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Confessions of a ‘Slut’: On harrassment that happens on campuses but not enough people talk about [via Glasnost] #longread

Law student Aarushi Mahajan wrote a powerful piece in NLU Delhi’s Independent Student Newspaper Glasnost about her and other women’s experiences on the campus of one of India’s top national law schools.

LI has reproduced the 5,000 word article with permission from the Glasnost editors. Comments will be strictly moderated.

Updated with note from the author:

The intent of writing this article was to share my and some other women's experiences and thereby get students to introspect. It would be naive to think that these instances of harassment are in anyway limited to the National Law University, Delhi. The point of the article was to highlight that a culture of harassment is all pervasive, cutting across all kinds of student campuses.

Our university has developed a vibrant culture of debate and discussion owing to the several initiatives run by different students and faculty members. This has provided us with the opportunity to develop our own independent thinking which I believe is an essential part of university life. I am thankful to the university administration for generously supporting these initiatives both in terms of financial and infrastructural support. And I hope that other university campuses follow suit.

This was not explicitly stated earlier because the author thought it was obvious from the tone of the article. However, certain comments have made the author realise the need to state this explicitly as viewing it as a particular university's issue is misguided and undermines the larger cause.

When I joined college, I fit perfectly into the stereotype of a girl from GK-2. I had lost 12 kg before coming to college – starved myself, puked constantly, and gone to the gym – was waxed from head to toe and wore branded clothes (from Sarojini). I decided my outfits a day before and scoffed at those who still used their NLUD bags. I barely spoke in public and was slowly given the label of a ‘bimbo’. I can still remember when we were called to the third floor to ‘interact’ with our seniors. They made us sing this cheer:

“Oh my god, I think I need a manicure,

The sun I swear is burning up my gorgeous hair.”

We did it multiple times and the seniors called me in front of the other girls, made me do it alone and asked them to follow me. I was shy at that time and slowly felt my heart sink. I was extremely upset, and even as we were returning to the first floor, I ran back upstairs to tell them that I wasn’t a bimbo. I felt the same when our VC saw me one day and said that I ‘looked like a flower girl’. Two boys from my batch used to curtsy when I crossed them and called me ‘Princess’. I cried multiple times that semester when I realised I wasn’t taken seriously.

In my second year, I had my sexual awakening and was keen on finding a boy to have fun with. I had spread this message through friends and this became a joke of sorts.

I was close friends with a boy from fifth year. We hung out a lot, and what fascinated me was everyone’s expectation that we would date. It struck me that a ‘slutty’ woman could never be expected to have anything but a sexual relationship with a man. (Here, I’d like to add that the feminist politics behind the word ‘slut’ are complex and I do not claim to fully understand their nuances. I am simply using this word here to emphasize on the label I received in college).

I remember how there was the possibility of a certain boy in class liking me, and how his friends arranged for the person sitting next to me in the library to get up and let me sit with this boy. There was another friend in my own batch who had sent me a message saying that “main tujhpe line maroonga, chaud main, and you’ll like it.” Their sense of entitlement hit me then. There were so many expectations that I’d give it a shot.

In my second year I dated a boy in college for two months on a sudden whim. He policed my body, mocked my body hair, my weight (I had started getting fatter then) and did not appreciate rumours regarding my promiscuity.

I had in my second year become more interested in campus politics, with a push from friends and a few seniors. I started talking more and discussing things I had taken for granted and started getting angrier at the apathy I was engulfed in. I started questioning my immense privilege, and realised that I could do so much more in this place. I had an amazing support group and they helped me gradually let go of my superficiality and engage in more meaningful pursuits. I developed the courage to reply on common id email threads and started feeling slightly more comfortable with my body. I make no claims to have been able to fully understand, let alone shed my privileges, and do understand that everyone has lived experiences shaped by unique circumstances. I acknowledge the burden of my privilege, and it is with this cognizance that I write this.

I was dumped in the winter holidays. It was disappointing and terrible. But nothing was worse than when I heard that certain boys valorised him and metaphorically patted him on the back for putting this girl in her place! Once when I was at the Amul shop, I heard two boys from the second year discussing how I had become a used commodity and no boy would want to touch me anymore. He was the stud, and I was the slut.

Third year came. I started gaining a little more confidence and had the courage to walk by myself, sit alone in the library etc. (things I was too conscious to do earlier). I still had not spoken in class yet and sat on the first bench because I was too conscious to give my attendance from the back. I started thinking of how I was reading up on feminism, and I was still so conscious of my body and kept wearing tummy tuckers. I also heard about horrible moral policing from the administration and I decided to protest about the dress code.

It started on an individual level. I started with see-through tops, deep tops, crop tops, tops with holes, skirts, a combination of the two, and then the dresses. Till now, I did not have the guts to wear anything unwaxed.

And what happened was amazing.

The first day, I began with a yellow top. Extremely deep. I could hear whispers as I entered class and people staring, but no one said anything to my face.

Then, I wore a transparent blue top, and that’s when things went downhill. One of my best friends in class sat me down in the canteen and tried to figure out the reason for this behaviour. He explained the boys concerns and their feeling of being uncomfortable. He asked me where the line was: Would I wear a bikini to class next? He told me that it perhaps seemed like I was just challenging people on campus and I wouldn’t wear these clothes outside, or at home in real life. Also, that I should lose weight if I planned on looking hot. This was all said in a ‘joking manner’, but broke my heart because it was so patronising.

One day, I took off my bra in class from inside my shirt while standing in the middle of both rows. I saw glances and giggles, but no one said anything. I do this quite often now, and I hear the occasional ‘Why can’t she put it in her bag?’, ‘Why can’t boys take out their vests?’, and ‘This is too much’. From what I gather, it was mainly boys who felt inconvenienced, uncomfortable or amused.

As I started wearing skirts more frequently, I was told in a joking manner that some boys think I’m doing this on purpose to incite them, so they do something with me, and I file a sexual harassment complaint. The boys conveying this information did not seem to see how problematic this was. I told them this went along the lines of ‘she’s asking for it’, how a girl dresses only for the male gaze, how such arguments are used to justify violence against promiscuous women and how they think that as a member of the Anti Sexual Harassment Committee, I go around hunting boys for harassment cases. This just adds on to the lying woman stereotype as one who hates men and her mission is to put them through misery. One senior actually said that girls like me would go to professional workplaces and if someone so much as looked at us, we would yell harassment. This only trivializes the personal experiences of women who have been harassed and mocks their decisions. It is demeaning and degrading and is blatant disrespect of what women have to endure on a daily basis.

Slowly though, I felt as if people were getting accustomed to my clothing, and I too, began letting my stomach and fat thighs full of undergrowths from waxing show. I could observe other girls experimenting with their clothing across batches. But I could also still hear things like ‘the boys are now okay with it ‘cause you look hot’. One boy discussed with one friend of mine how he loved a tight t-shirt I was wearing, how he wanted it for himself and how he had a new favourite colour. Of course, my dressing was subjected to their approval. There were a good 2-3 weeks when I just could not walk to the back of my class because I hated the way certain boys stared.

There was an incident where Pearlita’s phone buzzed in class. A teacher walked off because she didn’t own up, and the class went crazy. A boy came to the mic and put it beautifully: “You call yourself a feminist, but then don’t own up to things like this”. All the while glancing at me, Pawani and Pearlita. The entire class clapped.

In other incidents, when teachers have sometimes said sexist things, certain boys have said, “Where is your feminism now, why don’t you intervene?”

In another contrasting incident, I was trying to point out to a guy in my class how very few girls continuously ask teachers questions in comparison to guys (this has slowly started changing in my class), and how he was enraged and so angry for me bringing feminism everywhere. When we discussed how intention was irrelevant and it was the woman’s perception and reaction that mattered, he was perplexed and just began wondering out loud how hard it is for men to do things without being accused of harassment and how they would have to check everything they were doing and perhaps it would be safer for them to sit in their hostel. This same boy shouted at me while I was trying to tell him the bigger picture regarding girls’ participation in sports in college, and he conveniently started talking to the girl beside me. I had been dismissed as the angry hysterical woman who made no sense and was no longer worth engaging with.

Basically, men can selectively demand that we show our ‘feminist side’ and fight against injustice everywhere, but, on the other hand, we must be calm and subdue our emotions.

Another incident is that of Maria George’s (first year, second semester). She and another friend often said hi to a boy in our batch, even though they had never spoken to him before in their life. It is possible that he felt mocked, and as though they knew he was shy and were taking his case. The next day, in a five-minute break, about twenty boys stood up, screamed “Maria!!!!!!!” and made faces at her. She stood in front of the class. The entire incident was recorded. She left the class. None of us said anything. She talked to the boy concerned, and he said he hadn’t organised this, but her ‘HIs’ and ‘BYEs’ were insincere. This violent aggressive behaviour reeked of entitlement from the boys as to how dare she do this and she needed to be put in her place. I asked one boy friend of mine about it, he said, “Bahut ho gaya tha, kuch karna padha, apne aap ko kya samajthi hai“. I wonder how they can differentiate these actions from the rage a jilted lover feels as he throws acid on a woman rejecting him or men who hit women for speaking back to them. I still feel disgusted with myself when I realise how I was a passive bystander to her harassment and public humiliation and bullying.

Then, of course, I can’t talk about the last semester without addressing the infamous laser incident. I was semi-nude then, and the light fixated on my huge boobs for 10-15 minutes. We kept dancing. The perpetrator still sits in my class with me, and I’m certain many boys know his identity by now. But that incident has been forgotten, and as the male mediator from my batch had said when we were called back for the fake apology from the boys, “No cross questions, no interrupting, no formal complaint, and no talking about this incident from now.” The boys had said that enough was enough and we had to accept this apology.

Many boys apologised for being duped by the ‘Not All Men’ argument and the ‘your form of protest should have been better’ argument that the perpetrator used beautifully to his advantage. But none of them bothered going back to the hostel to find out the real perpetrator, The apology was made, elections happened, the girls shut up, individual boys said they’re against sexual harassment… why even dwell on it further? Everyone knew that the real perpetrator had not come forward. The boys would not challenge the silence that had fallen and wanted to forget that they were ever accused of something like this.

One boy told me that a particular boy would not have harassed me since he had a girlfriend at the time. Another one told me that they wouldn’t have intended it. And another told me that there was no fair hearing. We tried to address their arguments, but could not shake off the disgusting feeling we had when boys tried to come and individually teach us about our harassment.

Perhaps someday, I will have the guts to confront my perpetrator while his popular friends surround him.

The holidays came. I went to Australia and finally had the guts to wear a bikini in public. I felt so empowered and liberated that I made it my profile picture and Whatsapp dp and felt so happy for loving my fat body. My happiness shriveled up when a male friend of mine told me my class boys had discussed the picture and that it was sent across some random Whatsapp group. I instantly freaked out, I asked for screenshots, but there was no reply and it died down. Some boys denied the existence of such a group and till date I have no idea of what happened.

We came back for the sixth semester. I had realised that the ex-boyfriend kept staring at my body all the time and made me feel highly uncomfortable. I tried to send across messages through people to tell him to quit it. I was later apprised that he constantly referred to me as ‘randi‘ and said other things dehumanizing me and objectifying me to scary levels. Of course, there was immense fat-shaming and this was said in public, in front of people. But it still seemed to continue.

Here, I would like to mention that though I do fall on the fat side, I do have certain privileges and my shaming cannot be compared to other women on campus who may have different kinds, (some worse than mine, some not) of harassment and bullying for their body-size. This post is reflective of my individual lived experience and is not representative of the diverse kinds of body shaming women have faced in life, and on campus.

I was told by a senior that the people in college are people I’d probably work with in the future, how I should be cute but not sexy and how I shouldn’t be a ‘slut’ as it would impact employment prospects. I had also been active on Tinder and was told by many ‘well-wishers’ to not tell people about my sexual activity, because boys won’t like it and no one will want to do anything with you if you’ve slept around.

The ‘Abish Mathew incident’ happened. I wore tiny clothes throughout Kairos and was constantly asked where my bra was. On the first day, I wore a loose top and as we went to dance on stage, I had a boob slip. I didn’t pay much attention to it then, but later heard that people had seen it, talked about it and there was there was a rumour that some boy had been able to take a picture. I still do not know who it was.

On the last day, I had worn a tube dress with no bra. As we came out from the auditorium, everything was extremely heated and everyone was shouting. I was slightly buzzed and also had an adrenaline rush. As I was surrounded by fourth years screaming at me, I felt two boys’ hands touching me from behind and trying to pull my dress down. I shrugged them off, but was too overwhelmed to figure anything out. I did not draw much attention to this because of course, the drunk ‘slut’ would lie. I also recall a few girls discussing how I could claim to ever be sexually harassed, especially since I was wearing that dress. As I fought with them, the ‘well-meaning’ men pulled me aside and asked me to calm down.

Amidst the arguments on Facebook, a batchmate who has on multiple occasions made me feel uncomfortable, put up a spectacular Whatsapp status, saying “Rich fat girls will get what they deserve :)”.

It was his status that really shook me and made me feel incredibly unsafe. I did not want to go for the Advaita event that night, but somehow, my friends and I went. I wore a corset. I heard boys talking about me, my class boys and I had to sit in a corner for a while because I was scared that I would get harassed in the dark, and after that day, of course there would be no sympathizers. It was too risky.

My class boys put up certain statuses during the entire Abish Mathew incident. One posted some video in which a male comedian claimed that rape was funny and worth joking about, and another put one on women driving, and claimed that the joke was about bad driving and not women. The support they received from class boys and actually, boys across all batches frightened me. I was literally surrounded by men who were laughing at these things, which they seemed to disassociate from ‘real life problems’ such as, I don’t know: sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence, dowry deaths, female genital mutilation, acid attacks, chastity locks, child marriage and of course, discrimination by everyone everywhere, accompanied by the continuous feeling of unsafety and vulnerability.

But within the confines of our NLUD campus, these jokes can be made and defended, because as a man once said, sexism in humour can help create social consciousness. I’m sorry, no, not when sexism is glorified through the jokes and not condemned! It is not the depiction of violence or discrimination in art that is problematic, but the light in which it is done. You belittled our experiences. Period. It doesn’t matter why you thought you did it.

A few third year girls called girls from various batches to help portray the various labels they had been assigned by this college. These pictures are an attempt to show how our bodies are continuously policed and pushed into these ‘perfect’ moulds. [see picture above]

Even during the Heckler’s burden debate, I wore a tiny crop top and heard classmates discussing how they’ll give me their clothes if I have nothing to cover myself up with. The day before that I had been pushed by a huge senior boy while entering the academic block. But of course, unless I have an alibi or confront him face to face, what is one expected to do about it.

I was sitting in an INSAAF meeting one night and received a Facebook message from a second year boy. It said:

“Hi

Sexy

mera lund tarap rha ha logi mera lund apni chut or muh me”.

He instantly told me that the account was hacked and 11 days later he sent me a message saying “You are a gorgeously attractive girl and i’m sorry u had to face that and i find you to be really pretty”.

Later this semester, a first year boy randomly liked a picture of me in a bikini. This made me uncomfortable because this picture was something no one had liked yet, it was months old lost in other pictures, it focused on my body parts much more than my profile picture did, I was half naked and he was a man. I had never talked to him before.

I realised that we had such classist notions of sexual harassment. Once an electrician in our hostel had made my Facebook picture as his own profile picture, and I felt uncomfortable when I came to know of this and I complained to the warden. Everyone said it was disgusting and condemned it.

Had I received any of the above mentioned behaviour from one of the multiple men who come in our “Other” inbox on Facebook, people would have found it creepy, and I would be allowed to feel weird.  But if something similar came from a fancy South Delhi boy, who would stand by me?! Because of course, only men of a particular class and caste, who are ‘backward’ and ‘uneducated’ are capable of vile acts (I hope the sarcasm is being duly noted). These conceptions are completely devoid of any insight into sexual harassment.

After this, I heard that one boy happened to find my voice cute and liked the way I said a certain phrase in class. I was questioned multiple times when I said I felt uncomfortable, because another guy had said something similar and I was fine then.

I had to justify why I found it creepy and why I was allowed to decide when and whom I felt uncomfortable around. They seemed unconvinced.

Farewell happened. I wore a tiny top. A male graduate of this college (legend in spurt-out-as-much-bullshit-as-you-can-in-7minutes (read: debating) circles and infamous for making people feel uncomfortable) decided to try to take my case about how I’m stupid and act feminist and made a joke on my body. It backfired horribly for him. He somehow apologised, but what ensued was amazing. So much public support for him, condemning me, liking his comments, randomly feeling the need to discuss Abish Mathew and of course, men fighting fervently for the right to write stuff on a post in which I was harassed. I kept screaming at people, telling them to leave me alone and not get sick validation and enjoyment. But it didn’t stop. A boy in class has still liked comments against me, despite my calling him out on it. Of course, what is my harassment and demand to be left alone in front of his freedom of speech and expression.

Two men (both of whom have coincidentally been in the debating circuit at some point of time or the other) made observations on my language, selective screaming at boys who didn’t support me and how I wasn’t angry at those who did, how I was blinded with rage, and how I couldn’t verbally abuse men commenting on a thread in which I was harassed. I was questioned on how I was okay with certain men and how only certain boys were ‘random’. Because, of course, it is my burden to justify why a certain boy makes me feel uncomfortable and of course, they are entitled to a response.

I was told how I have a responsibility to be mature and responsible and how I ‘should abandon anger for cool rationality’. Of course, not one person called out the man on his actions. People intervened by the end, but arguments such as ‘generalisations are distressing’ (the fancier version of Not All Men) were given and engaging on that becomes difficult beyond a point. It also came to my knowledge that certain boys in my own class found this ‘drama’ entertaining and were discussing the same in public. The people who felt entitled to get kicks out of the Facebook post left no stone unturned, and made another cheeky comment on another random post referring to me screaming at people telling them to fuck off and leave me alone. (I call these comments ‘cheeky’ because for the people making them, they were simply about having fun for the two minutes that they get the pleasure out of writing it and it remains on most people’s Facebook news feed. However, it was completely different for me since it was about me and my reactions to my harassment). It seemed as though my rage on being harassed was nothing but fodder for numerous jokes to come.

(If anyone wants to see screenshots of the entire disgusting debacle, please contact me; everyone has deleted comments on the Facebook post)

In my first year, our class was taught rape law by Dr. Mrinal Satish. He mentioned the notion of the ‘perfect victim’, and how the judiciary, administration, police force, teachers, parents and friends have this certain conception in mind and will only consider her version of events when she fits into this stereotype. She must dress modestly, mustn’t have flirted with the man, must be studious, can’t socialise and of course, can’t challenge social norms. She must be passive, calm and could not have done anything that could have provoked or incited the harasser. She can’t drink, smoke, have sex or be stupid.

I do not fit this picture. It is hard to find one that does. The male graduate said that my midriff was already in the picture, he didn’t sexualise it and it was nothing but victim blaming and is something so common in sexual harassment jurisprudence.

Even if you don’t say it out loud, but stand by as someone sexualises a woman and passes derogatory comments about her, you are contributing to perpetuation of rape culture and are adding to the dominant narrative that somehow places more burden on the victim to say why she was harassed, instead of questioning the perpetrator. Many boys have come to me and told me how they don’t appreciate how boys say things and that they are feminists. But very few will go the extra mile and challenge this dominant narrative.

When the boys in the hostel dissect female bodies, rank them, objectify them and discuss them, very few will even object, much less think of ways of stopping it.

Many have told me that my feminism is too ‘radical’, without even engaging with what it really entails, without reading up on it. I was once told putting posters is too radical. Many of us have been told that it is up to us to accommodate other ‘moderate’ forms of feminism and not to be exclusionary. But what must be asked is, how far does your commitment to feminism go? Is it only invoked as a defense mechanism when someone calls you out on something?

Some say that sexism in humour is acceptable; others think it’s okay to question a victim’s form of expressing anguish. I was mocked for using CAPSLOCK, using ‘profanity’ and not sitting my harasser down and engaging. Of course, it was completely ignored that men had jumped on the thread trying to prove a point and give me their point of view (Since it is a public platform and how dare I tell them to leave). I ran out of the class yesterday crying on reading a fifth year boy’s stupid comment, and I didn’t want to sit in a class full of men who were not my allies. It was called an overreaction by many, but it’s funny that if I had not done it, I would have been called a ‘cold hearted woman’ who isn’t affected that much and is only trying to make a point.

All of these incidents have stuck with me because they are symbolic of the overbearing and undeniable male entitlement boys can possess and how they don’t realise or do realise and anyway do things to make women squirm and feel uncomfortable. A friend of mine also told me how two senior boys while discussing her, aggressively stated that one boy had a ‘birth right’ over her. I had put up a new picture in the same pose and similar clothing as the one for which I was harassed. This very same fifth year boy commented on a picture I had put to try and reclaim my body on a public platform and said, “Hit me baby one more time!”. It was obviously to make me uncomfortable and he succeeded. I began crying again, felt guilty about crying and then felt angry for feeling guilty.

I no longer want to dance on a stage in front of an audience full of drunk men, because I know what they’ll say. I once played volleyball with Shweta in front of the girls hostel cause I didn’t have the guts to go to the court. That didn’t stop men from coming and mocking me and I haven’t had it in me to ever play anything ever again. Even during the Abish Mathew incident, the boy who had kept the horrid Whatsapp status sent me a condescending message asking me to play football because the guys wanted me, Pearlita and Pawani to represent the girls. It was obviously mocking us and it furthered my fear of being surrounded in an aggressive game by boys who have fun passing vitriolic comments and seeing me squirm. I don’t like walking alone at night, especially in dully-lit areas, because once a man ran behind me and I was scared that he’d harass me and no one would believe it. I am pretty sure I don’t want to speak up in class.

This college has time and again questioned the victim’s story, her form of protest, her lack of protest, her anger, her silence, her social behaviour or lack thereof, her being ‘prudish’ or her being ‘slutty’. This college has made it incredibly unsafe for a victim to even talk about what her experience was without butting in with their loaded comments.

I was once told that what happened in Jindal could never happen here. But I’m not the only person who has been harassed here. There are many incidents that are so shocking and frightening; incidents that may or may not be even imagined possible. This college is fostering a disgusting, nasty, horrible environment, which silences girls unless they’re the perfect victim. The onus does not lie on the victims to come up and notify us of their harassment, but on us, as students to not do anything that could in some way encourage or protect harassment, even if it means standing up to our friends and definitely, acknowledging that acts done in private are as problematic as those done in public.

There is so much going on in this tiny campus that we don’t even know about. The very people, who would condemn a judiciary or government for being backward for not repealing section 377 or giving shoddy judgements commenting on a woman’s character, are the same people who would probably question a victim’s account for the sake of debates and arguments.

We feel entitled to know what happened, who the victim feels, why she isn’t speaking up, if she did speak up: why did she speak up like that, why did she file a complaint, why did she not, and of course… why hasn’t she let it go? We have no idea of what is going on in anyone’s mind or life, and have no right to go around inquiring or commenting about the same. We as a campus not only have been insensitive and have openly condemned victims; we have created a culture of harassment wherein girls are being shut up and policed.

Perhaps we have created a hierarchy in our mind wherein certain forms of harassment merit a response from the victim and other forms (such as the laser incident) need a toned down response.

There is need for serious introspection to provide a safer campus and face the fact that we are no island of excellence, are no better than the teachers, the government and “the men on the road” we criticise. That perhaps this college is just as scary and terrifying as the road outside.

That we have as a collective, contributed to sustaining an environment encouraging perpetrators and shunning victims of harassment.

Aarushi Mahajan is a third year student of NLU Delhi and a member of the Gender Circle.

The post was first published on NLU Delhi’s Independent Student Newspaper Glasnost.

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