“Was it my fault?”

Chantal Tonnessen Smeland


September 19, 2015

A sound, imaginably similar to platonic collisions, fills the air. The monsoon season illustrates its mighty powers as lightning blinds the eye, and a pool of water falls down from the dark clouds above. The natural powers perfectly illustrate the power dynamics that battle within, and the petrichor the state of mind I find myself in.

Last week was our very first adventure outside the womb.  We left the ever-so-peaceful yoga ashram to get our resident permits from the foreign registration agency, FRRO. Bureaucracy hits in, and we end up celebrating our unfortunate failure by enjoying our suddenly extended free time with Indian vegetarian cuisine and city dwelling.

The 18-year old babies were finally let out to roam the streets and markets of central Pune, ready to use their extremely choti Hindi skills to buy chocolate and fizzy drinks- both immensely important for our existence.

 

Accompanied by the lioness of the Indian cohort, the country director (hereby known as S. jii) fiercely led the way into the crowded markets, creating a path for five fortunate Fellow-souls. And as we went along, our minds were blown. Colourful attire, jewellery, fruits and spices, smells of all kinds and sounds from every corner, beautiful people of all sizes and rickshaws cutting through the markets. This was an interesting experience in itself, having to focus on; staying close to S. jii, making sure that no one got lost in the crowds, avoiding getting mowed down by passing motorcycles, avoiding physical contact with the opposite sex, avoiding eye contact, touching peoples’ feet, and smiling to locals. Luckily, it soonish felt somewhat natural to follow these norms, hence the focus could be concentrated on all the other aspects that continuously made my senses explode.

 

We were walking down a busy mixture of a market and traffic street, trying to keep the flow of people moving, when I felt a person accidentally bumping into me, touching my beautifully modest behind in the process. Given the busy nature of the environment, I thought nothing of it and continued my quest of not getting abandoned.

But then it happened again. I turned around to see an elderly man, mid 50-60s, with his white hair, clothes and glasses. A man who easily can be someone’s grandfather, father, brother or son. Howbeit me turning around and clearly stating my discomfort, after a few minutes he proceeded to grab my ass firmly. What is going on? Usually I would have turned around and showed him who he is messing with. However, given my lack of knowledge in this cultural context, I refrained from doing just so. And so it continued. Right there and then, my friends and I tried to ignore it and laugh it off. After him quickly grabbing my ass one more time, we hastily entered a side street covered with attire of all shapes and colours, and disappeared into the crowd.

 

Of course, now I see how I could have prevented it from going this far and from developing into even more, but right there and then it was just different. Rationale didn’t seem to be applicable, given how extremely different the Indian culture seemed to be from the Scandi culture I am used to. Responding by aggression or physical violence could have potentially turned into something way worse, and I didn’t consider this case being worthy to risk our health. Moreover, the multiple cases where individual accountability has been “forgotten”, wasn’t really in my favour, especially as a woman.

So, since I didn’t act accordingly, the situation soon developed.

 

We decided to return to the main street to try out another side street, wanting to explore as much as possible in the remaining time span. On the way we met an adolescent our age, trying to convince us to follow him into a sketchy ally. Naïve, western foreigners as we are, we obviously did not even consider following this stranger, and firmly dismissed his invitation. We reached the end of the side street. And there he was again, staring at us. This time he had been kind enough to keep a distance, while increasingly scratching his not-so-honourable parts through the fabric of his white Indian kurta. Surprised beyond measure by this awfully inappropriate and immodest behaviour, we increased the pace while laughing uncomfortably, trying to use the many surrounding people as coverage.  And he followed us, literally wherever we went. He was always there. By the corner, next to the car, in the middle of the crowd.
After getting tired of just scratching, and apparently highly aroused by our reaction, he proceeded to full hands-on masturbation. In public, like it was the most natural thing to do while buying some mangoes for the family dinner at 8pm. He masturbated with a particular grin on his face, showing off his toothless smile as he stalked us through central Pune.

 

 

And yet; How come, in the aftermath, I am the one left with slight doubt and guilt?

How come I find myself questioning my role in this entire scenario, when essentially he was the one taking the final step? When he was the one sexually harassing us?

And how come most people, especially those in power, also question the victim’s role?
We hear it everywhere. How victims are being blamed and shamed because their alcohol level did not equal to zero, or because their attire wasn’t modest enough. How victims are blamed for being out too late at night.

 

Why are we taking away the accountability of people who choose to act? What does that tell our society, those on the edge of committing the same act, or being a victim themselves?

I realised how little I believe in today’s system. I became aware of how society has taught me to assess such situations. Point out that although modestly dressed, I probably gave him the type of attention that turns him on. How me continuously trying to keep track of his whereabouts gave him the wrong cues. How me feeling uncomfortable and expressing this with my friends through laughter and bewilderment probably just fuelled the fire.

Should I blame myself for what he did?

We can be compelled to do certain things, but essentially it is your choice to act. Regardless of upbringing- we might not share values, but we all have the ability to make a choice. And if you choose to act, you should be held accountable for it.

 

Of course, what happened the other day is nothing compared to what happens to others every single day. Yet, it made me revisit my questioning on the universality of certain core values, and the biased bigotry that has inflamed our systems as well as our societies.

 

 

I encourage you all to check this video out: http://time.com/4040143/lady-gaga-til-it-happens-to-you/ 

And think of the victims that do not dare or see the point of stepping forth because of today’s society. What can we do? What can you do?

Chantal Tonnessen Smeland