I needed to get some photos taken for visas yesterday. I kept putting it off, for legitimate reasons, and also just because I felt afraid.
If you’ve been following along, you can probably understand why cameras and photographs would scare me. If not, this will fill you in. But the source of my anxiety was something I wouldn’t have recognized in the past. I wouldn’t have been able to understand why I was afraid and consequently I wouldn’t have been able to calm my fears.
It would have been an uncomfortable, nerve-wracking battle of wills to force myself to do it. So this was progress.
Instead, I realized I was afraid of having my photograph taken because I was afraid someone would touch me in a sexual and uncomfortable way. And I began to imagine what would transpire if that happened.
Perhaps because various accounts of the experiences of foreign women in India (where I am going, no it is not Country X, it is just on the way) have been circulating recently on social networking sites, and because I read them fairly recently, I began to recall the advice of the director of the study abroad program I participated in those years ago.
To understand the impact of what she said, I think you need to picture her. She was an NRI and an economics professor in the US, but she had returned to the city of her birth to be near her aging parents for a few years. She was a small, thin woman, probably not much more than five feet tall.
Her first name was Kalpana, which means ideal in Hindi, and it suited her. Kalpana-ji, as we called her, wore immaculate silk saris in winter and brilliant cotton selvar kameezes in summer. Her family was Brahmin and educated and fairly wealthy. She was polite and polished and not to be trifled with.
She took some time to speak with us girls about the harassment we were likely to face in sexist North India. We got the usual advice–avoid eye contact–and then this one, “If they try anything, give them two tight slaps. That’s what they expect.”
And I’ll tell you, that was extremely helpful advice. I was groped once or twice in crowded areas by men I never saw, andI felt immensely better about the whole thing after delivering my two tight slaps. (Really only one slap–after that, they would have been lost in the crowd and I would have been slapping some poor innocent fellow.)
Thinking you are unable to act to protect yourself leaves you feeling helpless, vulnerable, even despairing.
It’s a gap in a girl’s education. Boys are often told to defend themselves when they are bullied. Adults rarely tell girls that. We are told to use our words, to tell a teacher perhaps. And maybe that’s for the best. Maybe in a school setting, that is what works. But being grabbed in the crotch is no different than being punched in the face. It is assault, and feels intensely violating and frightening.
Inappropriate touching and sexual harassment are forms of bullying. They are ways of intimidating and shaming a person, just as much as demanding someone’s lunch money is. Responding assertively to protect oneself helps. It may not stop the bullying, but you feel better afterwards. Immensely so. And how you feel matters.
Girls aren’t taught that. We should be.
Pondering my visa photos, I imagined myself giving the photographer two tight slaps. And I wasn’t afraid anymore.