Meera’s FB post got me to write this and think through the term ‘self-defense’ when it comes to women. I don’t think any of us women have had the rare luck of evading the unseemly behavior from boys and men, be it insistent taunts, jeering catcalls, seemingly unintended touches or worse, at least for some, the gratuitous and vicious violence.
Unless a man steps into the lady-shoes and experience the unease, they would never be able to understand the anguish, whoever they might be, be it a father, brother, son, or any male for that matter. It is not easy for a girl to stride away with meek, downcast eyes and insecure, diffident steps while someone or a group jeer at her persistently or to stay away from prying eyes or indecent touches in a crowded bus routinely. All of us might have gone through these, but we were wont to ignore them and be on our guard all by ourselves, lest it would be worse and provoke them more. Beyond this wisdom, or carrying a safety-pin while inside a public transport or later, displaying the white doctor’s coat on the forearm hoping that ‘respect for doctors’ would ward off the evil behavior, I do not remember any sort of self-defense that I had practiced when young. Thus, the girl avails those only skills at her disposal. And early on she gets the taste of being vulnerable, powerless, capitulating, and gets to see the darker facets of the world. Far removed from my place for the past many years, I do not know if the situation has changed now in Kerala.
Whenever possible, I was accompanied by my father or brother, but that was not a constant. And after my marriage, I was entirely left to defend by myself in risky situations, something that I had learned the hard way. I learned to drive, but still the fear of ‘what if’ never ever left me. After finishing the 9 PM duty in a hospital at Kerala, I had to pass through a deserted place to get to my parent’s house and take my toddler son back home. The fifteen-minute drive was literally a sort of daily adrenaline-soaked adventure trip. I would make sure that all the four side-window panes were rolled up, locks intact, check the tyres and set my old Nokia mobile to a ready-to dial my husband’s number mode, but the dread of what if a glitch or flat tyre happened at exactly the same spot was always there with me. I do not know how other women would feel under similar circumstances, but it wouldn’t be this dreary for a man driving at night. I would say my inanimate companion never failed me, and hence my feelings for this twenty-five-year-old Maruti 800 are akin to those for the animate beings, it is still with me in good condition.
The Gulf years were not very smooth either in terms of my dread and paranoia, initially, though the strict laws in favor of women there checked transgressions to a limit ( Those laws were routinely misused too, as I later observed). The difference was that my afternoon duty would stretch until 12.00 AM. But the city never sleeps, taxis, people, police cars and ambulances plying the road all through the night. And that slowly gave me the confidence to fearlessly go to and come back from work, and travel alone. But the dread stays and to this day one thing that I would always do to pre-empt an anticipated incident is the only self-defense that I know of, I try to avoid. The one and only one element that could be factored in for me or anyone else to have escaped any of those incidents until now would be just ‘pure luck’.
Even today, the beads of wisdom from people including the world-wise men and women do not amount to anything positive but mostly to parse the situation to finally find a grain of fault with the girl, if ever something happens. The onus to pre-empt an untoward incident is placed on the shoulders of the girl or woman, on her choice of restraint or freedom. These concepts of avoidance behavior, choice, and non-choice went completely over my head after having to examine an eight-year-old girl, a case of sexual abuse at the hospital there, where I had worked. What choice does an eight-year-old have when incidents happen under her own roof? There was no dearth of unfortunate events there too.
A confidential survey done in one of the private schools there a few years back revealed that a good many of the students((boys and girls) had confronted some form of abuse, a minority opened up about the sexual abuse they had endured. They started educating the children and included self-defense training for them(both boys and girls). Karate classes and other self-defense training are a common sight there, and so many girls train themselves to fight back. That was another new for me then.
Which brings me back to some habitual and some strange responses to the gravity of the problem, and the significance of self-defense for women, from the parents and others. Sad to say that most are either in denial or complacent or unintentionally blind to the status quo or callously indifferent and flippant. Even though aware that the world out there is a den, there is a pervading aura of overconfidence that ‘such events’ would not happen to me or mine and as such distancing from taking ‘extreme measures’ to defend those.
‘The girls should try to avoid dangerous circumstances.’ That was the response of one of my colleague’s husband, years back, and a widely prevalent one at that. He is a professional, well-read( if he is to be believed), cognizant and aware of what is going on around him, is the father of a teenage girl, still he expects the fourteen-year-old girl to codify circumstances into a whole gamut of potential hazard from a scale of zero to ten and plan accordingly. Sadly, this is not a singular male opinion, many women go with it full-throatedly. The girl would have to mingle with her male-peers in a multi-cultural, multi-national crowd, or to travel with male colleagues as a part of her work or study in the future. When danger lurks everywhere, even among the routines of work and sleep, the first and the most important thing that would aid her would be her confidence to defend herself.
‘First, teach the boys to behave ‘- Another commonly heard response and true too. The onus should be on both. But, waiting for the ideal romantic vision of a social utopia where all the boys and men turn over new leaves and morph into chivalrous knights overnight would be as good as a charming fairy tale or an unrealistic, self-deluding fantasy. So, prepare her along with teaching the boys.
‘Age-old and incipient feminichis molding the future ‘feminichi warriors‘- This interesting response was an eye-opener for me, originally a covert one in Malayalam in a men’s only whats up group, that somehow turned overt and turned up at the doorstep of another females only group, some time back. The paradox and irony of it all were that the culprit, a father of two daughters, was a strong supporter of women’s rights on stage. Understandable that locker room banter works differently within groups with pack mentality instincts, each one supporting or competing to be an alpha male. Still, the dichotomy inside such a double-faced strategy is hard to come to terms with, since ensuring the safety of women, including his wife and daughters, should not be pigeonholed as a feminist rebellion but it is a duty of each one of us, himself included, and safety is the birthright of every individual. And additionally, a word of caution when it comes to people who go to great lengths to establish their liberal bona fides.
‘Let women be knowledgeable and kind instead of taking up arms‘- Knowledge and wisdom are essential and highly welcome, for sure, but a girl confronting a psychotic assailant about to tear her apart would have little use with kind words or Solomonic wisdom. She needs to have the presence of mind and confidence for a counterattack with whatever object at her disposal.
This is not to incite girls or women to violence or goad them to take up martial arts lessons asap. These pieces of training would definitely add up the confidence of the girl if they are accessible. It might not be possible for a girl to overthrow a man or men single-handedly, but the confidence it gives is worth it. The possibility of misuse of self-defense gadgets is an often- referred concern. Teaching responsible use after weighing the event and outcome could help. The first time that I had seen a can of pepper spray for real was one year back inside the bag of a girl I had met in the apartment lift in India, a smart, young techie staying alone. She struck up a conversation with me and was friendly enough for me to ask how she would come back from work fearless, at wee hours sometimes, since the tech company was a bit far. And she showed me the can and a small pocket-knife with the phrase “just in case“. Something unthinkable for me while I was her age.
As long as the ‘what if’ and ‘ just in case’ phrases remain as doubts, questions, tensions, feelings, and uncertainties the girls need to see the dark sides early on, be confident, learn to say NO, and practice to defend themselves.
The following advice is from a lawyer friend. I do not know anything about the legal facts, so please correct if there are any mistakes.
( Right of private defense is given under s.96 to s.106 of the Indian penal code.
It stipulates that every person has a right to private defense, but three conditions must be fulfilled:
1. Imminent danger
2. No recourse or option to reach police station or police help
3. The defense must be proportionate to danger (e.g if someone coming to slap you, you cannot take out a pistol and kill him. It will be disproportionate.
Carrying pepper spray is legal in India and nothing in law classifies pepper spray as an illegal substance. But while using pepper spray, just remember the above three conditions.
One cannot randomly use pepper spray. The use of pepper spray is not immune to legal prosecution. Anyone upon whom the pepper spray is used can proceed against anyone who uses it upon him/her. However, its use for self-defense and defense against imminent danger is allowed ( any reasonable action is allowed for defense). One, however, if by mistake is subjected to pepper spray, they can proceed for civil damages. Responsible use must be ensured since the possibilities of misuse should be considered )