Outspoken women who call out the patriarchy, lodge frequent complaints and seem to have an endless repository of stories to demonstrate casual sexism are often referred to as “problematic” but have you ever wondered where problematic women are made? Where do we come from?
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia.
When I was fourteen years old, I punched a man. I was in the park, minding my own business, when a man approached me. He put his arm around me and squeezed the side of my breast.
“Come,” he said, “Let’s have sex.”
I had been harassed in the street before, I had even been touched by men before, but this was the first time it had been so overt, and so proximal. I gestured to him to follow me, and took ten steps to the side where no one could see us before punching him in the face as hard as i could. He fell down. When he stood up, his nose was bleeding, and he was crying.
“Do you want to have sex now?” I asked him.
He ran away. I was extremely proud of myself that day, and I couldn’t wait to get home and tell my family what I had done, but as soon as I did, my mother got mad at me. She told me not to do that again, and not to leave the house by myself for a few days.
“Aarushi you don’t know what men are capable of when they are angry,” she explained to me, “What if he brings a bunch of guys and has you picked up? Please, if someone is bothering you, just walk away.”
I know my mother had good intentions, it was her duty to protect me and she did what she had to do to ensure I wasn’t raped and killed in the back of a van, but all I could think about was the timeline of events. A man touched me, asked me to have sex with him, I punched him to defend myself, and somehow, I was the one being admonished and punished? How come no one wanted to call the police and find the guy? The next day my mother discussed the incident with a woman who lived in our neighbourhood.
“You should keep a check on what she wears,” the woman said to my mom, “She wears that little pink top, and she is getting older, you know boys cant help but look at that…”
My mother drew the line at policing my clothes but I heard her friend make that comment. It made no sense to me. I was expecting to be feted, to have a little plaque made for me and to receive congratulatory flowers from at least a dozen admirers (i’ve always been a little more dramatic than necessary), instead, everyone seemed to think I had done something wrong! Little did I know that the responses I received to that incident were excellent training for being an adult woman.
Ask any half-woke, social media aficionado of any age, and they’ll tell you, with confidence, that “victim-blaming” is wrong. It’s easy to say that because those words are impersonal and conceptual, it’s easy to condemn a theory, but everything is murkier when details and real-people are involved. Victim-blaming is rampant and most people who engage in it, don’t believe that is what they are doing. They’ll tell you that they agree that you have the right to wear what you want but you have to aware of the reality, and the reality is that your skirt could get you raped. They’re not entirely wrong, it is not the fault of what you wear, it’s still the fault of the person who believes your skirt means that you are easy but the fact that there are people who believe your morality resides in your modesty is still rooted in this culture of victim-blaming.
It’s because the culture exists even in the absence of a victim. As a society, we reserve the right to perform an autopsy on the morality of a woman before we decide whether she is upstanding enough to be believed. The amount of “sympathy” you get is directly linked to how chaste, virtuous and pure you are, and you may think this doesn’t matter, but in a society where this thought-process is pervasive, the predators are aware of it too. They know that they can touch certain women, stalk certain women, make inappropriate comments because they know that no one will believe us, and if they do believe us, they will put our characters under the scanner before they decide whether we deserved it. The idea that when a women tells a story of harassment, you should approach with caution and probably only believe half of it, is part of that culture. I realised that when I was fourteen, and the other thing I realised was that I would never get anywhere by punching predators. I had to learn to make noise, and I had to do that even when no incident had just occured.
I became a noisy woman.
I educated myself on the issues that women face, and on the work that they had done before my time. I learnt big words and I began talking to every woman I met about their lives, their social environments, their relationships, the restrictions placed on them, their dreams and their issues. Essentially, it was in my teenage years that I really became a journalist, when I developed the habit of asking more questions than I answered. I realised that people trusted me with their stories, and the main reason for that was I wasn’t going to tell them they were wrong, I wasn’t going to judge them and I wasn’t going to shame them for what they experienced. I discovered the great burden of guilt and shame that women, all women, carry within ourselves for the things that have happened to us through our lives, and while it is very easy to tell women to “report it” providing an environment where it is safe and possible to do so is much harder.
That’s why we need noisy women.
I am not delusional, I face a lot of criticism for the noise I make, and I see all the other women who face the same criticism. We’re dubbed “problematic.” However before you turn around and call the woman who just made a sexual harassment complaint at your workplace “problematic,” let’s explore that word and why it exists. Who, exactly, is a problematic woman? Why does this term exist?
It exists because, socially, you except women to do things quietly. Did you know that the majority of women don’t scream when they’re accosted or assaulted? A study found that if teenage girls were taught to scream, the incidence of sexual assault would actually decrease. That’s how deeply engrained the silence really is. I complained about a gynaecologist who aggressively shamed me for having an abortion, and when I told someone that I had written a letter to the head of the hospital, they asked me, “Why couldn’t you have just brought this issue to me? We could have resolved it privately.” We encourage women to handle their issues discretely, and we are able to do that because the promise that raising a stink will only lead to the assassination of your character holds water.
So the term problematic woman exists to describe the women who wont adhere to that social condition.
It exists because you weigh the woman’s character to estimate the weight her words should carry. If she’s an independent, outspoken woman who drinks alcohol, swears, wears dresses, fraternises with men, then how can you believe anything she says? She’s fundamentally too immoral to protect from the vicissitudes of violent misogyny. I’ve always said India loves a dead victim, because a dead victim cannot speak, and has no personhood, and we can stand for that. You have to die to be virtuous enough to be believed.
So the term problematic woman exists because we’re alive, and we’re not indoctrinated into the dystopia of “Indian culture,” yet we speak as if women have rights and autonomy.
It exists because we’d rather skip past reparation and pretend we fixed women’s rights by celebrating Women’s day. People tell me all the time that things are better for women now even as women from “educated” families continue to tell me about being beaten at home, young girls continue to be told to adhere to gender norms right in front of me, ministers continue to ask why women were out at night if they didn’t want to be raped, the Supreme Court keeps offering rape victims in marriage to perpetrators but none of that is supposed to matter because, come on, we have Women’s Day!
So the term problematic woman exists because we won’t take what we’re given, and we insist that the actual issues be exposed and talked about.
It exists because you have taught women to examine their own behaviour and accept that of men as the way of the world. My ex-boyfriend used to violently assault me, and when I finally spoke out about it, I was asked a series on insane questions. A woman asked me if it was “real” abuse, or did he just like “shove me a little”. His mother suggested I meditate to stop invoking his ire. We’re taught to correct ourselves for the mistakes of men, much like driving in most Indian cities, you’re not looking out to avoid mistakes of your own, you’re looking out to ensure that you can predict the mistakes of other drivers on the road.
So the term problematic woman exists because we refuse to take responsibility for your actions, we refuse to admit that I must have done something to deserve it.
It exists because, fundamentally, we do not believe in a woman’s right to be anything less than perfectly accomodating. It exists because you know that one girl who took advantage of 489(a) and therefore you have concluded that women now take advantage, never mind the fact that you drive 20-kms out of Delhi and the ghoonghats get as long as the list of rules women have to follow. The term “problematic women” exists because the alternative would be to admit that we live in a fundamentally problematic society. One where after a fourteen-year old defends herself against an attack, she has to be hidden inside the house and covered from head to toe to avoid a second, more violent attack.
And I know what they say. I should find peace within myself. It’s all a matter of perspective. Things are getting better. I get it. People tell me all the time that I am critical and negative. Problematic women are negative and go looking for problems, and I admit it, I do go looking for problems, that’s on me, but the fact that I find them is on you.