Back in 1998 when I used to work for a private bank in Pune, I and other women colleagues were kind of used to garden variety flirting by the bank's customers. In those days, the ATM was only couple years old in the city, cyber-cafes were new, internet banking was on the horizon, the customers of the bank often needed to be educated on how to use the new features of retail banking. Also, since private banks wanted to make themselves stand apart from nationalized banks, the major USP was "customer service"—we were trained to be extra polite and patient with an obviously eager-to-learn, but still grappling-with-technology customer base.
Looking the other way, ignoring come-ons and acting clueless are taught as safe reactions, because erring on the side of caution is safer than the alternative.
There was this old gentleman bank customer who reminded me of my grandfather—same built, similar hairstyle, an aura of respectability. He was in his late 70s and always came alone to the bank, many times for offshore remittance issues, and joked on how his children had left him no choice but to run from bank to bank to understand the ropes of NRI banking rules. Because he reminded me of my grandfather, I was extra polite to him, looked out for his convenience by asking the peon to get him a glass of water etc. After all, we Indians are brought up to treat older people with extra respect. One day, old grandpa asked me out to dinner. I was surprised, and wanted to say no, but instead I told him that I would check with my husband to see if he could make it, implying that I was married and I would be getting my husband along. Grandpa shook his head, gave me the kind of "tolerant" grin reserved for women, leaned forward and said, "It's obvious, I want to only take you out for dinner." I remember mumbling an excuse and never smiling at grandpa again.
Being hit on by an elderly man may seem relatively trivial in the larger scheme of things, but I was reminded of the incident after watching Pink. Growing up in India, we girls are taught to develop a non-confrontational mechanism to deal with obvious and non-obvious flirting. Looking the other way, ignoring come-ons and acting clueless are taught as safe reactions, because erring on the side of caution is safer than the alternative. Just like babies go through an x number of colds to fortify their immunity, an average teenage girl living in a city typically undergoes many forms of molestation. And more often than not, most of us never talk about these incidents to our parents. We don't even confide in our friends, or later, spouse. I don't know about others, but when I was a teenager I feared that my parents would blame me and cut down on my freedoms if I spoke about being teased and harassed. We also don't talk about it because a part of us feels ashamed of the fact that by choosing us to harass the perpetrator has forced us to take part his sick, perverted actions. Humiliation and the feeling of powerlessness make a lousy combination and they feed on one another. So we keep mum and bear with it. The movie Pink passionately showcases the power of "no", but the strength to say "no" or "yes" and meaning it comes from years of practice of being assertive and communicating clearly, with no room for reading between the lines.
The strength to say "no" or "yes" and meaning it comes from years of practice of being assertive and communicating clearly, with no room for reading between the lines.
As an adult I understand now that it certainly was not my fault and that it was the non-communication in general that reinforces the feeling of shame and guilt. I wish I could go back in time and honestly tell that junior college maths teacher that it was not a fear of numbers that made me abandon the subject in standard 12—it was his sexist jokes and underhanded harassment of the few "over-smart" girls in the class. The person who made late-night calls at my house spewed obscenities, I wish I had told him off, instead of getting scared and unhooking the phone. Yeah and how I wish I had communicated to the old man from the bank that he reminded me of my grandfather, hence the courtesy, instead of mumbling an excuse. I can't go back in time of course, so I will encourage my children to confidently assert their views without imposing on others. I will reinforce to them that asking for help and standing up for themselves are the right things to do. We all want our girls and boys to eventually walk confidently through life, unafraid to voice their dissent.
If Durga was to take form today, I'm sure one of the evils would want to decimate is the negative connotation of assertiveness. Her arsenal would have consisted of tools to lay down boundaries and command respect via the power of unhindered communication. How about we celebrate Dassehra and International Day of the Girl Child by endorsing the power of Pink, the power of being assertive?