As a child, I absolutely hated public spaces. I don't remember the number of times I was groped by men as we walked through crowded streets. My only saving grace was that I would cling tighter to my mother's or father's hand as I silently wished bad things for my tormentors. I remember being in a elevator once with my younger brother; we were coming back home after the evening's play. A man who was also with us reached out and touched me between my legs. I was probably 10 years old. I screamed out loud, and the man exited on the next floor. I told my younger brother, then 7, to never mention the incident to our parents, lest they forbid us from playing on our own. Such incidences were not uncommon.
As I grew older, things didn't change much. I remember in high school, a young beggar boy, probably around 10 years old, walked up to me for money. I politely refused and walked away. He continued to follow me and asked me out loud if my private parts were as fair-skinned as my face; he was grinning, knowing fully well how much this embarrassed me. I was in shock for hours, feeling intense shame at some level, but not knowing the source of that feeling.
I was born with fair skin, which always made me a target of incessant jokes -- from friends or strangers, it didn't matter. The jokes were never funny, just demeaning. But I took it in stride. Apparently, that's what you did to build character. Most people thought it was a privilege and I had no right to complain. I felt that it singled me out for abuse, both mental and physical, and probably so did every girl who felt different from what was "normal."
When I decided to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering, I wanted to show the world that girls were as good as boys; maybe I wanted to prove it to myself even more. My class was made up entirely of male students; right from sophomore class to senior year. When I started, I had no friends in a class of 60 students. It took me a while to make friends; in a male-dominated field, people didn't take lightly to a person breaking the rules. And I broke the rules all the time, because that was the only way I could take a stand. But I had a reason to want to take a stand.
Every time I would stand up to ask a question in class, someone would make a derogatory comment. Many times, these comments were laced with vulgarity and lewdness. This was a class filled with some of the most highly qualified undergraduate students in the city... and not one person ever raised their voice against my tormentors. On top of that, every single professor (and I only had male professors) failed to even notice these comments. What was a girl doing in a man's world, after all? She deserved to be put in her rightful place. I had friends outside of class, but since they made fun of me, too, I never imagined they'd empathize with my misery.
Mostly, I never let anyone see my vulnerability. The instant you did that, someone would try to take advantage of you. But when I would go home, I cried to my mother almost every day for months, maybe years. She promised me it would get better; she promised me my struggles would make me stronger; she told me to keep fighting my battles; she promised me she would support me and stand by me. But she couldn't do anything else to change my situation; that was how women had always been treated in our society. These words came from a woman who had herself been a rebel when she was my age, but time had worn her down. Time and society.
When the time came for me to leave the country and fly to the United States for a graduate degree, my mother finally promised me the thing I had always wanted to hear: Go live a life where you will no longer have to face everyday struggles because you were born a woman. So far, I had only imagined a life where I would not feel threatened to walk freely on a crowded street without the fear of an unwelcome touch. A life where I was not being undressed daily by hundreds of lewd eyes. A life where people would look into my eyes when they spoke to me, and not at my body. A life where I was not afraid of driving home alone at night. Where none of my male student counterparts believed it was OK to make fun of me because I was a girl, and those that felt otherwise had the courage to speak up. A life where no one judged me because I was different, did not think like other girls and was not branded "loose," just because I did not dress like them or have male friends.
And guess what? I lived that life. For over 11 years, I did just that!
Last year, however, I went back to live in my country for an extended period of time; I was on a sabbatical. And I was certain things were different now, certain that people had changed. I had long forgotten my struggles as a young woman growing up in this culture.
What I experienced was shocking, a rude awakening of senses from the time we landed until the time my husband and I decided we could not tolerate it any longer and decided to come back to the United States. Nothing had changed. Things only seemed worse. I remember fighting with one of my close male friends because he argued that women across the world experienced the same level of abuse when they stepped out of their house every day. He had never stepped out of the country. I remember sitting in a car while waiting for my husband to bring something from the grocery store and noticing some young men staring at me and then starting to dry-hump each other to cause me embarrassment. Friends still said demeaning things and thought they were being funny. Women were still struggling to find a equal place in a patriarchal society. And yet the people around me, my own friends and family members, had stopped noticing the everyday struggles because they had to live with them, every day. They too had been worn down with time and society. And life had to go on... but I had to leave. My eyes had seen a different world.
And while I tried in my own way to alleviate the the pain and anger by writing about it and by coaching young girls to lead more confident lives, I had to force myself to come to a new realization. A realization that change in India would be slow and difficult. And so long as I was an observer from the outside, no matter how gut-wrenching my own struggles had been, I had to learn to leave India alone ...
Leave India alone, not because the society exhibits one of the most regressive attitudes towards women, but because what is the point when so many people in power refuse to accept that there is a problem. Leave India alone, not because practices like child marriage, dowry, female infanticide, are still prevalent here and have resulted in a disturbing male-to-female ratio, but because if there is someway to attach blame to the Western world, then our leaders will ensure that they scream so with all their might. Leave India alone, because while women are abused in forms other than rape, people think that worldwide statistics speak louder than their mothers', sisters', daughters' or wives' daily struggles. Or if there is any country that has a worse off statistic than India, then it somehow makes the issue more tolerable. Leave India alone, because no matter how much people genuinely care, the fact that you are not Indian (or are an Indian living outside India) always makes you an outsider to the pain felt by her people.
Leave India alone, because as Harry Truman once said, "once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear."