Trigger warning: This article contains details on sexual harassment which maybe triggering to survivors.
When I was six, I was held roughly by the hand and led into the darkness under the staircase. I could sense that something was wrong. I struggled to break free but I was cajoled into following this person. And I didn’t want to create a scene.
What came next – a kiss on the mouth – lasted only a few seconds. For a six year old, it was an invasion like no other. Cold tongue and acrid breath, a moment of numbing shock and then a wicked smile. All these combined to create an irrepressible memory. I ran and this time I was allowed to leave. But I told no one. Even at that tender age, I was ashamed.
More often than not, women start their lives with debilitating shame – a shame that is self-destructive and forms the lining of a woman’s life.
The manifestation of this innate shame extends to every aspect of a woman’s life, be it natural biological functions like menstruation (Gloria Steinem further elucidates), anatomical like their developing bodies (seldom are men as ashamed of their bodies as women are), or self-affirming like the need to carve an independent identity. Women are repeatedly shamed into feeling like they need to emulate the perfect archetype of their gender. Be it in physicalities, behaviour or values, there is an unattainable standard that women must strive towards. Many often fail, and this only results in more shame. We’re always either not fair enough, tall enough or slim enough. We’re either not warm enough or too friendly. A digression from traditional values makes us ‘too forward’, short hair ‘not feminine enough’, and big careers ‘not homely enough’. Clothes define our character and not being ashamed of it all brings us further shame.
We often read the statement that ‘women’s bodies are political’. Women’s bodies, their sexuality and fertility have traditionally been controlled to a large extent by families, societies and even the government. In contrast to the commonly held view of phallic-potency, women often face a sense of inadequacy that leads them to feel inhibited sexually and actualise their desires. Those who do manage to overcome this and express themselves sexually, are frequently slut-shamed. There is also the narrative of men wanting sex more than women that hinders women from owning their sexuality.
In an attempt to further control women and their choices, their fertility is also governed by society and the state. In many countries, anti-abortion laws still exist with the ‘pro-life’ narrative. What it generally advocates though, is chastity and a lack of agency for women. Even where abortion is legal, it continues to be deeply stigmatised. Women often pay the price for this with shoddy abortion jobs, lack of post-abortion care and, of course, guilt.
With so much stimulus to feel shamed, women usually imbibe it very early on in their lives. Instead of growing up with the confidence that boys do, young girls grow up with a lot of self-doubt and incertitude. This leads to a behaviour pattern of looking outwards to gauge what is expected from them and not inwards, as to what they really want. Women begin to display an external locus of identity, which often leads to an identity crisis.
This innate shame that we seem to possess is integral to ‘keeping women in their place’. Society uses it to enforce and validate its patriarchal and misogynistic values. Women are regularly made to believe that they ‘deserved what they got’. Be it the more silent violations like the male gaze or the more overt ones like cat calls, groping or abuse, a part of women ends up feeling embarrassment and disdain – at their bodies and their existence.
To highlight the disturbing impact of this phenomenon, a study found that every third woman in India faces sexual and physical violence at home. Even more disturbing are the following two findings – almost 50% women interviewed supported domestic violence (a classic example of internalised misogyny), and 99% of sexual assault goes unreported in the country.
In the rare situation where women are able to overcome this shame and fear to speak out against abuse, they are met with character assassination, ridicule and disregard. Their words are discounted, their circumstances and characters rounded up to paint a picture of immorality and irrationality. They are asked questions like, ‘but what did you do’, ‘taali ek haath se nahi bajti (a clap requires two hands)’ or deemed to be overly dramatic or even downright liars. Rape victims are often told ‘this was bound to happen’ or ‘maybe you asked for it’. Women are advised to not step out at night or dress ‘inappropriately’.
However, despite being the perpetrators, men are never barred from the streets at night. If a man was assaulted in the middle of the night, no one would accuse him of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
To make matters worse, women also respond to being shamed differently than men. While men react to it with aggression and anger, women tend to lean towards depression and submission. Rather than fighting patriarchy, women start to judge themselves for not being able to live up to gender defined roles. For instance, a working woman may feel shame for neglecting her house, while a man will seldom feel that sentiment. In this case, while men tend to turn their aggression outwards, women tend to turn inwards and isolate themselves from the world.
The isolation further aids this cycle of shame. Not only does it protect perpetrators, it also impedes the chance for women to feel united and supported. By sharing their stories of shame, women can reclaim the right to shame their offenders, and not themselves.
While some of my stories may take years to reach this page, each time I now get a lewd stare, I gaze back and refuse to feel any shame. On being catcalled or meted out innuendo, I now make the perpetrator uncomfortable. As with all traits conditioned into us, this will take time to undo. However, the thing about societal walls is that they’re made of glass, and glass can shatter with the fevered pitch of collective womanhood.
Shreya Bothra is a businesswoman and CFA, with the ability to don many hats. She considers herself a poet and writes for her passion project – www.thinkingwoman.in. Her natural habitat is behind a book, and she surfaces for yoga and some Nutella.