same filth in their eyes with which they look at my breasts or butt or thighs? I mean to ask do these men who touch women without their permission on the streets also touch their women -- mothers, wives, sisters -- at home? Are these, in effect, perpetrators of incest? Or is it just other women they feel comfortable grabbing?
4. Are women responsible for these men having absolutely no fear to touch, grope, or expose themselves to women? Have years of "just ignore him" behaviour emboldened these men to do as they please? Would a man think twice if he had been beaten by a woman for touching her or passing a lewd comment at her?
5. If I have some male readers, can you please come out on this and tell me what treatment -- extreme or otherwise -- would deter a man from molesting a woman?
6. Is this restricted to developing countries and others such as Oman alone or do developed countries see molestation in such a daily, on the street, everyday manner?

A blogger friend recently told me that one of the reasons he likes Muscat is because it is safe, that things like the above don't happen here. 

Fact: The first time I saw a man's penis: Here in Muscat, when I was about 13-14 years old. A man close to where we were playing was hanging around exposing himself and trying to get our attention
Fact: The first time I saw a man masturbating: Here in Muscat. Late evening I was hanging out clothes to dry on a stand in the balcony and this guy was parked perhaps 20-30 meters away from our home, jerking off. I didn't realise what was happening till I almost finished with the clothes.  
Fact: The first time I was grabbed: Here in Muscat, in Ruwi, while walking with my parents when I was nine years old. A man walking past grabbed my then non-existent right breast.
Fact: The first time I got surrounded by a bunch of guys and seriously groped: Here in Muscat. Age 12, cycling home from my dance lessons when a bunch of tween-to-teenaged Baluchi boys surrounded me and brushed their hands against my butt, my chest, my legs while saying things that to this day I haven't understood, in Hindi. 
As a result, when I walk alone, I walk with all my senses on alert. I walk with aggression and hold a bag or something protectively against me, with my elbows ever-ready to shove someone in case they touch me. Do you know how stressful it is to walk like that, protecting yourself constantly, without letting your guard down? Do you realise how painful it is to think that you can't enjoy a good walk alone for the fear of being touched by a creep? Do you realise how restricting, how rage-inducing, how utterly defeating it is to be that way every day? Do men understand why some women in countries where roadside molestation is rampant hold on to their men tight? Why they ask their men to ask for directions, buy a pack of cigarettes or walk half a step behind, very close to their men? 

Edited to add: A friend wrote in to tell me molestation is an issue that needs to be told again and again and again. Men, just ask the women in your life how it makes them feel, even better, think about how you feel when one them is attacked. Women, the more we talk the more courage we can instill in those who won't retaliate. Will women who read this please take two extra minutes to just comment and not leave before they do? Only for this post, please. If the men (if there are more than three) also can take the time I'll be very grateful.

Edited again to add: If I have any Omani/Middle Eastern women as readers, could they please tell me their experience; anonymously is just fine? I am just trying to understand if India, because it is so varied, has such elements and because by and large we don't have dress codes, that this happens to women. Does wearing an abaya, being brought up in a mostly segregated society and not having as many freedoms as women from other places have its advantages as far as molestation is concerned?

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