rape

I was Slut-Shamed At The Age Of Six

By Malavi Sengupta

When I was six years old, I lived in a small township at the edge of the Indian Ocean. It was a beautiful place: my school was literally (as opposed to figuratively) on the beach, and there was bridge from which you could look down on the water and see jellyfish. The weather was always warm, nights were always starry and breezy, and there was always really good calamari to be had in beach-side shack restaurants.

Although this was in South India, our neighbors were from all over the country, because this was a township for the employees of a nuclear power plant (run by the Central Government). Most of our neighbors were quite conservative, (i.e. orthodox, with an unexplained dislike for “Western Culture”). My parents and I were different: we weren’t orthodox, and we had close ties with “The West” because we used to live in Europe, had friends there, and my Dad often traveled there for work. At the same time, my parents’ engagement with Indian literature and music was also quite deep. But of course, nobody would notice that when we are so obviously “Western”, that my Mom and I managed to spend extended periods of time without a “man in the house”. A big scandal was caused when a (male) family friend stayed at our house while my Dad was away. When he returned, neighbors came up to him saying, “Did you know your wife had her lover stay overnight when you were away?” To us, it did not compute that Dad’s absence should somehow prevent us from having a very old, and very dear friend live with us as he was in town for work.

Back in the day, I was much less self-conscious and more fashion-forward than I am now. Once, I saw a very pretty, backless, halter-neck sundress, and fell in love with it. My parents bought me the dress as they always let me dress as I pleased. That evening, I wore and went out to play with the other kids. The whispers started immediately-she’s showing too much skin, this is indecent, one can’t simply go around a neighborhood full of civilized people showing this much skin, etc. I ended up not wearing my beloved dress outside much. Thankfully, we moved away sometime after that.

At that time, I thought it was old-fashioned and regressive of them, I thought they needed to be dragged into the 21th century. It is only now, as I read about slut-shaming and the policing of women’s bodies, that I realize how horrible that logic really was:

1. A woman’s bare back is indecent because it is sexual.
2. A woman is wearing skimpy clothes because she wants sex, and is displaying that for the rest of the world.
3. It is disgusting for other people to see that a woman wants sex but,
4. It is understood and that men always want sex, and men should not have to control the urges they feel around women showing skin, so women should cover up and,
5. This also applies to six-year-old girls.

What I should have told them then, is: A six-year-old’s body is never sexual. A six-year-old can romp about naked if she pleased, and it would still not be indecent in a sexual way because children aren’t supposed to be seen as sexual objects by adults. (Adult women should not be objectified, either, but that’s not what this is about.)

The Powers That Be often cite the “Westernization” of India and the “loss of family values” (and chowmein and the “free mixing between genders”) as reasons for crimes against women here, but this was what it was like only a few years after the Indian economy had opened up, when departmental stores were just making inroads, and the first McDonald’s was a decade away. It didn’t matter that we didn’t have “baby dominatrix” Halloween costumes or “Toddlers And Tiaras”, because children were already sexualized to the extent that the “rules of decent dressing” applied to them. Baby girls were already thought of as “someone else’s property”, who her parents were to raise and return to her “rightful owners” by marriage. It was never- at least not in two millennia- okay for women to do what they wanted with their bodies. Women in India were sex objects long before people started wearing jeans and having co-ed mall crawls (chowmein had been around for a while).

Today, India is one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. The sex ratio is messed up, and for every news article about rape, there are tens of thousands that are not reported. And we didn’t get here because of the malls and the fast food chains. We got here because for thousands of years (I’m talking about Hindus here because I’m not qualified to speak of how it is for Indians of other religions) of “blessing” brides to produce eight sons, not sparing a thought of how painful it is for the woman or who would produce eight daughters to marry those sons, thousands of years of “giving the bride” away in marriage, thousands of years of teaching men that women’s bodies- and those of female children- are their birthright (it was not unusual, 250 years ago, for men in their sixties or seventies to marry girls as young as 8, long before internet child porn reached India) and teaching women that they are nothing without men. Even now, for the most privileged of Indian women- my peers- living on one’s own for longer than it takes to find a husband is frowned upon.

If we want to make some change, we have to stop blaming globalization for our troubles. We have to admit that this “Indian Culture” (at least the mainstream, opposed-to-gender-mixing version of it) and “Indian family values” have had a part to play in creating this mess. We have to be brave and speak out against traditions, no matter how old these traditions are. And we have to remember that speaking out does not betray our identity as Indians.

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