Helpless victims or bystanders?

This incident occurred about 40 years ago. I was in the first year of college. It was in the afternoon of the last day of class before it closed for Holi, the festival of colors. Our college was on a street which had two schools for the boys and two for the girls, located at a short distance from one another. The road remained busy as the city civil hospital was also nearby. At the hospital gate there was a famous tea stall, which was a common hangout for students. 

That day, some of the students were loitering around the tea stall after finishing their classes. A girl student of class X or XI in her school uniform, was returning home on a cycle rickshaw. As the rickshaw drew near, one of the boys rushed towards the girl on the rickshaw and forcefully applied the “gulal” (colored dry powder) on her face and while doing so, he also roughly squeezed her breasts.  His other friends shouted “Holi Hai” and tried their hands too, at applying gulal upon her face. I saw the girl helplessly crying and trying her best to protect herself from those rowdies. The rickshaw puller tried pulling the rickshaw away from the scene, in his attempts to save the girl from those predators. But what was the response of the people including me, who were present?  Nothing! They remained bystanders.  I was dazed and shocked at seeing this happening right before my eyes. I was fearful of intervening, and standing up against those strong boys, who carried an ill reputation.

I have never forgotten the agonized cries and fearful expression on the face of the hapless victim. She would have hoped that some of the people present would intervene and save her from this assault taking place in broad daylight in a busy street, but help never came. It was one of those normalized forms of public rowdyism which gets a veneer of social sanction during the Holi festival. The guilt of inaction pricks my conscience till today.

Another such sickening memory relates to an event which could play out on any day of the year. A passenger train connected some of the small stations to our town. This train would normally be filled with tribal women and men returning to their villages after selling the firewood they would have brought from the forest. Those women would be of a mixed age group, from a thirteen-year-old young girl to a fifty-year-old woman. They would be sitting on the wooden seats or just standing inside a crowded train.  Young boys from the town would sometime enter the crowded compartment in the evening with an intention to squeeze the breasts of the vulnerable women. The poor women would shout and scream in resistance to such attempts and would hurl abuses in their own language, but it did not deter the perpetrators, as they slipped out of the coach swiftly, after getting their kick from the perverse pleasure. I learnt about this from one of my classmates who while describing it, considered it just a matter of fun to boast about.  

Reflecting upon those memories from my adolescent years, I recognize that the tendencies of sexual assault and acts of violence against women are deeply entrenched in our society and are imbibed by the boys at an early age. These are normalized and passed off with comments such as “boys will be boys”. I did not know it then, but I can relate these abusive behaviors with the notion of “male entitlement”, which gets bolstered by the non-intervention of the “public”, which largely remains a bystander while witnessing such incidents.  What would have helped me then, as a young student, to gather courage to intervene or speak up against such behaviour? I am not sure if I have the answer. 

It makes me realize how tough the challenge to stand up against the abuse and exploitation of women which happens on a regular basis at homes or in public places is. After many years of engagement in the field of gender justice I sometime wonder when it would change. My own experience tells me that the road could be long and painfully slow, but I still carry the hope of seeing a gradual change in our mindsets, in critically reflecting upon those patriarchal tendencies present in us, recognizing its devastating effects and speaking out against it in our circles of influence. I hope that one day we will find the courage of our convictions to stand up and intervene and not remain a helpless bystander to the crimes against women.

By Raaj Mondol

Raaj Mondol is a training facilitator on Gender justice and is engaged in raising awareness on gender-based violence.

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