Different Lives Same Stories

Shah Rukh Khan’s Chak De India is an all-time favorite Movie. I like it for many reasons but mostly because for the first time I had seen a movie about Indian sportswomen. All the women in the film were real women I could identify with. However, what stays with me from the movie is a dialogue that Shah Rukh tells his female players when they have to defeat a men’s hockey team to deserve a World Cup sponsorship. SRK tells his team that they are not just fighting a hockey match, but fighting a system, a system that thinks women are not good enough and that they should stick to cooking and housekeeping.

It’s funny I watched this movie in 2007, felt it was relevant then and feel it’s relevant now. Because the larger system still thinks if women want to avoid abuse they should either have male chaperones or stay at home or not wear certain clothes. Or else why would we continuously insist on knowing what rape survivors were doing at a particular place, at a particular time, what they were wearing and why they were wearing it.

Select hospitals in the United States have something called as the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) a multidisciplinary team that helps rape and sexual assault survivors navigate the medical, legal maze and help cope with trauma. Some hospitals are declared 24-hours centers of excellence if they have Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner or the SAFE program. Hospitals certified as centers of excellence should have nurses and doctors certified and specialized in sexual assault forensic examination and their ER should have SAFER trained doctors and nurses. These services are results of years of advocacy. Prior to SAFE and SART – sexual assault survivors had to endure long waiting periods, which often resulted in loss of DNA and getting check-ups done by untrained doctors and nurses who would cause more trauma.

I am not sure if such a thing exists in India – if not I think this is an immediate need. I think it is the need of the hour, at least every district/ city in India should have this service.

I attended a SART training program, one of the most intense training programs I have ever attended. The training takes you through the medical and legal interrogation that a rape victim goes through. Shows you the medical equipment used to collect DNA, rooms where survivors are attended to. I use the word interrogated deliberately because that is how it feels.

Despite having excellent supervision, I sensed tremendous secondary trauma. In fact, for almost a week after I detested any kind of human touch. The first thing I learned in that training was NEVER ask a victim, “what were they thinking when they were in an X place, at an X time in an X outfit,” because before coming to you for help they have asked this question to themselves 10,000 times.

Self-blame and guilt is the most common feeling rape survivors across the board feel so the last thing you could do is, blame them for their plight. They will tell themselves “What if I had taken a friend along,” “What if I had cancelled the appointment?” “What if I had worn something longer?” Now, even if you are no social worker, community activist, a modern day Mother Theresa there is a basic lesson that we learn in childhood –when you have nothing nice to say, do not say it. Therefore, if you don’t know what to say, keep quiet – that way you would be helpful.

Victim blaming becomes more crucial in the Indian context because of the larger global culture of patriarchy in which we exist. Telling women that they should not step out of their homes after dark or not wear certain, kind of clothing takes women’s rights back to the stone ages when women were married of at 15 and 14 so that they would have a male chaperon and would not be raped.

Also comparing rape to other crimes minimizes a survivor’s experience. With the amount of insensitivity abound in the media and the public about rape – I think everyone should attend SART training because it gives you a good glimpse of your privilege. Rape is not a disease that goes away, rape did not happen because you ate something and it is not going to go away if you take a few shots.

I avoided writing about the Bombay gang rape for a long time, because I felt very strongly about it. Partly because I was a journalist for five-years with a leading publication in Bombay, and have friends that are very good journalists. However, I feel now, more than ever that I need to share my perspective.

My best friend/sister in India works as a senior editor for a leading financial publication in Delhi and the day this incident occurred, I spoke to her. It was 11 in the night and she was taking a cab home, I asked her if it was “safe” and she gave me a cryptic answer “As safe as I would be at 11 in the morning.” My friend is a business journalist a genre of journalism dominated by men, like most other journalism genres except lifestyle and film. This despite India’s biggest financial scam was exposed by a woman – Sucheta Dalal, who has inspired numerous young women like me and continues to do so.

As a journalist, the biggest fear I and other women face is telling our bosses we cannot do an assignment because “it is too late and we feel unsafe,” because the response is “Why did you choose to be a journalist” or even better, “She’s playing the woman card again.”

After talking to my friend, I called up my mom, because I was worried that this incident may have affected her. So I ask her, “lady, I never reached home before 11 but you never warned me about the miscreants on the street! Did you not care for my safety and welfare?” She replied, “I don’t want my daughter to think she cannot follow her dream because of some ****heads.” Well, she did not say ****head; her language is not as colorful as mine.

When I decided to go to journalism, my best friend from college also wanted to study journalism, however, her family did not want her to be a journalist because it was “not a field for women!” I am thankful my parents never said that to me, I never grew up thinking that “I cannot do something because I am a girl!”

As a journalist I covered, my share of late evening assignments not just in secluded isolated places but also press release functions at posh restaurants and I felt ambivalent about either. Most events say they will begin at 5 but none of them start before 7 and I lived away from the city so had to travel another hour and half to get home only to get back to work at 8 the next day. Why? Because, the reader did not care that I was working till 11 last night, they care about their morning newspaper.

The thought of safety never occurred, because I always thought I was doing my job the best way I could. I wanted to do the best stories not because I wanted an award but because I wanted to tell people true stories and give voice to those that never heard one. I was not surprised when I read about a 22-year-old journalist being gang raped, because reading about gang rapes, is at least for me, has become like an everyday occurrence. What really impacted me is when a colleague, said why we lacked the same empathy or attention span when the victim belonged to a strata different from ours?

However, I had barely recovered from the trauma of other blatant rapes being unreported in smaller villages and towns that I heard people asking, “What was she doing there?” if someone asked me this question I would tell them “She was just doing her job, uncovering a scam?” Now if a cop got hurt catching a thief, would you ask the cop “hey why did you run after the thief, you know he could harm you?” Would you ask the cop “Why were you on night duty – when you know there are miscreants around?” You would not, because that is the cop’s job. You would also give the cop a medal and applaud them for their bravery. Similarly a journalist’s job, at least this is what I was taught in journalism school, is to bring the truth to light. However, a journalist tries to do her job but is harmed by some hooligans and what do we do? We tell her too bad, “you have not heard of prevention being better than cure!” “Why did you decide to venture into an unsafe place, which is ignored by locals?”

Like I said before, she might have asked herself this question 1000 times and is going to ask it to herself till she lives. Her reporting this event lead to the reveal that four more women were raped and had she not spoken up, probably, more women would have become victims.

My second job involved interviewing celebrities and often interviews happen at a celebrity’s residence. I once interviewed this popular married actor at his residence in suburban Bombay. The interview was just before the release of this person’s film, after I finished the interview at 5 in the evening I packed to leave, but this person involved me in a random mundane conversation. He told me how he was from a different state and was having trouble making friends in Bombay. He insisted I have a drink with him and watch a movie, when I refused and said it was getting late and I needed to get going he offered to drop me home.

When I refused, he actually had the nerve to pull my hand and say I was being “rude” and threatened to “end my career”. He also added that I would look “prettier if I was friendlier.” I pushed him, picked my bag and stormed out of his apartment. Called my editor and told her what happened. Those five-minutes were the most terrifying moments of my life. I have no idea how and where I gathered the courage to push him and get home.

When my editor called up this star and tried to talking to him, he claimed I was rude and asked ‘too many personal questions. And that our magazine should forget about any interview with him in the future.” After promising me that we would boycott this celebrity, my editor continued to publish his interviews. The only change – she would now send a male reporter to interview him.

So I was not in a secluded, lonely place with a bunch of hood looms – I was in a high-rise neighborhood, with a celebrity, who has a good public reputation? But, had I ended up in the same situation as this 22-year-old, I would still be asked, “Why were you there?”

Contrary to me, my sister happens to be a nurse – a profession dominated by women. But, really is she any safer than I was? Aruna Shanbag a nurse was raped while on night duty, and she still lies in a comatose state in the same hospital that she worked for. Her abuser got out of jail after eight-years, now my question is would you ask Aruna, or any of the other nurses that take care of old, frail and sick, why don’t they refuse night shifts?

29-year-old Mala, a single mom, works in my house. On her way to work one day a man stalked and tried to grope her. This was at 10, in the morning in a crowded neighborhood, when Mala kicked him, he slapped her and threw her to the ground and ran away. Nobody helped her; rather a vegetable vendor told her “if you walk like this, this will happen!” After giving Mala first aid, my mother accompanied Mala to the police station to file a complaint. My dad went to look for the guy but never found him. My dad asked Mala if he should drop her home and pick her the next day. Mala says, “I cannot stop living because of such people. I don’t have a choice; you cannot be my chaperon for life. What will my daughters learn?”

I don’t think I was being stupid, nor was the 22-year-old journalist and neither was Mala being stupid we were doing our jobs. And, even if we were not doing our job and were simply out for a stroll – I don’t think we should be asked why we were out and deserve to be raped or groped. It is a free country, and like men we also want to enjoy what I consider a basic human right.

I have always felt that I am more sensitive to issues of women, part of it because I envision a better future beholds my younger sisters, daughters and granddaughters. Just like women before us who fought for women’s right to vote, who fought against evil societal norms and broke barriers so we could have better I think we owe it to the next generation. In school, we learn that women fought in the war for independence, well if those women could go out and fight for their country – don’t the women of today deserve to be able to go to work, without worrying about the time or about not having a chaperon?

Victim blaming and minimizing rape in a way contributes to rape culture. It is not only insensitive and disrespectful to the victim but also hurts the great work done by numerous activists of the past.

Part of me feels that as a society, we have progressed, but when I hear someone indulge in victim blaming I am hurt. However, I am more hurt when women indulge in victim blaming because I feel as women we need to have more solidarity because in a way we have all at some point experienced an unwanted touch, comment or gaze. Across the board, we may have different life trajectories but a lot of our experiences would be same. I don’t think a journalist, today, feels any safer than a teacher, a nurse or an engineer or doctor – so we are in this fight together, because if not us at least our daughters deserve better!

P. S – Even if you disagree be kind in your responses, this is a sensitive issue


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