Looking at every inch of my body, I stood in front of the mirror. My hair dripping wet, I criticised my uneven tan, my arms, and I almost smirked at the scar on my waist. There it was, refusing to fade away. Everyone who knows me knows the story of the cheetah hurting me and the aftermath of it all. I am convinced it was one of those stories people end up narrating to their grandchildren. I, for one, am debating if it’s worthwhile to include it in my resume.
I turn, and there it is. Another scar, the one I avoid looking at. Even after all these years, I’d rather not acknowledge it. In all fairness, though, the scar I refer to are two marks from a man, one who felt entitled to my body. My physical pain, my helpless dissent, nothing was enough to stop him. And although I recovered well, better than I expected, I can’t deny the influence those moments had on my life.
But today, on the day where Hindus celebrate the defeat of evil (my darling firangs, it’s the festival of Dusshera), I celebrated my personal win over evil. However, the irony of the scars struck me. One scar I have been showing off – guilty of basking in the attention, I admit. I have posted, talked, and talked some more about the cheetah. The other scar, though, I am not so confident about. I haven’t pointed out to it, haven’t talked about that experience, which was arguably equally terrifying as the former. I have been unable to publicly post my experience, to let comments in, uncensored. Because I have internalised the stigma. I know I will be blamed for what happened. Why would I wear a skirt, why couldn’t I fight it off? Not one, not a single soul questioned me when I told them I went up to a wild animal rather carelessly. The same naive trust would be the reason for my scrutiny when it comes to a man, a human, hurting me.
When the cheetah hurt me, it was shooed away, far away from where I was. Three handlers and a friend all rushed to my aid. There were calls made, I was taken to a doctor, I received free medical care. People offered to help me carry a camera bag, asked me if I was okay, ensured I had everything in place. Friends asked if I needed to talk, and made sure I wasn’t traumatised or shaken up. They ensured I had enough dinner for the strong antibiotics I was on, that I was hydrated enough and could go about my life without risking my health. I didn’t have to fight for some basic care and attention. I received all of it, and I deeply appreciated it. But when I’ve tried to talk about my experience with sexual assault, it hasn’t been the same. The focus shifts from care to question. I am grateful I wasn’t gravely hurt because I know medical care would be a struggle to have access to. Emotional care was far fetched. Because let’s not forget, my own mother assumes it’s the clothes that cause the men to lose control.
And oh, how to I forget about justice and the aftermath? That when a cheetah ended up hurting me in her playfulness, an entire organisation was on its toes. I could effectively ask for the cheetah to be caged up for her entire life, and my wish would be granted. I could claim to be traumatised and scared of cheetahs, and people would be understanding enough to shield me from all kinds of cats, big and small. That the legitimacy of my phobia wouldn’t be questioned, oh no. Perhaps I would be suggested therapy to better adjust in the cat-obsessed-internet-world, but my trauma wouldn’t be reduced to something you “get over”. On the other hand, I would have to prove a sexual assault with medical tests and witness testimony. I would have to file a case, find a lawyer, fight my case in the court and possibly in the society and media, and the best I would get is that man going to jail for 6 months and being released in 3 for “good behaviour”. If I had the audacity to claim that I don’t enjoy a man’s touch without consent, that it’s a legitimate fear of mine to be stuck in an awful situation again, people would chuckle. Because it can’t happen that often, that I’m just blowing things out of proportion. He just wanted an innocent hug, he’s a nice man and wouldn’t harm you, they would claim. The world would immediately try to argue back with rationale and statistics, forgetting that my thoughts and emotions don’t need justification.
Yes, the parallels I have run seem ridiculous. Maybe they are. But so is how sexual assault is treated in this world. No, Donald Trump, it is not just a minor distraction. It is a violation of my basic human rights, and I refuse to let you or anyone else treat this as a minor issue. You know when a freak animal attack is handled better than a persistent problem most women face in some form or the other, it is a shame for humanity as a whole. It is high time that we reevaluate the way we handle sexual violence – the way we educate children, the way we prevent it, the way we punish for it, the way we help people cope with it.
But until we address these issues, millions like me will continue to hide their scars in shame. And that is not okay.