Before I talk about ‘the incident’, I would like to begin my experience by sharing a wonderful conversation I had with my father on consent.
I was sharing my opinion on how my clothes, my appearance in a public space, the time of day are irrelevant variables for analysing sexual harassment. This was triggered by a comment he made upon seeing my dress, saying that I need to dress a certain way around his friends, and his workers. Anyway, somewhere down this healthy discussion I was having with my father, he concluded that unless one can fight (physically) with the goons harassing you, one need to modify their actions. It sounded like the ‘you need to be able to bear the consequences of your actions’ advice (maybe someday the harassers would be advised the same?), and I was happy he agreed that no matter what, if one is harassed it is never their fault!
When I was going back to the city I lived in, my father came to see me off as always and we were seated in our compartment chatting away till the whistle blew signalling his departure. One lady was the last to take her berth at our compartment – she asked us all to shuffle our luggage so as to make space for hers; and when another co-passenger suggested she keep her bag in another compartment because this one was already full; she asserted that since she has only one bag, one of us should make that change. You could hear the mental chuckles and see the sniggering glances between the rest of the passengers. When I went to say goodbye to my father at the door, he asked me to keep my cool and not be unnerved by that lady. Et tu, papa?
I recall a word in Bangla my father would use when he did not like my behaviour – ughro. “Tomaar shaaj ta bhishon ughro hoyeche” (Your make up is too loud). Loosely translated it would mean brash, aggressive or forthcoming! Assertive women cause a lot of discomfort – they have the potential to topple the patriarchal regime and put an end to the ‘lajja hi aurat ka gehna hai’ (Modesty is a woman’s greatest asset) bullshit! In a week’s time, my father, unknowingly and unhesitating, gave me two contradictory advices – one through his words, the other through his conduct! I then remembered the various casual remarks made by loved ones about women who occupied space, who made sure their opinions were heard and acknowledged – the ‘dominant’ wife, the one whose laugh is too loud, someone who wouldn’t laugh at your sexist jokes – these are not likeable women. We rarely find women being raised this way.
Now let us forward to an evening I spent with a friend at my home.
XYZ and I had drifted apart after I moved out of the city. On my return, we got back in touch; we were both at an exciting stage in our lives – we both had a new job and were looking for a place to rent and start ‘adulting’. He came over once to celebrate the new house, and our regular conversations revolved around brokers and rents as he was still searching. One evening, he called to say he was coming over and I informed him that I was catching up with a friend of mine after ages and therefore wanted to take a rain-check. He asserted, and to cut the already long story short, came over and announced that he cannot go back to his hostel because he had logged out! The three of us were having a good time – we were drinking, singing and reminiscing school days. Cut to the chase, after my friend has passed out he got too close for comfort. I told him that I would also like to sleep off. He lay next to me and I felt his dick brush against my back. I froze! I did not know what to do; I started second guessing what I had felt and it made me uncomfortable. I got up and went to the balcony and he followed; neither of us spoke about it. When I went back to sleep he started a conversation and kept turning my face towards him as I resisted. I still did not have the courage to ‘create a scene’ – I got up and locked myself in another room till my cousin returned. Next morning, cool-as-a-cucumber he left after kissing me goodbye as I pretended to be half-asleep. I was relieved.
Despite knowing that he was wrong, my mind started segregating what will be seen as relevant facts of this ‘incident’.
- We ‘dated’ for less than two days.
- He invited himself over.
- I was wearing shorts.
- We were drinking that evening; my friend had passed out.
- We lay on the same bed.
- He made a move.
- We did not have sex.
- He needed me to assure him that our ‘break-up’ was mutual; and that I did not ‘dump’ him.
- He came home even after I asked him not to.
- He stayed over even after I asked him not to.
- I wanted to sleep off, and he wouldn’t let me.
- He tried to force my face towards his.
- I was uncomfortable; I locked myself into another room in my own house.
- I did not want to have sex.
It took me some time to start talking about this to my friends (only those I believed might empathise) and I kept reiterating the irrelevant facts like ‘he came over uninvited’. I kept thinking if I could have avoided this – same behaviour that I would otherwise reprimand my loved ones for – ‘Stop blaming yourself!’
The intent of this post is not to establish that XYZ is a bad person. Apart from the obvious reason for anonymity, I concede that he is not the only person to have displayed such behaviour. We are all responsible for shaping the dominant discourse around harassment. Our behaviour, our conduct, our choice of dress is not made in vacuum – it is learnt from everything around us. Similarly, consent is also learnt – I feel that we tend to look at consent from a straitjacketed view (that is if we, at all, believe in the importance of consent). More often than not, consent in sexual encounters is weighed in terms of familiarity, perceived character, clothes, marriage, et al. Since I never said “NO” to him when he was making me uncomfortable, it would be argued as consent; but the fact that I resisted might be seen as an irrelevant detail – so much so that even he chose to ignore it!
Because he can?
We are raised in a manner that teaches us to not care about consent. We are raised in a manner that teaches us to not care about anyone else other than ourselves.
I do not like it when anyone playfully hits me – when I warn others about this, it is often followed by a justification of how it’s a friendly pat. Well, not for me! Another time I politely asked a friend not to share sexist jokes and memes with me over WhatsApp, to which he responded that I should chill a little. When a friend asks us not to smoke in their room, do we still light one?
These are examples that seem harmless, but let us try extrapolating this attitude it to ‘bigger issues’. Are we conscious about the fact that our decisions/actions may affect others? Do we think that we need their consent? Or is it irrelevant because a) I know better, b) I am more important than them.
Someone not ‘agreeing’ with us is anyway taken as a personal attack. A woman’s non-consent in a sexual scenario is seen as rejection of his manhood while a consenting woman is often understood to be a whore.
I think that for the construction of an egalitarian, gender-just, democratic society, consent needs to be defined by the person/community on the receiving end of a decision; and not for the convenience of the status quo!