**Trigger Warning: Conversations about assault and rape. If this is a sensitive matter to you, then please do not read.**
It was the winter quarter of my junior year of college when I realized that I did not have an internship set for the summer and started frantically looking for opportunities. I decided on a whim to do a virtual study abroad for four weeks with an organization in India that focuses on youth development to get connected to my Indian roots and learn more about healthcare. I joined Haiyya as an intern to learn more about unmarried women’s thoughts about assault and the stigmas they face in India and the US. When I first did research, I never realized how low rape convictions were and how many stigmas that women have internalized due to the misogyny and patriarchy that men have forced them to face in both of these countries. This was a huge wake-up call for me to realize that conversations surrounding sex and what women are wearing must be talked about more.
When I was first told that I would be researching unmarried women’s thoughts about assault and stigmas, I was a little nervous. This was an area that I had little experience with and did not think that many people would feel comfortable answering. However, I decided to still pursue this project because I resonated with the cause and believed that I could make a difference by even creating a small conversation.
I grew up in an Indian household in Washington State in the US and always felt that my Indian and American identities would clash all the time. I felt that growing up as a girl in an Indian household, there were so many rules I had to follow and would often hear things like “What will people say?” or “You can do whatever you want after you get married.” if I asked to do something that my parents viewed as “abnormal.” Having to live my life based on other people’s assumptions of me made me furious, especially when I realized that my white female friends were not told the same things in their households. It was only when I went to India that I understood that the entire country strongly believes in gender stereotypes and is overall a traditional society that believes in many old-fashioned views of how men and women should act.
My experience with sexual harassment only happened once, but to this day, I still think about it all the time. When I was in eighth grade, we were all standing in line to walk on stage for our middle school graduation. I was wearing a tight skirt and there were a group of three friends behind me that kept whispering something about me and laughing. Then, out of the blue, one of the boys grabbed my butt, and the three friends broke into a hysterical laugh. I gasped at what he did but could not find the words to call out his behavior. I let it slip knowing that I had just been inappropriately grabbed. To this day, I wish I had called out the behavior, as it was extremely inappropriate and should not have happened. But, as I interviewed these women in both India and the US, I realized I wasn’t the only one who felt scared to report a sexual assault. Through interviewing these women, I realize that we as a society still need to make progress towards making women feel comfortable speaking up about their experiences with assault.
I interviewed all of the women and asked these 9 questions as follows:
1. What is your name? What do you do for a living and what made you interested in that?
2. Have you or someone you know ever experienced sexual harassment or assault?
3. How do you feel about women getting slut-shamed?
4. What can India or the US do to make women who have gotten assaulted feel more welcome instead of isolated?
5. Why are women scared to report rape/abuse from partners?
6. As an unmarried woman, what stigmas do you face when dealing with topics like (pre-marital sex, what you wear, sexually active)? What taboos have you heard?
7. How do these stigmas affect your life?
8. How do you take care of yourself despite the stigmas that women face?
9. Has the US/India made progress?
The most shocking answer that I found for question #2 is that almost all of the women were under thirty years old and have either faced or have close friends or family members that have been sexually harassed or assaulted. In India specifically, many women would be grabbed inappropriately on the street or told that they were “asking for it.” Some women choose to specifically call out the behavior either by defending themselves by yelling or fighting the person who tried to inappropriately touch them.
When I asked the women why women are slut-shamed, they said it was out of fear of how they will be treated in society. For example, women tend to be blamed for the rape or assault that has happened to them even though it is not their fault.
“When a girl is raped, it is stated as ‘a girl got raped’, but it is never said that a man raped a woman.’ This kind of narration needs to be changed to stop holding men accountable for their actions and only blaming the women instead,” said Tanushree, a professor in Economics, from Jaipur, India.
“Rape victims in India are often referred to by name, their pictures shared freely on the media channels, but perpetrators have blurred faces and are called accused. While it’s true - innocent until proven guilty, the same respect should then also be provided to the victim and her identity kept secret.” — Riddhi, a lawyer based in New Delhi, India.
Many families in India tend to slut-shame women because they feel that if a woman has sex with a man before marriage that she is not pure anymore and has brought shame and dishonor to her family. There is a belief in India that pre-marital sex and being pure are interdependent, so if a woman has had sex or been raped, then she is no longer marriageable and is seen as “impure” or a disgrace to society. This kind of toxic mentality creates an environment where women are not comfortable sharing their stories because they do not want to be blamed or told condescending statements after they have gone through such a traumatic experience.
To make the women feel more comfortable, people in India and the US can be more welcoming towards women who have gotten assaulted by being more empathetic. A lot of women feel like if they share their story, then people will think of them poorly when that should only happen with the predator. As a society, people need to learn to put their judgments and personal biases aside, and treat these women with respect, and sympathize with them.
“There needs to be universal health care, free mental health resources, and easier ways to report a rape.” — Mumina, an undergraduate student at the University of Washington, Bothell. By providing free resources and sympathizing with women, they will realize that they are not alone and do have support to get through their traumatic experiences. They should not have to worry about the costs associated with seeing a therapist or be scared that they will be judged for something that is not their fault.
A lot of stigmas that women face about pre-marital sex and what women should wear influence them to not make certain decisions to protect themselves.
“It is seen as something that women should only do once they are married. The topic is very hush-hush because sex is viewed as something that is foreign or strange.” — Nehal, Senior Associate Coordinator at Pravah, Rajasthan, India.
The idea of just wanting pleasure is viewed as wrong and women are seen as attention-seeking or doing something morally wrong.
“Women are also told not to wear short clothes at night or around men because it might entice them when they should not have to be hiding their bodies out of fear of getting assaulted.” - Ekta, Sajhe Sapne volunteer, Uttar Pradesh, India.
Men should learn to ask for consent and change their thinking to be more respectful towards women. “I feel like I waste my time thinking about what outfits I should wear so that it is “appropriate”, and sometimes it is a lot of time wasted thinking about that, when I am sure men did not spend nearly as much time thinking about what they were going to wear.” — Ana Bitar,
Undergraduate Student at the University of Washington, Bothell.
“Many men are not aware of what abuse is and are not held accountable for their actions. People find it easier to blame women instead.” — Bharti, a volunteer in Sajhe Sapne, from a rural village in Rajasthan, India.
What shocked me the most was learning about how many stigmas women have internalized. Although many women try to ignore the negative stigmas that they have been told to follow their whole life, stigmas have become a part of their identity. For example, they know that they cannot go to the temple when they are on their period or they know not to wear shorts outside, at night, or around their elders. If they choose to ignore these stigmas, they feel guilty or feel like they are morally doing something wrong. Instead of arguing with the people around them, many women have chosen to only obey these stigmas in their presence and disregard them when they are on their own.
The overall consensus is that both the US and India have made progress towards creating conversations and being more open-minded, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. The biggest takeaway is to be more comforting to those women that choose to share their stories because they are survivors of assault and deserve respect and empathy.
(Writer’s note: I am grateful that I am able to help get the conversation going and help share these women’s experiences, and hope to stay connected with Haiyya in the future to help expand on the amazing work that they are doing. I would also like to thank all of these women who have let me share their thoughts in this paper as it has helped me realize how much progress we still have to make.)
If you would like to contact Jaya with any questions, her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Jaya Ravi. The article has been written as part of Health Over Stigma, a community and women-led campaign by Haiyya to address sexual and reproductive health rights of unmarried women. Follow the campaign on Instagram @healthoverstigma.