By Maya Rose Fernandes
A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine was walking along a stretch of Bambolim beach in broad daylight when a man started walking towards her and tried to befriend her.
She immediately told him that she didn’t want to talk to anyone and asked him to leave her alone. He persisted, asking for her name and telling her that he wanted to be friends.
She suddenly became aware that she was alone on the beach with him. She told him she was staying at a nearby hotel and her boyfriend was waiting for her, in the hope that the mention of a ‘male presence’ nearby would put him off, but this didn’t deter him.
Finally, she threatened to scream until the hotel security guard appeared, if he didn’t go away. It was only at that point that the man left.
Personally speaking, I don’t know a single woman in Goa who hasn’t been groped, ‘accidentally’ brushed up against, had their breasts caressed or their bottom pinched in public, been approached to start a conversation and/or asked for sexual favours by a male.
I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t taken a longer route home after dark instead of the shortcut through a shadowy street, or who hasn’t held her house keys tightly in her hand in her pocket as a weapon, or who hasn’t pretended to be on a call with a friend or a male member of her family when she is walking home when she gets a feeling that she’s being followed.
I also happen to know many women who have been stalked, threatened or harassed with lewd comments, all at the hands of strangers.
At this point, if you’re wondering who these women are, please ask any of the women in your life to share their experiences with you. Shame is the curtain behind which many women are forced to hide, even though other things are changing for them.
It is also the currency that men rely on to keep them safe from having to change their unacceptable behaviour and, more importantly, the way they think about women.
What is it that makes any person think that they have access to the personal space of a woman, that they can approach her in the way my friend was approached, ignoring her lack of consent, disrespecting her choice of words?
Women hate having to resort to violence, having (in general) never been raised to defend themselves but trained instead to be acquiescent and soft-spoken. Whereas men behave as if they are entitled to the company of women and only respond to threats of violence against them.
What if men responded positively to a peaceful, ‘No,’ and women didn’t have to resort to threats of violence?
In today’s day and age, disrespecting one’s boundaries is unacceptable. It is also part of a larger problem in our society. Women continue to face far greater societal inequities that perpetuate violence and dismiss it as acceptable, which prevents women from seeking help or making a change.
The new reality is that as women are becoming more independent, increasing their earning power while still multi-tasking at home as primary care-givers to their families and being general superwomen, they’re realising that the historic reasons for why they’ve needed men in their lives is changing.
Those women who’ve previously turned a blind eye to any kind of abusive behaviour or disrespect towards them are slowly re-discovering sharper boundaries while using their voice to claim more space.
As women are starting to give themselves financial, emotional and physical security, among other things, and as they begin to build new kinds of support systems beyond the traditional norms of what society has defined for them, they’re reclaiming and redefining a sense of freedom (including from violence) for themselves.
This means that men also have to address and redefine how they see themselves in relation to the women around them and develop a new set of skills pretty quickly as, now more than ever before, women are finding means of redress against violence.
Whoever you are reading this, if you are not yet familiar with the discourse around ‘consent’ then please brush up on your understanding of it. Don’t assume that the old modes of operating are acceptable.
Whether you’re a man, woman or non-binary, blaming women for dressing a certain way or behaving a certain way, just because it makes you uncomfortable and saying that they attracted lewd comments, unwelcome touch, boundaries to be broken, verbal or emotional or physical violence towards them is unacceptable.
Women can take up as much space as, if not more than, men than ever before. These days, they’re trying to do it in more confident, empowered ways. And, this is going to require men to step up pretty quickly by learning to understand limits and boundaries, manage their reactions and learn to attune to the needs of others, taking them out of their studied self-centredness.
In the meantime, I’m proud of my friend for using her voice to speak up for herself, irrespective of the outcome.
And, I sincerely hope that many more people (not just women) use their voices to eradicate violence against women in the most powerful and effective ways possible.