Trigger warning: sexual violence, rape
The year was 2010, and the air moist with perspiration and malice. Puberty had struck, and we were yet to figure out what was going on. Some boys at school had started misbehaving with the girls around them. Even though the MMS culture hadn’t yet fully reached a town as small as Allahabad, girls were made uncomfortable by repeated advances, endless slut-shaming, privacy violations, unabashed sexism and vulgarity.
Most of us, however, were barely aware of the length and breath of what was going on, or even vaguely prepared to deal with it. When the privacy of a popular senior was violated by a bunch of people I knew, I did nothing about it. I left it for her to deal with in her own way, the guilt for which has never really left me.
A year later, some guy from the same school hacked into my Facebook account and wrote vulgar posts and messages to people I knew. In the same year, I also had a series of arguments with a bunch of boys in my class, who then went on to write a filthy poem about me.
They would narrate this poem to each other in low tones and amid loud chuckles. I felt uncomfortable enough to tell my parents about it and request my school principal to change my section. I was also often scared – what if the boys got angrier and did something worse, and I would shudder to think how much worse could they get.
Truth be told, I never felt truly safe in that school, at that age, not even amongst my friends or crushes. But little did I realise back then that I was part of the problem that was beginning to subsume me.
As foul messages from an Instagram group called ‘bois locker room’ started going viral on the internet, exposing teenage boys from elite schools indulging in unabashed sexualisation of minor girls, sharing their pictures and discussing plans of raping and even “gang-raping” them, a few on social media correctly pointed out that the boys sending those message aren’t alone to blame.
The boys who had stayed in that group, read the conversations, and had not attempted to stop them from happening, even though they were not actively participating, were equally at fault. That is true, but the guilt does not end with them alone. In some ways all of us, including those pointing fingers, and demanding retribution, are responsible for it just the same.
We have all played our part in, and have been enablers of this horror story in one way or the other.
Indian parents have long been promoters of the so-called “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. This seemingly secure status quo, although often effective in ensuring some heady, lavender-scented quiet at home, has got to shatter. As Nishtha Gautam points out in this piece for The Quint:
“There are times when one has to acknowledge that our children aren’t as angelic as we’ve fancied them to be. Still, we must strive to find what, how, and who they are.”
Your child will grow up with a set of experiences different than yours, and therefore, will develop different sensibilities, no matter how well you think you have raised him. He is not a replica of you or even of your favourite relative who he resembles so much.
There is no way that his decisions, at all times, under all circumstances, will match that of anybody else you know. He will make bad choices. It is best that he keeps you in the loop when he does, so that you can stop the muck-fest before it hits the fan.
No, Netflix and his wretched mobile phone aren’t the main driving factors behind this behaviour either. Millions of teenagers, across the globe, spend hours glued to their phone screens. And while that is certainly unhealthy in other ways, all of them do not expend their free time planning to sexually harass or “gang rape” their classmates.
A heavier burden of blame for this, unfortunately, rests on parents than on smartphones. If parents don’t teach their children to make their beds, it is quite possible that they will get it wrong. Likewise, if they don’t talk to their child about sex and sexual desires, he is just as likely to get them wrong too.
At times, sexual harassment can also be a consequence of gender-specific morality. When men attempt to leak personal pictures of women they know, or indulge in banter about the sexual habits or preferences of other women, it is often a bid to project these women as dirty. This is a direct consequence of a twisted notion of morality, the burden of which rests more heavily on women than on men.
Younger girls suffer more from this gender-specific morality, because their own parents emphatically peddle it to them. Not only do young girls have to constantly keep looking over their shoulder, they also have to make sure they don’t look “dirty” while they do so.
And if, for some reason, they do appear that way, they have to do everything in and beyond their capacity to keep their parents from finding out. This often involves young girls risking their own physical safety and mental well-being.
Boys exploit gendered notions of morality after learning about them from their homes. Having said that children are not exact replicas of their parents, their initial socio-cultural understanding emerges from home. When they see the burden of morality being imposed on their mothers, sisters and female cousins, they decide that it is the only norm. They use it to pressurise, contain and harass the women they go on to meet.
Similarly, if they see a culture of abuse being normalised at home, they go on to initiate or participate in it in the social circles they forge.
But the blame cannot rest with parents alone, either. Indian schools are packed with bigoted authorities, confused teachers, vague biology lessons and an absolute absence of healthy sex education. Sex is taboo, which is also why it becomes so tempting to young and curious minds.
This culture of obfuscation is also why sex is so dreadfully misunderstood. Adolescents should be taught, in no ambiguous terms, that sex should be safe, has consequences, and is never the same as rape.
Finally, it is time to do away with the bystander culture of mute spectatorship. It is something we are all guilty of. Scared of jeopardising our social standing, friends, jobs, irking our bosses or even losing favour with the government, all of us, have at some point or the other, seen cruelty being meted out to someone else and remained silent. We have prioritised personal gains over somebody else’s rights.
How often have adults told each other, in the presence of children, that it’s best not to get embroiled in somebody else’s mess. How often have we, consciously or otherwise, permitted each other to enable somebody else’s malice, simply by stepping away. “Don’t bother yourself with it so much, be positive!” we tell each other, without realising that our “positivity” is only a matter of privilege, and that privilege can be fragile.
When we remain silent in a culture of toxicity, we become active agents of that culture. We help it breathe and grow stronger. We become architects of disaster.
I will never forgive myself for letting those boys get away with harassing my senior from school. I should have known better, I should have done better. Silence may make us passive, but it will never make us innocent.
While we teach our children to be better, we must learn to do so ourselves.
Views expressed are the author’s own.
Mekhala Saran is a Delhi-based freelance journalist, writer, poet and student of law. She tweets at @mekhala_saran.