I sat on a bunch of rocks and waited for the school van every morning. In Chennai, and at least where I was attending school at the time, there weren’t school buses. It was a bunch of us squeezed into a sticky and atrocious smelling van. It was always worse in the afternoons, especially on days when there had been no electricity in the classrooms, but the lucky ones could stick their heads near the windows for the hint of a breeze. Things like this were normal for me, for my classmates, for any of us living in India, even the wealthiest. I wasn’t used to it my first year there, but by the second, boiling water and milk, turning on the water heater fifteen minutes before showering, and creating makeshift fans when the electricity went out felt like normalcy. I had forcefully forgotten the comforts of living in the U.S.A. and accepted the simplicity – of even the smallest of things – of India.
But I never got used to the whistles, the inappropriate gestures, the “accidental” touching, the stickiness of the sweat layered underneath my jeans and full-sleeved shirts, the not-so-subtle stalking. These are things that every girl or woman has experienced while living in India, at least once, and to different levels. The levels don’t matter, though. It is what it is.
I sat outside of my apartment building on these layered stones and waited for my van. There was a dhobi man on the pavement a few feet away, working alongside his younger son, a yoga class roaring and laughing (actual exercises, apparently) in the park that was opposite my building, and that same lady who walked her cocker spaniel around the park sidewalk every morning. But one morning, I heard a bicycle bell ring to my left. There was a man, and I can’t remember exactly what he looked like except he was skinny and had on a loose button down and dirty brown pants. He was riding the bike and ringing the bell as he was approaching me. He slowed down as he passed by me, whistled, and made a kissy face at me. I didn’t handle it well. In fact, I was scared. That had never happened to me before and no one had ever warned me of something like this happening. When I went to school and told some of my girl classmates, they shrugged and told me that it wasn’t that big of a deal, to ignore the guy. But he kept coming every single day, passing by me, occasionally changing his expressions into implications of what felt dirtier, intrusive. I finally told my grandmother what happened and she started standing outside with me every morning. He passed by a couple of times even after that, but without a glance at me. And after sometime, he just never showed up again.
By the sixth grade, I was a little more developed than I was a year before. I still wore skirts and shorts and tank tops despite my mother’s and my grandmother’s hesitation to let me out of the house with bare legs and arms. I started meeting with a math tutor who lived about a mile away, and I had to walk there every Tuesday and Thursday after school. One day, a man stopped me on the road. I remember what I was wearing that day. A white t-shirt and a skirt that suddenly felt way too short. He glanced at me up and down and asked me where I went to school, told me he was a movie producer, that he’d even been to my school before (I lied about where I went), and proceeded to ask for my phone number. I pretended to take his down instead, and as I was doing so, my grandmother suddenly called out my name, and God bless, she was walking towards me and this man on the street. She asked him a bunch of questions, and she was clearly upset that a random old man stopped me on the road to talk about “movies.” She walked me to my tutoring class after she shooed him away. We didn’t know what he wanted exactly, but we knew his intentions were bad. I felt it in my bones.
I started wearing more pants and full-sleeved shirts after that. I felt as if the way I dressed could prevent me from men’s dirty looks and their readiness to intimidate me on the street. The excess sweat that ran down my legs and arms felt unjust. I knew I didn’t have to do this, that it wasn’t right, but I did it anyway because I wanted to be safe. In busy train stations, crowded malls, stuffed movie theaters, men have touched me without my consent. Sometimes I would turn around and they would put their hands up, apologizing as if it was an accident, and other times, they stared right back at me. This has happened many times. More than I can count. They got away with it, too, as I am sure they have plenty of other times with plenty of other women and girls. The fact that my classmates shrugged this type of behavior off, the fact that they said “that’s what it is like here, get used to it” is completely beyond me. I don’t think we should get used to it. Because if we do, the numbers will increase. The number of rape cases, the number of sexual harassment cases, the number of domestic violence cases, the number of dead women. And the number of everything aforementioned, neglected. This isn’t something we should shrug off and “get used to.” Women should never have to feel the need to get used to rape culture, and neither should men. A slight touch on my lower back, an inappropriate gesture in passing, could’ve turned into something worse.
Girls and women shouldn’t be afraid to wait at bus stops alone. They shouldn’t be afraid to wear shorts or skirts or tank tops, especially when the heat is unbearable. They shouldn’t be afraid of going to the movie theater, they shouldn’t be afraid of forgetting to turn around to see who’s behind them. We shouldn’t be afraid of speaking our minds, about declaring our rights to our bodies. The only thing we should be afraid of is getting used to it.