On Fire in India and at Home

The Indian woman who was gang raped for an hour on a public bus and beaten with pipes has died. Another woman who was raped and had to beg police to prosecute her attacker has killed herself because the police refused to help and said she should just marry the guy.

Women have been raped in every country from here to India no matter which way you fly. Women have been groped and harassed, men have exposed themselves and refused to take no for an answer. Women of every color and shape, wearing everything from floor length robes to t-shirts and jeans, evening gowns to gym shorts.

I have spent a semester in India and a lifetime in the United States. Men in cars began honking at me when I was 12, as I walked from my house to the Metro station a mile away. They began muttering incoherent but suggestive things to me on the train that year – I remember because I was going to Shakespeare camp.

Obviously I am not an expert on Indian culture. I was there as a student and a tourist and a white woman and all of my experiences were through those lenses, with rudimentary language skills and limited independence. I was groped during my first month there. A man on a bicycle followed me for five blocks masturbating and leering at me; he navigated a traffic circle without stopping. Once two men on a motorcycle grabbed my ass as they drove past me, then looped around to try it again. As much as I remember all the wonderful experiences and fantastic people and learning I encountered there, I remember what it felt like to be a woman. It pretty much sucked, beautiful clothing and movies and music and architecture and food and homestay aside.

I was sexually assaulted in a New York bar and a friend’s apartment. I have lost count of the times men on the subway have exposed themselves or just stared in that way that tells you if you were alone in the car you probably wouldn’t be safe. When my family went to Times Sq for New Years Eve (once and never again!!) a man stood next to my mom in the crushing crowd and jerked off until we noticed. Both of us were too embarrassed to scream out and humiliate him so we glared until he finally left. Somebody once tried to tell me we should take that as a compliment.


We are not so beautiful that men lose control of themselves. If we were, controlling themselves would still be the men’s jobs. We are not so unsuited to public life that men can’t handle our presence in the workplace. Whatever sickness persists in the men of the world it did not come from us.

I am not special. My experiences are not unique. You would have to really work hard to find a single woman who has not had to deal with some kind of harassment from some kind of man. It is unacceptable. It tells us we aren’t worthy of basic existence, that just by leaving our domestic spheres we have made a mistake.

It was not our mistake.

My dad likes to joke that the punchline of every story he hears is “we just need fewer men”. I like to think he hears this from his female friends (and for that matter, that he has female friends) because he is a good ally, who can hear about the faults of mankind without getting defensive or abusive. (He’s also funny, kind and super smart. Just like my giant brother and my supportive boyfriend. Just in case you thought I hated all men). Which is great. Have a cookie.

But we need more from the good men. Not just listening, but speaking up. Especially public men. We need men to be as sad and as angry as we are as women. We need them to understand instead of deny the authenticity of our experiences. We need them to call for Not So Nice Guys to stop laughing off assaults that happen every day and we need them fighting injustices that are taking women’s lives. We need them to stop letting assholes shrug off the basic humanity of women — in cities and towns, on public transportation, at the office lunch table, in politics and the media and at home.

Women are fighters too. We have always had to be. But you really fight fire by arresting the arsonist, not just by training more firefighters. And definitely not by telling the people whose houses are burning down that it’s their fault, that they’re exaggerating the force of the blaze, that they shouldn’t have been living there to begin with.

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6 Responses to On Fire in India and at Home

  1. NaturalWoman says:

    India has a horrible rape culture. But rape culture in the UK (where I live) is just as permissive, as we’ve seen with the recent spout of rape apologism around the Assange and Jimmy Saville cases.

    • mkpheartsnyc says:

      The Assange case has brought international rape apologia to a new level. I don’t think there’s a country on the planet where a majority of women have not been harassed or assaulted at some point in their lives.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. Tannis says:

    I’ve been talking about this a lot with my husband – about how every time he’s silent when he’s around dudes acting like asshats, he’s contributing silent assent to the behavior. And, sometimes, I don’t really feel like that’s any different than participating in the asshattery.

    I don’t think there’s a woman that I know that can’t tell a story similar to yours. I know I have one that I tell over and over, and dozens more that I never bother to bring up. It’s a terrible thing.

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