It’s a sunny morning as I make my way through the city of Lucknow. The wide roads and half built flyovers give way to narrow lanes on the outskirts of the city. A meta-city awaits me in a slum hugging one edge of the city.
There are vegetable vendors, cheap clothes shops, grocery stores, tailors, chai wala, samose wala, people going for their daily wage jobs, even a school and a college and a few wedding tents. There are no open spaces. Most houses are unfinished brick structures, a work in progress. The richer people have painted houses and the work designation of the male member is proudly painted outside – mostly police officers who have earned enough (by dubious manners probably) to build their imposing oasis in the midst of the mess which exists.
There are no electricity poles, no sewage lines and no visible signs of pucca roads in many places. Post-monsoon water and garbage stagnate every few feet and herds of mosquitoes sit nonchalantly on them until pigs take a dive in the water, forcing them to fly away. Goats, stray dogs, cows, rats and flies complete the animal kingdom.
There is a Japanese saying translated in English, which says – a nail that sticks out will be hammered it. Everything here is hammered, squished, battered and forced to live in the space where every breath is a mixture cooking oil, dust, sewage, and the perennial male gaze and comments. Class, caste, religion and gender intersect here, giving it an uneasy flavour of diversity.
There are lots of men on the streets. A few women are part of the public milieu with their heads covered if they are Hindu and wearing a burka if they are Muslim. It’s heartening to see young girls going to school. I wonder if things are really as bad as I have heard. The next few days are spent unraveling the web of my questions. I think I know the answers. I have travelled so much in this country. I have covered so many stories. I know how it works. But I am so very wrong. And I don’t know it yet.
The slum is a thriving centre of local economy but most importantly it has its own set of social rules. Rules if not followed can lead to the collapse of the system which exists. Men go to out to work and women stay in the house.
The lanes become narrower as our car jostles for space. Inching closer to our destination, we are brought to a rude stop by someone digging in the middle of the road, trying to repair a mud pathway which has become sludgy. We have to cover the rest of the distance on foot.
Two young girls meet us so they can accompany us to our destination. They have a bright smile and confidently say their hellos. We exchange pleasantries as we walk past a cow shed, a small shop which a TV blaring out loud, an open ground. We hop over a two feet wall and enter a small house. I am greeted by a young woman, her excited dog, her shy mother and a man and a woman who are sitting in a corner, narrating a story.
The room is bare except a bed with a bright yellow bedcover, diagonally opposite it is a rickety old table, a dirty mirror propped on it. A few certificates and trophies adorn the wall and the table. On close examination they give a ‘certificate of excellence’ to the courageous work of the Red Brigade and its twenty five year old leader Usha Vishwakarma.
As the dark curtain flaps away, I listen to a woman discuss her woes – successful with an entrepreneurial spirit, she is a figure of jealousy within the menfolk of her village community. The upper caste men unable to accept how can a mere lower caste woman complete a university degree, work and earn enough to support her family. She has been threatened with gang-rape along with her teenage daughter. There are menacing letters given to her community members which talk about how the upper caste policemen who will look the other way when she is raped and/or murdered.
As someone who has had equal access to education and opportunity at work – unquestioned – I am horrified to hear her story. I have heard stories of the Uttar Pradesh badlands and the defined gender and caste roles which exist there. I have heard of harsh punishments for not towing the line. I have heard of machismo that every ‘man’ is supposed to assert. I have never believed that stereotypes can be true. Surely, these are just stories which our pop culture and cinema talk about. An aberration which the media reports about.
I am obviously wrong.
And then I am wrong again. Because sitting next to her is her husband, supportive of her, trying to find a way to help her. Not all men are caricatures of the stereotypes. Usha finds ways to help her – holding a gender sensitization camp in her village, teaching the women and girls self-defense, teaching them ways to stand up instead of cowering in fear.
But this is a band-aid approach to a problem rooted into the system, woven into the fabric of the society. There are no easy ways to fix it.
Later Usha and I have a chat. She talks about a time, almost seven years ago when she was eighteen. To support her carpenter father, the eldest of four children, she had decided to augment the family income by working. She started to work with a local NGO, teaching under-privileged children when one day a male teacher tried to rape her. She fought back and ran away.
The next one year was a blur, spent dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. The social conditioning meant that she believed that she was responsible for the sexual assault, that she had asked for it. Approaching the local police would have meant dealing with questions like what was she wearing and why was she with a man. She didn’t tell her family either – the shame would make her unmarriageable. Dealing with the trauma on her own, at times she would break down, at others filled with rage. Slowly she began to confide in her friends. In turn they told her their stories of sexual advances, harassment and rape.
As the day progresses, we walk outside and she shows me the bushes and the open ground near her house. Many kuccha houses have been built on the edges but hers used to be the only house at the end of the maidan about four years ago. Many young girls would meet their lovers there at dusk.
Growing up on a diet of Bollywood films romantic notions of love like meeting of the eyes, sending love letters and walking past the boy one fancies is what love means for these girls, forbidden to interact with the opposite sex. As rules go, good girls stay at home or go out accompanied by a male member of the house and come back home to help with the household chores. Lover’s trysts are for bad girls who are game for anything.
Before the other houses were built, twice girls were rescued by Usha or her mother when in their eagerness to meet ‘boyfriends’ they were pounced upon by the boyfriend and his friends. Crying, shaking with fear, both girls were lucky enough to spot her house and flee there. The men, waiting outside Usha’s home so they could rape them. In neither of the cases, the girls reported the crime to police or told their families. And Usha says there is no data to confirm if others were violated in the same spot.
The men who mostly live there are daily wage labourers. They work for a few days or weeks on a job, earn enough to survive and drink. Then they idle away their time in frustration, jobless, standing around tea stalls, gossiping and passing comments as women and girls walk past. These socially acceptable behaviour patterns are cues for younger men and boys to behave in the same manner. Emboldened and influenced by the men around them and their favourite bollywood films – they sing sexually suggestive songs as girls walk past them. And if they really want to have some fun they grab her hand or snatch her scarf.
Usha tells me that the ground was a popular location to play cricket during the day. To access the main road, or visit the shop or exit the slums, one had to pass through the ground. With groups of men standing there the whole day, Usha’s ears would sting with sexually explicit remarks, wolf whistles and kissing sounds, undressing with eyes – in short street sexual harassment. She and other women complained to the police, but the officers asked them to change their routes or timings because boys were born to ‘eve tease’ girls.
Angry and helpless, Usha saw all around her that young girls and women were suffering in silence while unprovoked sexual violence continued in the slum. The last straw probably was when Usha’s one bedroom house expanded to two rooms and beyond, a jealous neighbour tried to assault her younger sisters.
And then enough was enough.
Usha, her friends and sisters decided on a novel approach – they started to verbally confront the boys. Taken aback at the insolence of the girls, the boys didn’t know how to react. Some retreated but others continued. The girls gave them a few chances and then visited their houses and talk to the parents, persuading them to talk to their sons. Some people responded with anger, labeling the girls as prostitutes for being outside their homes. But other parents spoke to their sons.
Eventually a smaller group of men remained in the ground, challenging the girls to try and avoid harassment. Being pushed in the corner for too long, the girls channelized their anger and beat the boys. The public shaming was enough for most to never come back there or look the girls in the eye. However, some filed police complaints against Usha for the assault and a slew of false cases.
But something began to change. The girls started to believe that they weren’t lesser than the boys, that they deserved the freedom on the streets as much as the boys did, that they deserved to be treated with respect, that their body belonged to them.
With the other girls Usha decided to organize a formal group. All the members were girls who had faced some form of sexual violence. They would wear black and red outfits, black for protest and red for danger. As they would walk down the streets of the slums, men would taunt, “Here comes the Red Brigade.” And that’s how the group was christened – by reclaiming the words from a bunch of harassers.
As more and more vulnerable girls started coming for help, the group expanded into learning and teaching gender sensitization. Someone did a story in a local newspaper and help poured in form of a martial arts trainer who started teaching the group self-defence. A silent revolution began at the homes of these girls as they began to question patriarchal norms and the culture of victim blaming.
Then the horrific December 16 incident happened.
A group of fifteen girls became a group of hundred. And even though core members remain between fifteen and twenty, many volunteers walk through the doors of Usha’s home, determined to change the society that colludes to keep them quiet.
National and international press has flocked to her home to try and understand why these girls have to take extreme measures – confronting and beating men. Is it the need of the hour? Is it symptomatic of a bigger problem?
The slum represents what is wrong with the society – men who believe sexual violence is the ultimate power, the victim who would rather keep quiet, the society which at one end is steeped into traditional values and at the other changing too fast, the lack of consent, the deficiency of the justice system.
On my second day there, Usha impassively points out to the house where a one month old girl was raped, another where a five year old and another where a twelve year old were raped. She spent days at the police station and the families’ homes pleading them to press charges, following up with lawyers and doctors. Having made the mistake of keeping quiet once, she knows the price of silence is much higher than the price of standing up to violence.
Outside in the slum when I ask people about the Red Brigade, men instantly clam up feigning ignorance about the group. They refuse to acknowledge the Brigade’s existence but when the girls walk past, they avert their gaze, knowing fully well that unacceptable behaviour will be punished. All the men I interview grudgingly tell me that now women want to step out of homes – for work and education. They are clearly unhappy with the way these girls are changing the rules about not bowing down, demanding equal presence in the public space and the consent of their bodies. They believe that the old system was far better.
By the third day, I have stopped noticing the flies, the pigs, the smell of garbage and stagnant water. I see girls walking nonchalantly on the roads, I see a woman manning a snack shop. And in Usha’s house the girls are getting ready for the monthly protests – to mark each month of the death anniversary of the Delhi gang-rape victim. The girls are painting posters, giggling, gossiping, their camaraderie and warmth palpable. Jokingly, they tell me that the boys of the neighbourhood are too afraid to date them, lest they get beaten up.
I ask them about school and their dreams. All of them have fought at home to continue their education, not so they can get good husbands, so they can be lawyers, activists, teachers and leaders.
The stirrings of a revolution are just beginning.
For Usha the fight continues everyday – to raise collective voices against sexual violence, to make sure that the girls complete education, that they are not forced to marry at a younger age, that the police registers complaints of sexual assault, that more women and men can be empowered through gender sensitization.
Wise beyond her age, she talks about reaching out to men, to make them equal partners in the fight. The feminist movement, according to her, cannot be restricted to women. She is not fighting for “women’s issues” but for equality and dignity of life. In her eyes, the balance of the society is restored only when both men and women stand together, not when the oppressed decide that one day they will become oppressors. She regrets that sometimes they are forced to beat men. As the sun is setting on a winter evening, slowly she says she will be the happiest when one day there won’t be a need to have a group like the Red Brigade.
Till that time it looks like the nail which was battered and beaten into submitting to the pressure of the society’s structure is now starting to stick out, somehow managing to break free and vowing to pierce through. And in the slum of Naubasta Khurd, men are learning this the hard way.
The essay is based on a news story that I covered recently.