Contribution by: Afshan Mariam
Summer has been filled with workshops and teacher trainings. After much fuss about what to discuss with them, we decided that mental health issues must be addressed. These included issues related to anxiety, moods and trauma. Discussing these issues always brings up very personal stories- panic attacks, depression or abuse is often discussed in these sessions. During one of the session on sexual abuse among adolescent girls, one of the teachers narrated this incident-
She was a teacher in a residential school for girls. One night, the chowkidar (security guard) of the school sexually harassed one of the girls while she was walking down the corridor. The next morning, the scared girl reported this to her teachers who took immediate action against the chowkidar. However, the parents pulled the girl out of school and refused to send her back. The teacher was in dialogue with the parents on sending the student back to school, ensuring that this mistake will not happen again.
While this was taking place, she overheard one of the teachers’ passing judgements on the girl – the girl was already of ‘such’ character. She was seen as being seductive or brazen which had resulted in her being harassed, in their opinion. The teacher was shocked to hear such a statement being made among her own women colleagues- she was disgusted by the labeling they had made of the child. They teachers were already struggling to keep the girls in school and such judgments were not helping their cause. She asked them if any of the teachers had not experienced being harassed. Unfortunately, this was not the case- every teacher had experienced some form of sexual harassment either at home, the streets or work place.
The stories narrated by the teacher are one of the many we hear. Sexual harassment or abuse is not uncommon- it existed before the media decided to highlight it in the opinions column. Carrying a shawl when travelling on a bus, walking quickly down an empty street or looking anywhere but into the eyes of the people around us has become patterns of behavior in our daily routine. Is it not strange that not one woman has not felt harassed or violated at some point? Is there something about women that invites such advances? Do we take ‘such’ characters and hide them away, for our own safety?
Are we ashamed of our sexuality?
I often think about how I could discuss this with the teachers and girls- do we engage in clouded conversations on patriarchy and structural gaps or do we list out ways in which a girl can ‘protect’ herself? Personally, I have found that none of these referred to the human elements that lay disturbed within- years of teaching (implicit and explicit) have taught me that I had a body that needed to be covered. This body attracted unwanted attention and it had to be hidden away. These veils not only would fall around my body but would soon cover my mind as well.
One line of thought I have heard constantly was – we trust you, but we don’t trust those around you. So, for your own good you must learn to behave ‘modestly’. If someone harassed me, I was at the wrong place at the wrong time. The catcalls or the groping or the staring were things I could not stop- they were going to happen. All I could do was to turn the other way and remain modest. Modesty was to be my chastity belt. I possessed something that could be used against me and I had to hide it away- for my own good, of course.
Coming back to the story of the teacher- it is a brilliant illustration of how these dominant narratives in our culture have permeated our interactions. When the girl got harassed, the teachers were quick to blame the girl – To be exploited was expected; the girl had no reason to be there. Since she was standing there, she had asked for it. The girl was 11 years of age; the chowkidar was well over 50. But, the girl should know better than to wander down a corridor at night time. Had she learnt how to behave ‘appropriately’, this would have never happened to her.
We have heard all of these reasons and they might have some basis of truth. However, the implications of such thinking is degrading and dehumanizing- the fault of abuse shifts from the abuser to the person being abused. The person who was abused begins to think that something that is natural- their body, their sexuality, their need for closeness or intimacy is something to be ashamed of. This might lead to either a distancing from oneself or hatred towards oneself. In such a situation, where we hate ourselves or we lie unaware of ourselves, if we were to be abused would we have the courage to stand up for ourselves?
When the body of a human being and its expression are seen as objects to exploit, there is an apprehension towards ownership. The body and mind become distant objects that are under the power of a larger system under which we lie helpless. If these are the narratives that dominate our lives, I doubt if we will stand up for ourselves- for others like us.
What concerned me most about the girl in the story was the feeling of helplessness she might be experiencing. She was harassed, as a result of which she was pulled out of school and made to stay at home. She might be blaming herself for what had happened, she might even be hating herself for it. Of course, we might want to tell this girl that it was not her fault. But, how do we tell this girl why it was not her fault.
For the longest time I could not redeem myself for the sexual harassment that I have had to encounter while I was growing up and continue to experience to some degree everyday. I felt disengaged from my own body; guilty for possessing my body. I tried to stifle my sexuality in body and mind. However, the sadness and the anger remained. I could not talk to these girls without knowing the why, for myself.
After long dialogues and silences within myself and others, sexuality revealed itself to be an embodiment of human spirit. It is a mighty phrase to throw out there, but, the actions and thoughts connected to one’s sexual nature is more than just the want for pleasure or progeny.
Sexuality is the inherent need in creatures to dissolve their own individual nature and move towards a larger union. The movement stems from a source of love and the courage to be vulnerable. Encompassing the inherent beauty of a man or a woman, it is the opening up of oneself for union with other human beings, the need to share, empathize and respect oneself as well as another soul you wish to connect with- in essence, sexuality encompasses the very basis of humanity.
From such a standpoint, where sexuality is a humanistic need, violation cannot be accepted or brushed off. By denying ourselves of this knowledge that lies within us, we are rejecting a part of our nature. When made aware of our sexuality in our daily lives, it is more through violation or harassment- it is associated with feelings of shame, guilt and ‘dirtiness’. Sexuality then, is the tool that invites unnecessary attention.
What if our narrative changed- what if, we, as individuals, are aware of our own sexual selves? In this awareness, we honor and respect it. We are not ashamed of it or afraid of it; rather we let it flow through us, as naturally as it exists. When we believe that it is natural, an attempt to destroy it would not be taken lightly. We would not be victims, helpless under our circumstances- rather we would know what to stand for. We would be willing to step up and protest against a violation of our human nature.
There are systemic issues, calls for a change in our traditional norms of gender roles, sexual liberation and so on. However, these are top down approaches. These will not help me, initially, when I am dealing with my own human needs or having a personal discussion with my children or the teachers. The questions start with, what can I do? Who can I be? Where do I go from here? Our struggles are more personal than we would like to admit.
If we want to address the root issues, we need to start from our homes- ourselves. I find that starting with my own self brings forth the strength I require to make sense of the world around me. I need to have the clarity and vigor in thought and action to move in this constructed world. It is only in this manner that I will honor myself and learn to live with grace and dignity.
Discussing our bodies, exploring them through movement and reflecting on what we feel inside them help to a great extent. Our bodies carry memories, images, emotions and dreams. Our bodies can be our greatest source of support. They are the instruments we can use to create the art of our existence. Being aware of how powerful our body is, can help us in balancing the inside world and the world that exists outside.
Among teachers and students, the best support system one can have is a safe and open space to explore experiences, fears and hopes. Providing a free space where children and teachers can establish intimate bonds that raise each other higher would be the most ideal setting to have in a school. Feeling comfortable and confident enough to talk about our sexuality, bodies and nascent thoughts that emerge in every person’s mind will provide a strong base to explore ourselves, consistently and fearlessly.
It is always a good place to start with- start with your selves. Be aware of your beauty. Move with clarity and honesty. Whatever else the world throws at you can be contained in your palm.
P.S. My journey is continuous and every day brings new revelations. I have struggled to write this article and some thoughts are still being processed. If I have failed to elaborate on certain points, this is my state of mind at the present. I hope to find the strength to explore and find more clarity!
Photo courtesy: Abhishek Goswami.