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A Change of City, a Change in Me

by Aishwarya S

[box]Hollaback! is an international initiative that aims to spread awareness about street sexual harassment. It is currently active in 16 countries around the world. In India, Hollaback! operates in Delhi, Mumbai, Chandigarh, and the Chennai chapter was launched in December last year. Aishwarya S, a project associate with Hollaback! Chennai talks about street sexual harassment and what she has learnt and done as part of Hollaback! Chennai.[/box]

A few days ago, I explained to one of my closest childhood friends what exactly the Hollaback movement is all about. She seemed very confused in the beginning. But she slowly began to understand, listened patiently for a while and started telling me about the umpteen times she has been the target of harassment on the streets of Chennai. My friend has lived in this city all her life and she loves it as much as she hates it.

The first time she faced such an incident was when she was in 6th standard. She was cycling down the road when some guy on his cycle slapped her chest and rode past her. A few years later, an autorickshaw driver who had parked his vehicle right in front of her school flashed himself to her. By the time she could bring an adult to confront him, he had vanished. When she was in class ten, she was travelling with her friends by bus when they were flashed at, once again. Terrified and shaken, they told another woman on the bus about him. The woman stabbed the guy with a pen right where it hurts. He was kicked out of the bus. But everyone in the bus turned to the girl and said to her, “Ivlovum thimiru irukka koodadhu ma unakku.” (You shouldn’t be so arrogant). So you see how the general public reacts to such incidents?

All these events scarred and shook my friend. After the first incident, she was scared to even step out of the house and in fact shut herself up. She says that if she had gone to her parents about it, they would have told her that she was inviting attention and that she should cover herself up.

In the last few years, she has started taking a stand against invasion of her private space. Once while she was walking on the road, a guy passed an extremely lewd remark at her. Instead of ignoring him and walking on, she turned back and retorted verbally. Maybe she should have slapped him too but at least she didn’t ignore what he said. Another time when she was on a train with friends, a passenger kept staring and winking at a friend of hers. She called a couple of people from the compartment for support and beat up the guy.

The same friend went to Mumbai last year for a three-month training programme. She found Mumbai to be much safer than the city she grew up in. Here in Chennai, she thinks twice before wearing something ‘different’ so that she doesn’t attract attention. In Mumbai, she wore whatever she wanted and felt comfortable.

I have known her for almost 15 years now and this was the first time we talked about this issue. And personally, having moved to Chennai only seven months ago, I have felt violated more often on the streets here than in the seven years I lived in Mumbai. I hate to make comparisons, but as much as I love this city, these experiences have made me slightly bitter. This is another reason for me to be a part of Hollaback! Chennai.

Hollaback! is an international initiative that aims to spread awareness about street sexual harassment. It is currently active in 16 countries around the world. In India, Hollaback! operates in Delhi, Mumbai, Chandigarh, and the Chennai chapter was launched in December last year. When I was invited to join the project, I wasn’t sure what I was getting into. Now I am glad I didn’t let go of this opportunity. Over the last few months, our team, headed by Chennai-based non-profit organisation, Prajnya, has visited colleges in the city and conducted interactive workshops on this issue. Each workshop started off with first making the girls define “Street sexual harassment.” Our team then delved deeper into the problem and made a list of everything that should be considered harassment. The students were urged to shed their inhibitions and share their experiences. Numerous girls came forward and released bottled up frustration and emotions. Finally the focus was on how to confront it and deal with the situation – how to speak to the harasser, approaching the police, etc. The workshop at one of the colleges proved so successful that Hollaback! Chennai was invited back to conduct a new series of workshops on workplace sexual harassment for final year students. The overall response to the workshops and our website has been tremendous.

Ever since the website went online, more and more women have been writing to us describing their experiences. We’ve also had men writing in with their observations. We had one post recently where the writer tells us about a bunch of men he knew who treated the activity of sexually harassing women in public places as a fun thing to do and boasted about it to everyone.

There are also stories that tell us about the helplessness women felt and couldn’t do anything about. On the other hand, we have inspiring stories where they have taken action. They have slapped the man, or dragged him to the police station, or retorted one way or the other. I think these are stories that inspire all other women to not remain silent. Hollaback! Chennai is not only an effective platform for everyone to vent and recount past experiences, but also a place where we try to arrive at solutions and help each other. Men play an important role in the process. I believe that many of them have been more sensitized to this issue after reading the posts on our website. We once sent out a tweet asking men what their advice would be if their female friends were sexually harassed. It is very difficult to make a difference without having men on board and spreading the message. It is also important that both men and women stand up for their female friends or any woman who has faced sexual harassment. What saddens me is that a large percentage of women continue to place the blame on the victim for not “dressing properly” and hence inviting trouble. They even go to the extent of considering street harassment normal. We have a turned a blind eye for long enough.

Although I knew that street harassment was a major problem, I realised the seriousness of it only after joining the Hollaback! initiative and reading the terrifying recollections and incidents on our site that have been pouring in. I never bothered to ask my friends about their experiences earlier. It never struck me. But lately, I’ve begun to talk about it. I realised how much the whole issue had been hushed up. Most women are embarrassed to even open up. But when they do, they recall everything in excruciating detail -when, where, what, just like my friend did. These events continue to haunt them, even after years.. I, for one, regret all the instances I didn’t fight back and just walked away in fear.

But today, I fight it. The fantastic accounts of women when they fought back, those are what inspire me to muster up courage and retaliate. I am prepared to go to any length to protect myself and not let the offender walk away, lest he tries the same with another girl. This is what I’ve learnt from Hollaback! Chennai. At the risk of sounding too idealistic, I hope Hollaback! Chennai is soon able to reach out to the society at large, not just the population that has access to internet. We have been working towards this purpose and look forward to executing our ideas. At Hollaback!, we are striving to to remove the general perception that we should just accept things as they are as far as street sexual harassment goes, and move on. We instead ask women not to take anything lying down.  We tell them to take control. After all, every woman deserves nothing less than to feel safe and secure in her own city.

Aishwarya is a masters student majoring in International Studies in Chennai. She is also Project Associate, Hollaback! Chennai. She loves listening to music and writes blogposts about it that no one reads. These days she spends most of her time fiddling with her guitar. Her other interests include movies, fiction, Rahul Dravid, Grand slam tournaments and Grey’s Anatomy. 

Hollaback! website – http://chennai.ihollaback.org/

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  1. Hearty congrats Aishwarya! Great article.. it’s a true reflection of the current trend. My heart bleeds to learn that there are countless women secretly suffering. But, it’s heartening to learn that Hollaback is making painstaking efforts towards some solution – the solution could be just a fierce retort or jab at the right place. What’s important is that women would not be silent victims anymore.
    Here’s a poem I wish to share
    WE SAY IT IS WOMEN’S DAY!
    WE ARE BRUTALLY BATTERED,
    MENTALLY, IT IS EVERY DAY!
    WE ARE PHYSICALLY TORTURED,
    IF WE ARE YOUNG AND VULNERABLE,
    OUR PHYSICAL FORM IS A BANE!
    RUCHIKA IS JUST ONE EXAMPLE!
    WE TRY HARD TO BE SANE,
    PUT DOWN OFTEN AT WORK!
    NO ONE KNOWS OUR WORTH,
    MEN’S CHAUVINISM AT LURK!
    IT WORKS RIGHT FROM BIRTH,
    WE SAY IT IS WOMEN’S DAY!!

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