Let Jyoti Singh's Light Shine On India's Daughters

31/12/2015 8:30 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
Indian women participate in a candle light vigil at a bus stop where the victim of a deadly gang rape in a moving bus had boarded the bus two years ago, in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014. The case sparked public outrage and helped make women’s safety a common topic of conversation in a country where rape is often viewed as a woman’s personal shame to bear. (AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal)

I was 18 and I just started my English Honours degree at St Xavier's College in Calcutta.

After years of wearing school uniforms, I finally had the freedom to experiment with colours and fashions. I started to highlight my eyes with black eyeliner but I didn't know what else to use. My mother discouraged make-up but her friend, an ex-air hostess, frequently told me that my face would light up if I just used the right lipstick. I didn't know what shade to buy. She promised she would pick a spectacular colour for me and one day, she gave me this amazing fuchsia lipstick.

I was beyond thrilled. That evening I wore it and admired myself in the mirror. I swept my hair to one side with a big clip. I felt grown up. I felt confident. I felt happy.

The next morning, just before I left the house, I carefully applied the bright lipstick and ran to catch the public bus to my college.

My lipstick seemed to be an invitation for them to invade my personal space... I fought off multiple hands which pinched me, squeezed me.

I felt so pretty. I felt ready to take on the world. I noticed the stares as soon as I got on the bus and my underarms began to get sweaty.

I had forgotten about the disgusting men with the lewd stares on the public bus and the harassment I had to deal with sometimes. They would try to intimidate me by staring at me, try to get close to me and their hands would try to make contact with my body.

On that day, my lipstick seemed to be an invitation for them to invade my personal space. As if they had planned this in advance, they surrounded me and touched me.

I fought off multiple hands which pinched me, squeezed me and finally I pushed past them.

It only lasted a few minutes but it was a terrifying, embarrassing, humiliating, dehumanising ordeal.

I managed to hold back my tears until I reached my college common room and I confided in my friends. I had just barely finished my story when their stories began.

One girl felt a hand inside her blouse when she fell asleep on the bus. Another felt a hand sliding up her skirt. Yet another had her breasts squeezed by a gang of boys. Walking through the buses in broad daylight, in the presence of people, girls shared how they were terrorised and harassed, repeatedly. Daily.

We missed our morning class that day as we shared our stories, our shame and our guilt. We talked about the futility and the hopelessness of talking to our parents or our teachers. They told me not to bother telling anyone. They told me that I would be blamed, my movements would be restricted and I would not be trusted.

That day, we felt helpless and we felt the weight of our culture, our patriarchal society and our laws against us. It was bigger than us. Better to stay silent and to pretend it didn't happen, they advised me.

I did what I was told. But a part of me broke that day.

It's been 20 some years and I still don't wear bright lipstick. I am embarrassed and ashamed to talk about this incident and what my friends and I went through in those buses daily.

I feel cowardly and I cringe as I think of people reading this and judging me. I wish I could say I was the hero of my story and how it made me stronger. It didn't. It took me years to forget it.

I don't want to talk about this intensely personal and painful episode but I feel I have a responsibility in coming forward and sharing this. It's my way of telling young women in India that you are not alone. We have all been there and we stand with you.

[W]hen rape happens, it's not the individual honour of the woman that is sullied. If anything is sullied it is the collective honour of the country.

I have a different life now in America, where all this hideous, demeaning stuff doesn't happen so often to women. The laws are strict here and consequences are swift for offenders.

But to my sadness and disappointment, my Indian friends, who now have young daughters say that public transportation is still a concern. As is the safety of young women in India today. And they worry about gender inequality. They are angered by the weak laws.

December 16, 2015, marked the third anniversary of the Delhi gang-rape that horrified the world. I am sharing my story to tell the world a few facts: That, even today in Indian cities, in public transportation, we are all Jyoti Singh and that whatever happened to her could have happened to any of us.

We must not forget her. We must say her name and in her honour, we must empower all girls. We must stop shaming them. They are not the ones who should be crucified.

Every young woman has the right to wear bright colours and feel pretty and confident. No one should snatch the little joys of their lives away from them.

Leslee Udwin immortalised Jyoti in her powerful documentary India's Daughter, which has received critical acclaim but more importantly, it started a conversation about the sick mindset of many Indian men. It should not have been banned. It should have been required viewing. It should have aired on every channel. The documentary should be unbanned now.

India missed an important opportunity to address that rape is a crime. It's not an unfortunate incident that happens because women are careless or because they go out late or because the dress provocatively. Enough of that rhetoric. End that backward, regressive thinking now.

As a tribute to Jyoti Singh, I believe that India should work on empowering women by passing and enforcing strict laws on street sexual harassment, stalking and rape.

Indian society needs to understand that when rape happens, it's not the individual honour of the woman that is sullied. If anything is sullied it is the collective honour of the country.

Because, we are India's Daughters.

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