Posted by Shilpa Menon
Dear readers, I would like to present for your reading pleasure “A Chronicle of An Imprisonment Foretold”. For a few years now, I have been interested in how gender is a fundamental lens through which we perceive the world, even when we presume that we are being “neutral”. I intend to get people to pay me to conduct research in the area. As a girl and a woman, it has interested me on a very personal level, and I don’t think my personal and professional investments in the matter can be separated. The campus of IIT Madras, where I am an MA student in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences (yes, it exists), is a goldmine in that respect. It has allowed me to have a plethora of conversations and learn from these as much as academic texts.
Given my interests, the experience of being a victim of stalking in need of legal support was a rather strange one. You know the trope of the bewildered, helpless victim of harassment? I didn’t quite fit the bill. At every point, I knew what was happening, and I could guess what would happen next. It was all so predictably awful. You’d think that stereotypes belonged to bad novels, but no. It is incredibly hard to report and find resolution to a crime of a sexual nature. It does make you feel horrible and guilty, no matter how well you know your laws and theories. There will be people who think you’re doing it all wrong, that it is your fault.
Mine is not a case you would call “extreme” by today’s standards. There is no body mutilation, no death, no placards and angry crowds. It is perhaps worth looking at precisely because it is a very, very common form of harassment, one that so many of us have learned to ignore. We like to think of perpetrators as evil oddities with eye-patches and scars (and lacking the stellar education that a place like IITM offers), and forget that the problem is widespread, that the perpetrators may be those closest to us, and that we ourselves are guilty of abetment. Well, STOP. And read:
“I want to see you.”
God, another one of those, I thought exasperatedly as I read the latest text from a guy, then a fellow student. He shall be known henceforth, rather generically and uncreatively, as ‘the guy’. At that point, I had completed three years as an M.A. student in a STEM-male-dominated campus where women were considered rare sightings, much like the endangered black bucks in the 600-acre verdant campus. Among them, the “HSS girls”, those in the Humanities and Social Sciences Department, tended, at worst, to be seen as not much more than a stock of desirable, articulate Anglophone trophies to pick from. They represent aspiration and significant upward mobility in the campus social ladder for the stereotypical “techie guy”.
This social setup, added to twenty-two years as a person perceived as female in this world, had prepared me well for that peculiar point in an acquaintance with a male where an invisible line is crossed. It happened often enough that one was always on guard. One too many texts, the language a bit…off. And in this case, suddenly, nine calls a day. Very weird emails. Okay. Must block. Must carry on with life.
“Hey, so I’m really not comfortable with your calls and texts. Please stop. Thanks :)”
This was one of the usual responses, and it had worked so far. I wasn’t going to explain to every one of them about how their way of approaching girls was fundamentally messed up – really, where would I begin? The rot ran too deep, and I was perhaps equally to blame for this culture of male predatoriness. For now, I reasoned, I would be happy with my few rock-solid guy friends whom I would periodically lecture on seeing females of interest not as conquests, but as people.
“I love you,” he told me one day when he caught me in person. This was in a bus. I felt the strangest mix of amusement and anger. I thought we were all old enough to stop buying into silly tropes of professing one’s deep love for a person one barely knows (because what, you liked my HAIR? This profusion of dead cells on my head?).
“Okay dude. This is harassment.”
The guy looked frankly incredulous. “What, this?”
“Yes. You are repeatedly approaching me despite my saying ‘no’. This is not acceptable behaviour. I’ll complain. This kind of behaviour will get you kicked out of campus, and in future, at work. So stop.”
And I got off the bus.
It was becoming increasingly obvious that this case was different. This guy turned up everywhere. I became used to that awful mix of repulsion, anger and fear that rose up my throat like bile each time I saw that face – staring, grinning. The interesting thing about stalkers is that it often takes so long for one to be sure. For the longest time, you stave off the growing fear: maybe it’s a coincidence in a well-crowded public space. Really, why would anyone stalk you? Maybe you’re being paranoid. Maybe he’ll stop after this. Maybe.
And then, over the vacation, an email:
“Hey, I know your address. I’m waiting outside on my bike.”
Okay. Okay. Don’t panic. Don’t. For one, you’re not even in the country. So it’s fine, right?
Over the subsequent semester, the bike became a regular presence in my life. It would be seen parked outside my department, the guy would draw up to me on it as I walked. He would stop my friends and classmates and ask them about me. He tried to get my details from the department office (my address, he got from presumably cooperative officials at the hostel office). He was sending inappropriate texts to another friend of mine, and began stalking her too.
I approached IITM’s Complaints Committee Against Sexual Harassment (CCASH) and filed a complaint. After repeatedly mailing and calling the members, I finally got a response: the case would be taken up. Phew.
With the help of friends, I began collecting evidence – texts, emails, WhatsApp messages. Dates, details that I had forgotten. Anything to show that this wasn’t acceptable. At the hearing and subsequent meetings, I was fully prepared for the first questions:
“Were you friendly to him? Maybe he got the wrong message.”
Of course I was friendly to the guy to begin with, why would I be unfriendly to someone just because he’s male? And what is this “message” that encourages a person to engage in stalking and repeated harassment?
“No, I wasn’t, Ma’am. I ceased all contact and asked him repeatedly to stop harassing me. I used those very words”
“You must understand that this will affect his entire future”.
Why, thank you for bringing this up. I am very repentant about my attempts to complain. How thoughtless of me.
“I understand, Sir, but I have tried everything else. I have no other means to make this stop.”
“At the end of the day, your safety is your responsibility”.
I was under the impression that as an Indian citizen and as a student, there were thousands of people being paid in the police and security forces to ensure my safety at all times, but perhaps I was wrong. My apologies. I forgot that any girl or woman evil enough to invite the attention of a man becomes exempt from constitutional provisions.
“But Sir, he finds me no matter where I go.”
“You can file a police complaint, but you know the implications.”
Thank you so much for the support, really. At what point is one ‘warned’ against complaining to law-keepers? How did we get here?
“I understand. I’ll settle for internal action.”
Finally, the verdict was out. Suspension for a year. Debarment from campus. I was a good chaste student, I had all the evidence and witnesses, I had ticked all the right boxes, the case was open-and-shut. I wonder what would have happened if the perpetrator had been a friend or even an ex-boyfriend.
In the meantime, I had to fend off others: friends who wanted to settle this “between men”. Parents who didn’t think the system worked well enough for me to pin my hopes on a complaint. In their view, settling things “informally” was a time-tested means of hushing these things up. The perpetrator is persuaded to stop by the sheer macho showmanship of either the girls’ male relatives or male friends. To recap, the necessary ingredients would be: a) large family of males b) large group of strong and benevolent male friends and c) testosterone. I was insistent on seeing this as a crime and leaving its resolution to the authorities, and was in turn accused of being naive, idealistic and (gasp!) feminist.
Case closed. It’s time for this self-consciously witty excuse of a narrative to end here, you must think. But no such respite is on offer.
He turned up on campus regularly. Nobody stopped him. Friends told me about seeing him carrying on with life as if nothing had happened. I left it at that. He wasn’t bothering me and I had wasted enough of my time on this.
And then it all began again. Trying to talk to me, following me to gatherings. Staring, watching. At each point, I complained to the Security Section. Again and again they assured me that he would not bother me again. And finally, the same bike, the same roadside encounter. After over a year of this bizarre cat-and-mouse game, I finally lost it. I wasn’t going to wait for the guy to do something to me.
I escalated the case within the means available to me. Having kept them out of it so far, I finally called upon potent parental authority to impress upon the authorities the gravity of the situation. (In IIT Madras, as elsewhere in India, you can be a legal major and still need parents to vet how you live, eat and behave. Well, it’s not like we are taught to fund our own education like adults, so we must hold our peace). The guy, after several attempts to escape, was finally caught at a public event where he had come to “meet” me. Somewhere along the way, the exasperated authorities had expelled him.
This time, there was police action. There was the fear of a backlash, of physical harm if the guy were to come back. There were ample cases involving spurned males, female targets and paraphernalia such as sharp objects, kerosene and acid to fuel my parents’ anxieties. There’s not much that we can do to stop one determined person with such, er, tendencies, they all told me. In the absence of any other alternative, I must restrict my movements, keep myself locked up. As a result of over a year of cowering, pleading with authorities, convincing my parents it’s okay don’t worry I can manage, I now have the wonderful privilege of taking a month off my time on campus.
Remember that this article is titled “A Chronicle of An Imprisonment Foretold”. The prisoner is me. The guy is probably going to get bail.
“You don’t know the seriousness of the situation,” they all kept telling me. I didn’t want to tell them that the sound of a bike would always make me tense up, perhaps for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to tell them that every time I walk out alone, I rummage in my bag to make sure I can pull out my pepper spray quickly. That I then look around for rocks, large sticks – anything to save me in case of an altercation. I knew the seriousness, all right. Try carrying on with your life’s daily pressures with the constant need to be alert; fearful. Imagine fearing all sorts of harm to you just because, one day, for no fathomable fault of your own, a random person decided that he wanted to acquire or defile you like a piece of property, at all costs. And if you can, try believing that for most girls who live, work, use public transport, walk on the streets, this fear is a lifelong companion. The freedom to walk alone. The freedom to not have to inform a hundred people before you step out. Imagine not having that basic right. And yet that is precisely what I must give up now.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not baying for castration or death sentences. I am asking for due process of law. I am asking all of us, irrespective of gender, to change the way we see the process of male-female interaction. No matter what Dhanush does, following a girl around on a bike is not okay. Even when everything around us normalizes acquisitive behaviour by men and shy submission by women (who, it is believed, will be seeking to land any guy with a bike and money), I am asking you to look at the very disturbing assumptions that underlie our concept of “wooing” or “winning over” a woman.
As I said, my case is an “average” one. I have heard of worse; I have seen what women of my age can go through. I am not one of those girls and women who must continue to see and interact with their harassers and rapists every day. There was action after all of it, and for what it’s worth, justice was served. At every point in this long ordeal, I had the staunch support of my friends, teachers, colleagues and wing-mates. They drove him away when the authorities were absent. They helped me figure out my options at every step.They listened to me when I told them that “beating him up” would make us no different from the guy. My parents, despite their worst fears, waited until I called upon them, and even then, listened to what I wanted.
I wonder how it is for girls who remain silent for fear of judgement, for those who are ignored when a violation of their bodies and rights becomes a matter of honour between two groups of men. After a point, I was able to convince the authorities that it was time to stop considering his future and start considering mine. Beyond a point, I was not forced to shake hands with him, see him as my ‘brother’, reconcile, because hey, this is all part of campus life. As someone who knew how the mechanisms on campus worked, I was able to retain my sanity and proceed with this systematically: collect evidence, submit, collect evidence, submit, wait for some action, order pepper spray online. I wonder how it is for girls who do not even know that there are ways to find a solution, who do not even know whether what is happening to them can be called a crime.
After narrating this to so many people I know, the act of writing all this down is an odious one. But for all those out there who are fighting the same battles or worse, I want to say, “keep at it”. This is not a story with a happy ending, but it’s close enough for hope. Perhaps, as parents and guardians, we won’t have to tell girls and women to run away because there’s no other way.
For the longest time, a majority of IITM’s campus community believed that it was relatively better off in terms of gender equality. This collective Ivory Tower Complex was seriously challenged by a recent student survey which brought out egregious statistics relating to crimes of a sexual nature on campus. This Chronicle was originally part of a series that sought to convince IITM’s campus community that we needed confront the problems that have been growing for decades. I am happy to report that both the survey and this article attracted quite a bit of attention. A good number of the responses I got were from men, both fellow students and alumni. They were very disturbed that someone so much like them, indeed, someone many of them knew and unknowingly supported in his quest to “get” the girl he wanted, could cause so much misery. As students who were blind to so many such cases, they were worried about just how much they were to blame as well.
How much of that which we considered innocent and beyond reproach is now to be re-examined in a new light? Thereby hangs a revolution.
Shilpa Menon is a final-year student of the Integrated M.A. programme at IIT Madras.
Disclaimer: An earlier version of this piece was originally published in IITM’s news body The Fifth Estate as part of a series on sexual harassment on campus, which also conducted a survey of 815 students to determine the extent of the problem.