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Being a divorced woman in India often means sexual harassment - as men assume that a divorced woman is always 'available'.
What does it mean to each of us? For weeks we have been stirred up by the rape that galvanised a nation to action – with wide spread ripples that extended to Nepal and Bangladesh and the rest of the world kept me on the edge of anger.
Almost three weeks after the rape everyone is talking about, my gaze is moving inward to me and becoming specific where before it was general and external. My emotions were connected to the horrors that girl was subjected to, causing my muscles to clench unfailingly every time I read of, spoke about, thought or imagine being in that bus that night. From Nirbhaya my thoughts moved to Aruna Shanbag, to Soni Sori and a host of others.
As the voices of Indian women can be heard on the street, raised and determined, as Indian women are no longer asked to remain silent, not speak, say nothing – the voices rise to a crescendo every single day. Each one tells a story that could have happened to each of us – the situations different, the incidents sickeningly similar. Breasts fondled, groped in the crowd as a journalist covering anti-rape demos, commented upon verbally or with the unrelenting male gaze, queries – “how much” on the daily walk to the vegetable shops, a boy half one’s age exposing himself while asking for directions are just a few. If you’re a woman in India, you know the litany.
In noticed that we reflected as a group and our anger was united – young women, old women, high caste, low caste, trendy women, studious women, working women, housewives, mothers, daughters united in a common experience. A quite unnecessary experience!
What of the divorced woman? The woman who is at risk for all of the above and a bit more. In a country where only virgins are valued, where Purity is paramount and only virgins are valued (the still use the two finger test to check if a woman is ‘habituated’ to sex, when examining a rape survivor – as though her sexual habits prove anything about the rape.) Virgins are valued and shouldn’t be raped, married women are ‘protected’ by their husbands ( the idea of marital rape never having been heard of by the Purity myth peddlers) and what of divorced women?
The extent that divorced women are devalued by society is unbelievable. There is no place for them, no category that they fit into in the conservative Indian mindset where a woman is a daughter, a wife and maybe a widow – sometimes a mother. What of a divorcee? Where does she fit in? Is she a victim, abandoned by her husband? If that’s the case, people may dredge up some pity for her. If she isn’t a victim but divorced (or separated) as a conscious decision, one that she took, she is truly marginalized, misunderstood, ostracized and prey to sexual advances.
The way things function in India, sexual advances invariably mean sexual harassment because most men feel entitled to prey on women believing that their attention is a compliment, rarely do they try to understand what the woman wants. Divorced women have told me “Guys think they are doing me a favor by offering me their services – and are offended when I don’t respond – reacting with rudeness, mocking or other forms of bad behavior” – all guaranteed to convince a woman that she wants to be with a man who has talked to her in such a derogatory fashion.
This isn’t about rapes but about attitudes. We can move away from rape which is a violent act, not a sexual one and is done by men with low self esteem. Underlying the okayness with rape – the Rape Culture – is the belief that men are entitled and they are entitled to decide when a woman should have sex. The belief that a woman without a husband needs a man and these quick fix providers can dispense instant sex. For which the women should be grateful.
I’m far from being a prude and do not believe that women deny their sexuality or that it’s only for women below 40. Nor am I , or any of the other divorced women I have spoken to offended at being approached by a man. What does annoy us is the assumption that a favour is being bestowed, the presumption that I must say ‘yes’ and the heckling that follows a ‘no’. Not that this is unusual as this is a general belief fostered by Bollywood’s forced seductions – the belief that when a woman says NO she secretly means YES. Or to take it a step further – since a woman will always say “no” – we just have to be masterful.
There is a misconception that women are afraid of their own sexuality which leads to the masterful attitude of ‘I will decide for you’. There are so many other ways to approach a woman, to accept a possible ‘no’ as answer and to approach another who seems interested – the key words being “who seems interested.” If a man simply fixates on a woman and continues to pester her – he is a stalker. She will NOT change her mind as in the fairy tale world of Bollywood romance. She is not playing hard to get. Men need to learn to read the subtle messages that women send and listen to what they say. Today’s woman will not say NO if she means YES or the other way around. Women know what they want and they say it. Especially divorced women. There is no need to interpret (or misinterpret) anything.
As we talk about rape and violence and try to bring about reforms let’s also look at the finer things – NO means NO – and you can find someone else to approach – someone will say YES – you don’t need to forcefully grab what you see as forbidden fruit.
Image from Slutwalk London 2011 courtesy Garry Knight (Used under a Creative Commons license)
A freelance journalist and teacher, Kalpana is a feminist, an animal rights activist, passionate about the environment and fitness through yoga. She believes in a holistic and sustainable lifestyle and she also happens to be read more...
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