24/12/2014 8:10 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST

Grey Areas That Lie Between Harassment and Rape

A woman holds a placard as messages written by people are seen in the background at the Delhi "SlutWalk" in New Delhi, India, Sunday, July 31, 2011. There were no short skirts, fishnet stockings or lingerie on display that were the staple of other global "SlutWalk" marches as hundreds gathered in India's capital on Sunday to protest sexual violence against women.The event condemned the notion widely held in this traditional society that a woman's appearance can explain or excuse rape and sexual harassment. In India, public sexual taunting or even groping of women, locally known as "Eve teasing", is common. (AP Photo/Mustafa Quraishi)

The night is not safe, come back soon. The streets are not safe, don't venture out alone. Public transport is not safe, use the "ladies section". These are things they tell us about. They warn us, prepare us, and hope that a little wisdom, will keep us safer in public. Pepper spray, an open safety pin, my backpack strapped across my chest, these are just some of the defence mechanisms I've depended on. Let's face it; a little harassment has become a part of life. We've learned to be prepared, always ready to guard against it and just get on with life. But what about the unseen, unheard defence mechanisms that lie in the grey areas?

Remember that pair of pants you never wore because maybe they were too bold? Or the time you skipped 'Girl's Night Out' because you wouldn't have male company to bring you back home? How many times have you heard stories of girlfriends braving eve-teasers at odd times of day and night and responded with the irrational, "but what were you doing there all alone?!" Like location has anything to do with it. Like being alone could ever be reason enough. It's shameful, but that little dot of fear ingrained in our minds has slowly started to spread, like a blot of inky terror. Today, I feel weak, I am always suspicious, and protecting myself (sometimes unsuccessfully) because you know what they say; it's better to be safe than sorry.

But I'm getting a little tired of constantly watching my back. If we really want to take back the night, how about we stop reinforcing these defence mechanisms to begin with?

My mother could not stress the importance of standing up and fighting back any more than she did. Join a self-defence class, she told us, along with stories of how she once chased a man down and gave him a resounding slap, because he had grabbed her chest and made a run for it. Broad daylight, in a publicly public place, in a city like Bombay, and yet, it happened.

It's true; sometimes you have to stand up for yourself, before help comes your way. But what about those of us who are inherently meek? Despite having the idea of never letting anyone take my body for granted dinned into my head, I seem to be missing that self-defence gene altogether. It's probably why I collapsed into a pile of tears and fear, after I was horribly groped in a public bus on my way to college. It explains my confusion at a colleague's vaguely flirtatious banter that always gently seesawed the grey area between friendly chitchat and inappropriate conversation. But it hit home the hardest, most recently, when I tumbled out of that little clinic in Goa, shaking with fear and completely paralysed, not knowing how to react. I was just not sure if what my new gynaecologist had just done to me was medically appropriate or not. My gut said no, but my head gave him the benefit of doubt and let it slide. Thinking back to his repeated inappropriate comments at suggesting that maybe I was being "naughty" and "immoral" made me realise he had actually crossed that line. But by then it was too late to react.

The night is not safe. The streets are not safe. Public transport is not safe. These are things people tell you and warn you about. These are things they tell us about. What they don't tell you is that it could happen in places you least expect--in a doctor's chair, in your office, in an elevator. And the people capable of it are mostly those you would least expect. Including those you inherently trust--a doctor, a boss, or a relative. People will tell you about the extremes, the expected, the stereotypical textbook definitions of harassment and rape. But rarely does anybody talk about the grey areas that lie in between.

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