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Most of the conversation around consent revolves around sex. While, asking for consent is extremely important in that context, it is also important in a variety of other situations.
Just yesterday, I got a video call on Whatsapp from a number that was not saved on my phone. As I was busy with another task, I distractedly answered it. On screen appeared a woman who said, “Madam, ek minute aapka photo chahiye,” (Madam, just a minute, I need your photo), and she proceeded to try and take a picture of me. I froze in horror for a few seconds, before my brain kicked in and I cut the call before she could take a photo.
Visibly shaken, I took a few minutes to calm down, before realizing that the woman who had called was someone I had interacted with earlier via texts for investment purposes. Calling her back, I gave her a severe scolding. “You’re a woman too,” I told her. “How would you feel if someone tried to take a picture of you without your perimission?” She apologized, and said that she needed the photo for official purposes. After making it clear that I was unhappy with her behaviour, I gave her the photo. The incident however, left me very disturbed for the rest of the day.
To me, it was one more example of how deep the “consent problem” in India goes.
For us, not accepting a “no,” or not even bothering to ask for the other person’s consent is considered a form of “love.” Don’t believe me?
How many times have you tried to refuse food/ cup of tea/ coffee as a guest, only to have it thrust on you? How many times have you had guests appearing out of the blue, because “what is the need for formalities between loved ones?” How many times have you seen strangers cuddle and kiss random kids, just because they look cute? How many times, in how many contexts, have your wishes been disregarded because “it is for your good only”?
Not only have these things happened to us, we have done this to others too. We have not taken no for an answer.
This disrespect for consent is hardwired into our culture. I personally started to realize it when I moved abroad.
Here, in the US, even people who know me well, ask for permission before they hug me. Strangers will not lay a finger on others’ children, no matter how adorable they are. They call ahead before they visit. And no it is not a “formality” that shows that they are not close to me. It actually indicates that they care for me and want to make sure I am comfortable and able to entertain them. In every act they do, there is concern for how it affects those around them.
We often vilify “western culture,” but in truth, there are things we could learn from them.
The fact that Indian movies and pop-culture have glorified not asking for consent is a well-known fact, but the conversations usually center around how men should be taught that “no means no.”
The truth is, women need to learn it too.
Jab We Met is considered one of our best romcoms and the character of Geet is presented as this inspirational figure. The guy who dumped her unceremoniously is seen as the villain, and admittedly he could have handled the situation better. But Geet isn’t perfect either! She never asked for Anshuman’s permission, or discussed their life together with him before leaving home for him. She acted purely on the basis of her own wishes, without even asking him what he wants! Not to mention that later in the movie, her cousins insist on taking him to see the sugarcane fields, which he really doesn’t want! So, if Kabir Singh is problematic, so is Geet.
Recently, a man on Twitter tweeted about how his brother’s video was uploaded by a girl on TikTok, where she called him her “secret crush.” The boy did not know his video was being taken, nor did he know the girl who took the video. It went viral, with people commenting about “what a cute love story it was.” The boy in question, who was quite uninterested in all of this, was forced into isolation, and eventually had to seek therapy. I would like to link to the tweets but the boy and his brother don’t want to be splashed all over the media, and so respecting their wishes, I am not doing it. (See how consent should work?)
Consent is not about “formality.” It doesn’t make relationships mechanical. Instead, when you ask for permission, you show the person that you care about them and their desires and their comfort. It is more loving, more romantic, more caring and more respectful than making assumptions.
Because of that employee who I mentioned in the beginning of this post, I have been put off from making any further investments with her firm. To me, it shows that she does not care for my comfort as a customer. It is terrible customer service.
Creating a “culture of consent” can go a long way in creating safe, loving environments at home, at workplaces and at businesses. When consent becomes a habit that everyone follows, in every situation, we won’t need to teach our boys separately that “no means no.”
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Vijayalakshmi Harish is a book blogger and writer. To paraphrase her librarian, she is a
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