I wrote this article last month to submit to Parentous.com but my submission was beyond the scheduled date. So sharing it here.
Have you ever been in a position when you have felt helpless, as though you did not possess the tools needed to get the job done?
In India in the 90’s when I was a teen, it was a fairly common thing for us to walk everywhere. Cars were not as ubiquitous as they are today. Walking, or public transportation were our choices. We walked or took the bus to school, we walked to classes, to the market. Heck, if we met friends in the evening, we walked around the market in the evenings because there was no park nearby and as teen girls we were too cool to play games like tag or hide and seek
I was molested the first time I was 12 years old. I was on the bus, on my way back from school and the guy behind me put his hand up my skirt. In the less than one minute that he had his hand in there, I died a thousand deaths. There was confusion – did his hand accidentally land there, did I send out some sort of signal, how could this be happening in broad daylight? There was shame and embarrassment. Most of all, there was crippling helplessness. I had no way of knowing what to do.
In the years that followed this happened over and over again. It happened so many times that I began to come to expect it. If I was feeling particularly pretty, there’d be catcalls, if my dupatta slipped in the bus, the guy next to me would try to feel me up. If a guy was standing behind me in a line, he’d press up against me. I learnt defense mechanisms – pin your dupatta to the kurta. In the bus, if there is an empty seat next to a guy, do not sit there. Carry your school bag in front of you so men can’t paw your breasts. Make yourself small, hunch your shoulders, and make no eye contact. If you pretend to be invisible, maybe they won’t see you.
While I was doing all this, there was a growing rage inside of me. I was and am a very confident person. My parents had raised me to be strong, bold and with a healthy sense of self-esteem. To crouch into nothingness was not in my DNA. Every time something like this happened, I wanted to hit, punch, claw and kick. Unfortunately, in 90’s India, in a middle class neighborhood, the kind we lived in, self-defense classes weren’t available nor were they affordable. So I learnt to cope with others’ bad behavior. I learnt to modify mine to attract as little attention as possible.
I married and moved abroad. Our life here required a car so now I was driving everywhere. Back home too, my parents and in-laws’ affluence meant that we were no longer required to walk or take public transportation. I had moved on in life and I naively believed that the world had moved forward too. I would read every so often about cases of sexual assault but it was a world removed from mine. After all in this day and age when there are so many ways to get your updates on the world you can pick and choose what you’d like to read in an online newspaper or on social media.
This method worked beautifully for me until I became a mom. One of the blessings of becoming a parent is that for the first 5 years or so, you have no time to breathe. One little being in your life occupies so much of your heart and head that you have no capability to focus on anything but them. The first 5 years of the daughter’s life were somewhat like that. My child and my parenting problems were all I had room for.
If one of the blessings of parenthood is to focus on your child to the exclusion of everything else then one of the banes of parenthood is we take everything personally. Parents are unusually adept at putting themselves in others’ shoes and nowhere is this truer than when something terrible happens. When I started to truly pay attention to the world again (this was once the daughter started school) the world came back into focus with quite a bang. I realized that I may have moved on but the world remained where it was. If anything, it had regressed a little more. The world had not stopped treating women as objects at best and a commodity at worst. They had learned to leverage technology to do this so now sexual assaults were being recorded and disseminated to absolute strangers.
As a parent, I was back to feeling helpless again. While in everyday life my child leads a fairly sheltered existence – we drop her off to school and pick her up, we accompany her everywhere, how long was I going to be able to keep this up? The daughter would grow up, she’d learn how to drive and eventually I was going to have to prepare to let her go into the big bad world out there.
Way before I became a parent I had some ideas about the kind of parent I’d be. I had always wanted a daughter and had decided that if I had one, I would never, ever teach her to make herself invisible. She’d learn to fight, kick, scream, punch – all of the things I did not know how to do.
We did have a daughter and she was completely unlike me. I’d always been a tomboy running sweaty and disheveled through most of my childhood. The daughter was a dainty, pretty little thing. She minded her manners, loved playing dress up and was docile and shy and quiet. I started to fear for her even more. Finally last year, I told her that she was going to be enrolled in martial arts. She said she’d try it out but wouldn’t pursue it if she didn’t like it. For the first time as a parent, I said I wasn’t giving her a choice. This was something she wasn’t getting out of.
We enrolled her in classes last January. She’s been learning for just over a year and I’m going to recommend that all parents of daughters find self-defense classes for your child right away. The daughter has grown stronger. She’s gone from having stick like legs to having strong gams. Now when a boy at school teases her or looms over her, she has found the courage to ask him to back off or she’s likely to roundhouse kick him. The classes have done wonders for her self-esteem. The child who used to get her feelings hurt constantly has learned to stand up for herself.
I’m not naïve enough anymore to believe that self-defense classes will protect her from every bad thing that comes her way. God forbid she ever find herself having to take on more than one assailant or someone with a weapon. In those situations, unless she’s a Bruce Lee or a Jackie Chan the outcome will not be great.
What I want is for people who pick on her to know she’s not going to cave out of fear. More importantly what I want is for her to know her own strength. To recognize that she does have some tools in her arsenal that she can use. In this day and age while we work on raising our next generation of empathetic, sensitive and feminist men, we also have to work on raising strong women. This is my attempt to do so.