Better safe than sorry?

For a long time now, I’ve been wondering about what it means to survive as a woman in a place where you’re stifled and crushed every time you try to lift your head up. I’m getting tired of the better-safe-than-sorry mantra that has been shoved down my throat by pretty much every person I’ve known since I was 4. Well, I have been safe and I still am sorry.

How have I been safe? I dress “appropriately” and often conservatively; I drive a car; I avoid unsafe areas of the city and take the longer route even in times of emergency; I avoid staying out alone past 10 pm; I am always alert and aware of my surroundings; I do not confront rash drivers even when they scratch and dent my car; I walk away when men misbehave when all I want to do is punch their sneering jaw off; the doors of my car are always locked and the windows shut when I am alone; I am extra careful in basement parking areas in malls and supermarkets with lax security; I carry a pepper spray and a knife in my pocket or purse at ALL times; my phone is always within arm’s reach; I work out first to be strong enough to protect and defend myself and then, to stay fit; I ignore the furtive glances I get; people close to me know my whereabouts at all times and I inform them when I leave one place and reach another; I cover my face on a two-wheeler to avoid uninvited followers. I have given up comfort for safety, I have changed my priorities and compromised on principles for safety, I have given up my freedom and my sense of self  for safety. I have embraced the unfairness in the world and have tried to find positivity and meaning each day. I have devoted myself to work, while knowing that as a woman, my chances to make it in a male-dominated field in this country are less than 1 per cent. But that is a story for another day.

When there are days, and there are many, when I get sick of it – the news; the tragedy of my kind; the everyday life of fear, shame, conformity, defensiveness, vulnerability, avoidance, “appropriateness”, and struggle with my self and my surroundings – I would bawl in frustration or be enraged at the reality of it or hate myself for falling into the trap. I am then asked by people around me to get real. They tell me that they get it, and it hurts them too, but this is how it is and I’m not the only one affected by it. I am basically told to get over myself. I am told to consider myself privileged because I have not borne the fate of someone else who got raped, or trafficked, or abused in the ample other ways only men know how. Some others tell me that even men face challenges and what about other sections of the society that are suffering? These are well-meaning adults, and they sometimes make a fair point. So I nod along at the pointlessness of speaking up, and move on to less uncomfortable conversations and wait for the emotions to bubble up again. Yes I am not the only one affected by it, but that doesn’t help me – rather, it invokes the most grieving, exasperated physical reactions in me. Get real? Well, this is as real as it gets. Is my freedom and my safety a privilege? I have often questioned myself and come up with the same answer over and over and over. No. It is not and it never should be. Yes there are others who’re in far worse conditions but that does not make my life better or privileged because it is anything but that. As Ash Beckham aptly said, “Hard is hard. Hard is not relative.”

“Sure, I’ll give you a hundred reasons why coming out of my closet was harder than coming out of yours, but here’s the thing: Hard is not relative. Hard is hard. Who can tell me that explaining to someone that you just declared bankruptcy is harder than telling someone you just cheated on them? Who can tell me that his coming out story is harder than telling your 5-year-old that you’re getting a divorce?

There is no harder. There is just hard.

We need to stop ranking our hard against everyone else’s hard to make us feel better or worse about our closets and just commiserate on the fact that we all have hard.”

– Ash Beckham, TEDxBoulder.

People fear voicing out their rage lest their genuine concerns be ignored and rebuffed as just another rant. But even when it sounds like a rant, hear them out. The bitterness is real. Their concerns and problems and troubles are real. They come from a place of severe, uncompromising disquiet deep within.

After being this cautious, in one of the safest cities I know, I have still endured sexual aggression in the form of eve teasing, groping, harassment, catcalls, wolf-whistles, indecent conduct, slanderous name-calling, stalking, objectification and much more in the normalized, toxic rape culture we live in today. And I have back down each time in fear that any of these incidents could turn into a potentially life-threatening situation.

I have ignored the stalkers on bikes and in cars who leered and passed lewd comments, while trailing me street-by-street, turn-by-turn for several minutes. It happened every other day since I was 12. I was forced to go out of my way to avoid them. But it continues to take place even today, no matter where I am, with who I am, what I wear or how I behave. My mother of 53 and grandmother of 80 have also been subjected to such vile treatment. Ignorance does not work. Retaliation or confrontation doesn’t work either. All the safety measures and precautionary practices in the world do not help because I am not the reason why this is happening. Like millions of women out there, I have been conditioned to struggle for my survival since a young age. But the one-sided struggle remains fruitless. The just-world hypothesis might help deal with negative social phenomena but it is only as good as that. Injustice steers the wheel of reality and women have inherited it over centuries.

I have considered moving to a country more secure, with a system more liberal and efficient and a population more unprejudiced and respectful towards women. That sometimes feels like a tempting solution, despite being selfish, to these issues. And at other times it just feels like an impractical, far-fetched escape. I have often found relief in the fact that the men in my life are cultured and respectful of women. But those aren’t the only men in my life. Each stalker and misogynistic man I or my family and friends are affected by is also a part of my life. And there is no way to rid my life of them.

Women are also a part of the problem. That deserves another post altogether. But the gist is that we are all closeted. We are all trying to be the safest we can be. We have all compromised on our freedom in order to be free. But we need to speak up. I have resisted writing this post for a very long time, thinking that the words would be written and soon forgotten, and I should rather focus on more action and less talk. But it has sneaked up on me, in several other posts I’ve written on completely unrelated topics. It has slyly crept up in my conversations with people. The truth is that I need to write to make sense of it. And I need to speak up to spread the word. You should too. Because we want to thrive, not just survive.